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Empty Seats: Concerts That Were Financial Disasters

We’ve all heard of concerts that sell out thousands of seats and smash box office records—or the windows, if the crowd is too rowdy or a frequency just a little too high. Despite the damaged ears or equipment, concerts can bring out crowds that rival those of major sports games. They’re massive money-makers, not only for the artists themselves but for the promoters and venues too—and this isn’t even mentioning scalpers. On a good day, concerts are great for both the fans as well as the people putting them on.

But sometimes things don’t go as intended for either the artist or the promoter. Perhaps the event is poorly planned or advertised. Maybe the ticket prices are too high, or the artist just isn’t popular enough or, in some rarer cases, might not even be in attendance. Whatever the reason may be, some concerts flop harder than certain movies. What follows is a list of some of those that flopped the hardest.

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7 Festival Express, Canada, June-July 1970

A veritable Woodstock on wheels, Festival Express saw Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Band and Delaney & Bonnie hop on a train and ride the rails across Canada from concert to concert in the summer of 1970. But the touring festival was plagued almost from the start: the Express’ Montreal show had to be canceled due to conflicting with St. Jean-Baptiste Day as well as the threat of violence at the concert. In Toronto, a crowd of roughly 2,500 protested the promoter’s perceived price-gouging. Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia had to calm the protestors by arranging a free concert in a nearby park. Going farther west, the Express was unable to secure a venue in Vancouver and were forced to stop in Calgary instead. The Calgary show was beset by concert-goers sneaking into the event. When Mayor Rod Sykes tried to influence promoter Ken Walker to let everyone else in for free, a scuffle ensued in which Walker allegedly punched the mayor in the face. Of its $900,000 budget (roughly $6 million today), only $500,000 was made back ($3 million, give or take, in 2014).

6 Fountains of Wayne, Georgetown, September 2006

Power pop quartet Fountains of Wayne was the headlining act for a Georgetown University concert in September of 2006. Put on by the Georgetown Programming Board (GPB), a student-run entertainment promoter, the concert was expected to sell as many as 1,600 tickets—a decent number for a student venue if not necessarily arena-sized. Come show time, however, only 370 had been purchased (less than a quarter of the total amount). On top of that, frontman Chris Collingwood arrived on stage noticeably inebriated and the band’s manager had to ask for a bucket just in case the singer threw up in the middle of the performance, according to a concert review printed by the Georgetown Voice. The event was so disastrous that the GPB was made to swallow its losses and cope with a reduced budget in the aftermath.

5 Lady Gaga and Madonna, Brazil, November-December 2012

While Madonna and Lady Gaga might technically not be contemporaries there’s no denying their outrageous styling and provocative apparel has similar appeal around the world. Likewise, both Madonna’s MDNA and Gaga’s Born This Way were chart-toppers in 2011 and 2012, respectively, and both were followed by smash hit tours. Yet Brazilian promoter Time 4 Fun Entretenimento SA, or T4F, found it exceedingly difficult to whip up attention for the queens of pop music. The São Paulo-based company was in charge of promoting Brazilian concerts for Gaga and Madonna in November and December of 2012 only to have to go to extra lengths in order to sell all their tickets. While similar shows in North America sold out in minutes, T4F had to resort to offering two-for-one deals in the week leading up to one of Lady Gaga’s concerts and even allowed the tickets to be paid for in installments. It’s astonishing to think that one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world had to use the same promotional tactics as a pizzeria in order to sell tickets for one of the biggest figures in music. While T4F was able to fill their venues, they had become one of the least expensive promoters in the world by the time Brazil rang in 2013.

4 Tommy Lee Sparta, Porte-à-Pierre, March 2013

Not to be confused with the drummer of Mötley Crüe, Jamaican DJ Tommy Lee Sparta brought his idiosyncratic “Gothic dancehall” style to Pointe-à-Pierre, Trinidad on March 24th of last year. Sparta didn’t so much make a splash as fail to disturb the water entirely. Though his set was the headlining act for that night’s show at an arena located at the island’s southern end, it garnered a crowd of neither hundreds nor even dozens but nine. Nine. The promoters were forced to call off the show at 2AM due to the shockingly low numbers—or, rather, number—and Sparta even declined to appear on stage. The nine tickets that had been sold were refunded, of course. It isn’t exactly clear why the concert’s headlining act had fewer attendees than your average bar band, though his appearance on a local radio show a day before was reportedly tense, with the interviewers focusing on the DJ’s “demonic” musical persona and Sparta himself opting to cover his mouth as he spoke. Sparta’s publicist denied he faced a chilly reception in Trinidad and went so far as to suggest the concert’s low turnout was due to a combination of a high crime rate and even anti-Tommy Lee Sparta propaganda. Regardless, local promoters seemed to want to play it safe for the future and allegedly declined to book Sparta again.

3 Sisqó, Kampala, August 2013

2 Kanye West, Kansas City, December 2013

1 Bonus: Justin Bieber's Concert Movie Believe

While Justin Bieber’s tour in support of his Believe album might have been a rousing success, the same can’t be said for its documentary. Released on Christmas Day—already one of the busiest days in the cinema every year—Believe bombed heavily, earning only $3 million in its first few days and losing out to established blockbusters like The Hobbit, Anchorman 2 and Frozen.

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