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U2 `FlopMart' tour may be no sellout, but band says it's not hurting for funds

Poor, poor, pitiful U2. The once-revered Irish band and its "Pop" album and "PopMart" stadium tour can't get any respect. The album, U2's eighth studio effort, is being outsold by the Spice Girl's "Spice" and the high-tech, gimmicky tour has been dubbed "Flop-Mart."

Lead singer Bono, hooded and juking like a boxer headed for the ring during recent appearances, and guitarist the Edge have defensively acknowledged the problems."The record is selling exactly the same as `Achtung Baby' and `Zooropa,' " says Bono, born Paul Hewson. "It's just not selling as much as some people want."

The Edge, a k a David Evans, insists the tour's a winner financially, if not aesthetically. "We just sold our 2 millionth ticket (worldwide) and we've already done better in terms of gross than we did on the whole of our `Zoo TV' tour. . . . It's simply that we're not selling out all the shows."

Here's the way things are:

- "Pop" has a three-month total of 1.1 million sales, according to SoundScan, a computerized sales tracking system, and is No. 29 on the Billboard chart ("Spice" is No. 1 with sales that have rolled past 2 million). Industry executives had hoped "Pop" would rejuvenate everyone's sales. But it's following a major-release trend of not meeting expectations (Michael Jackson's 3-week-old "Blood on the Dance Floor," for example, has miserable sales of 92,000 copies).

- The "PopMart" tour, a year-plus hegira that opened April 25 in Las Vegas, has been "soft" in some markets (notably Clemson, S.C., San Diego, Memphis, Denver and Eugene, Ore.) and some that were expected to justify multiple dates are seeing only one show. But "PopMart" is the only stadium tour out there and the reality is that lofty ticket prices - ranging near $50 for most seats - keep it well in the black.

Still, the sniping and griping about "PopMart," which netted U2 an advance of at least $50 million and perhaps as much as $80 million, continues. Atlanta promoter Peter Conlon looks at the less-than-expected ticket sales for a scheduled Nov. 26 concert and says the tour is "a lightning rod for everything that's wrong with this business and they're reaping the seeds of greed."

Conlon and other insiders say that the huge advance and daily production costs of at least $250,000 forced the tour promoter to boost prices. "The multiples that were planned didn't happen," says David Hart, a talent booker in New York. "When you go from planning two shows in a market to one that's struggling like Atlanta (with sales of about 20,000 tickets), it makes a difference."

Part of the problem is that U2's original fan base - the ones who helped the 1987 album "Joshua Tree" sell 16 million copies and flocked to see the 1992-93 "Zoo TV" tour - is aging. "Some of their audience is older and not going," says Larry Vallon, talent buyer for Universal Concerts in Los Angeles, a partner on some U2 dates. "But with the ticket prices, they're grossing as much or more than the last tour and, in certain markets, are doing phenomenal with multiple dates."

"PopMart" leaves the United States for three months of foreign shows after performances in Boston on Tuesday and Wednesday. U2, which is subtly refining its show to put more emphasis on the singers and their songs instead of their gadgets, will return for a second North American leg in October. The question is whether the summer doldrums will continue into fall and winter, with "Pop" falling even lower on the charts and pop-music fans worn out by a spate of multi-act festival tours and U2's ticket sales jeopardized by the tour the Rolling Stones are planning.