It was getting late. Well, late for a 10-year-old on a school night. The clock inside the Barclays Center clicked to 9:30 p.m. And still no sign of Sia.
A few months back, I’d seen that the Australian pop star with a gift for anthemic dance tracks would be performing in Brooklyn at the end of October. My wife and I figured Daphne would be tired the next morning, but it would be worth the struggle for her to squint down from the rafters at one of her favorite singers.
And besides, it was the kid’s first real concert and she was pumped. So was I, for that matter: Sia is among a small group of contemporary pop music stars that sound special to me. (Daph's older sister declined to join us, saying she was holding out for a show she really cared about. Leonard Cohen, say, or Neutral Milk Hotel. But that’s another story.)
Daphne wore a wig—not a Sia wig, exactly, but a sparkly number that my wife cut into a Sia bob—and her flower-patterned Docs. Her too-soft dad had even caved and gotten her a rare soda to hop her up for the big show. But now it was getting late. Daph’s eyes were rimmed with red.
Would it all be worth it?
I’m happy, and more than a little relieved, to be able to tell ambitious parents and Sia fans everywhere: emphatically yes.
A few minutes later the lights went down, a black curtain rose, Sia launched into the first trembling notes of "Alive," and a 90-minute set of pop performance art began. There were bizarre and compelling costumes, including giant pants and a panda head. There was Sia’s sinewy dance genius, Maddie Ziegler, stretching her elastic frame all over the wide stage. There was Paul Dano seemingly playing an anxious salesman who’d wandered off the set of a Kraftwerk biopic. And was that Kristin Wiig in a Sia wig? Why yes, it was. The live musical experience sure had come a long way since my first concert: Thompson Twins in the mid-‘80s at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland. (Don’t ask me about trying to make my hair look like the band’s lead singer, Tom Bailey; it wasn’t pretty.)
Daphne was entranced, quivering with joy, and sang along to all the hits. She physically could not remain in her seat during "The Greatest" and "Chandelier," and stood in the aisle, belting: "I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive/I’m free to be the greatest here tonight."
Yes, it was worth it—the effort, the cost, all of it. And that’s saying something. See, I recently left a job to go full-time freelance. While my wife and I are in okay shape compared to many people in the country, we are also in belt-tightening mode. I’d bought the tickets for $237.50 when this wasn’t the case, so if the show had been a flop, it would’ve been doubly painful.
Turns out, the adoration of my younger daughter isn’t the only thing Sia and I have in common. The singer with the golden pipes surely also has cash on the brain. How could she not? The legend of the imploding music business has been told again and again around the digital campfire. The economics of streaming is at once dispiriting for artists, and complicated to parse.
But one thing it seems every industry watcher agrees on, is the increased importance of the tour. Of the live experience. Last year, Vulture crunched numbers to determine how much the average pop star makes through various revenue streams: record sales and downloads, concert performances, tour sponsorship, and more. Focusing on Taylor Swift—perhaps the most popular performer of the past decade—Vulture found that Swift earned far more from her 2013 Red Tour, than she did from sales of her album 1989. And that album broke all kinds of sales records, while earning Swift somewhere around $5 million.
That sounds like a decent payout until you consider the haul Her Taylor-ness took in from the Red Tour: six times that album sales amount, or $30 million.
Not everyone can be Taylor Swift, but the price of touring is still very right for even lesser lights in the pop music galaxy. By Vulture’s calculations, your garden-variety superstar takes home between $200,000 and $400,000 per show. You have to figure that Sia is at the high end of that amount. When she first announced her Nostalgic for the Present Tour earlier this year, she had 22 dates on the schedule. And 22 multiplied times 400K is—well, I’m no mathlete, but it’s a lot. (Okay, it’s almost 9 million bucks.)
The importance of the live experience in a performer's artistic repertoire is not about to diminish anytime soon. In fact, in the YouTube era, it's only deepening.
"Tweens are going to pop concerts, but they're also going to see Miranda Sings and paying a premium to get a selfie backstage with their YouTube star of choice," notes Robin Frank, a music-industry veteran who helped launch Pharrell Williams's YouTube channel, i am OTHER. "So much of where entertainment in general is going is about accessing the artist in a way that you never could before. It's all about live interactive experiences."
Which helps explain why I had to pay as much for two nosebleed seats as I’ve spent on dental care for a family of four this year. And that’s why the merch table was positioned immediately beyond the metal detectors at the arena’s entrance. If Daphne and I weren’t watching our step, we might’ve tripped over the table and landed in a pile of $40 T-shirts and $30 wigs. (Yes, I bought Daph a shirt with the tour dates on the back, what kind of monster do you think I am?!)
But I don’t begrudge Sia for cashing in at my expense. For one thing, her live show is more like a Broadway musical than a rock concert. And $120 bucks is super-cheap for high-end theater. Meanwhile, as a Spotify addict, I have a squeamish, not always pleasant-feeling, relationship toward music consumption these days. For the family plan on Spotify, we pay $25 per month. I’d estimate that we listen to music on the service, on average, about six hours each weekday and another three or four on Saturday and Sunday. That’s a lot of songs. Would’ve cost me several hundred or even thousands of dollars once upon a spin to buy all that music in what your ancestors called record stores. This causes me consumer guilt. It pains me to think that David Lowery, who's old band Camper Van Beethoven I love, got paid $16.89 for one-million downloads.
So why shouldn’t I give Sia my cash, rather than Lin Manuel-Miranda? She clearly understands the new economic landscape in her industry, and has created a big and brilliant show that fans want to see live. And tickets are generally a fraction of what Hamilton costs.
But really, beyond all these cold calculations, it is a tired, if still powerful, advertising construction that lies at the heart of this concert experience. Because that look on Daphne’s face when the curtain went up and the enormous white bow could be seen atop Sia’s head, even from a million miles away? Priceless.