Last summer, half a million fans chanting ''Bruuuuce!'' flocked to 10 sold-out shows at New Jersey's Giants Stadium, helping the Boss become 2003's top touring act. This year, stadiums will reverberate with the sounds of silence -- and we don't mean Simon & Garfunkel. With money magnets Springsteen, the Stones, and Paul McCartney taking a break from the long and winding road, the $2.5 billion touring industry is trying to provide something for everyone in the hopes of extending five years of record-setting returns. In the absence of colossal tours, here's what the concert biz is doing to produce the sweetest sound of all: Ka-ching!
PARTY LIKE IT'S...1984! While summers past have been ruled by legends of the '60s and '70s (The Piano Man! The Acid Queen!), this season's hot nostalgia tickets are, like, totally '80s! Madonna, Prince, and Van Halen (newly reunited with Sammy Hagar) will be rocking arenas. Okay, so they've all been humbled since Reaganomics reigned: Madonna's coming off her worst-selling studio album ever, Prince's last top 10 hit was in 1994, and Van Halen have languished since Van Halen III bombed in 1998. But like any VH1 programmer knows, the only thing aging music fans love more than watching their idols stage a comeback is paying huge sums to sing along to their classic hits (''Borderline,'' anyone?). Joel Peresman, an exec VP at NYC's Madison Square Garden, a venue both His Purpleness and Her Madgesty will visit, is thrilled with the response: ''We originally put up two Madonna shows and had to add four more.'' All six nights sold out quicker than a ray of light.
THE LOW-END THEORY So you wanna see Maddy up close? It'll cost -- gulp! -- $300. Such whopping charges are the main source of the industry's record-breaking revenues. The average ticket price has nearly doubled in seven years -- from $26 in 1996 to $50 last year. That steep inflation had a negative impact at the turnstiles. But after years of decline, 2003 saw an increase in overall attendance, partly thanks to lower prices for teen-friendly shows. ''[Low prices are] healthy for our business, and we hope more artists go in that direction,'' says Don Law, an exec at Clear Channel Entertainment, the nation's largest promoter. The trend will continue this summer as Britney Spears, Incubus, and the Dave Matthews Band each sell tix for under $50. (Pesky service charges not included.)
TWO HEADLINERS ARE BETTER THAN ONE For fans who don't want to cough it up for one star, two's the magic number. High-profile coheadlining tours will run the gamut from adult contemporary (Sting/Annie Lennox) and punky pop (No Doubt/blink-182) to dirrty hip-hop soul (Christina Aguilera/Chingy). Declaring last year's Aguilera and Justin Timberlake twin bill an example of smart packaging, Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of concert-biz bible Pollstar, says, ''I don't think either would have done as well on their own. A win for both.'' Actually, for everyone: Pop stars see fewer empty seats, and fans get the biggest bang for their buck.
FIELDS OF GREEN Looking for an even better value than coheadlined outings? Fans are flocking in droves to multiday music festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. Even Lollapalooza, the multi-artist package tour that did decent business last year, is adapting to a one-time only, two-day format with a lineup topped by Morrissey and the Flaming Lips. Consider this: Last year's three-day Bonnaroo fest drew 80,000 bong owners and grossed nearly as much as Lollapalooza's entire 29-date run. Bonnaroo cofounder Richard Goodstone attributes the success to understanding niche musical tastes and delivering a unique cultural experience: ''Music lovers are willing to travel hundreds of miles to an event if they believe it will be one of a kind.''
ALWAYS BET ON BOOMERS Britney and Xtina may play to packed houses, but older artists with proven boomer appeal (like first-quarter MVPs Bette Midler and Rod Stewart) are the ones who really make the touring biz go 'round. In fact, 14 of the top 25 touring acts last year were over 40 -- just like their core audience. ''They're experienced concertgoers and know what they're going to get for their dollar,'' says Peresman. Especially when they're paying top dollar to see the same acts year after year. That's not to say the industry isn't giddy about Britney's summer trek, but they're much more excited about a rumored U2 fall tour since it'll mean mo' money. Sure, push-up bras might translate to platinum hits in TRL land, but on the concert circuit, it pays to be gray.