MDNA, Madonna's current album, is the worst selling release in the star's 30-year career. This despite Madge digging deep into her bag of shock-horror tricks to promo it: there were slickly orchestrated "controversies" and "bans", and even the title is a sad "look at me, I'm still down with drug culture" ploy.
MDNA set records, alright, but only for having the biggest second week drop in sales in history – 88 per cent. And even the first week sales were open to interpretation. Over half of those came from a special package that allowed punters to bundle in the new album with the purchase of a concert ticket. Remove that inducement and MDNA is seen in an entirely different commercial light.
That said, Madonna has come in at top of the charts as the biggest-earning musician of 2013, with a gross of $125 million. So it wasn't MDNA that made her toppermost of the poppermost – it was premium-priced show tickets along with huge merchandising sales (massive profit margin here) and profits from her Material Girl clothing line. And don't forget her Truth or Dare fragrance.
Madonna acknowledges that the cash putting her on top of the music rich list now comes from fans daft enough to stand in a field and watch her go into the downward dog pose while some glitter is thrown around behind her. “Start saving your pennies,” she rather crassly announced ahead of her last tour. “Work all year, scrape the money together and come to my show.”
Hence the recent decision by Madonna as well as U2 to "vertically integrate" themselves with the Live Nation global empire. The touring company – and that's only the half of it – now manages, promotes and sells tickets for both acts. (As with Madonna and MDNA, U2's last album was a commercial letdown.)
Like it or not, we are now one Live Nation under a groove. There is a Live Nation recording label, but it has no intention of of copying the “flinging millions of euro at the wall and see what sticks” policy of ye olde recording labels: “We don’t want to be in the business of pouring tens of millions of dollars into unknown acts – it’s not part of our business plan to be out there signing 50 or 60 acts every year.”
It would be easier to list those acts, venuesand festivals that have no connection with Live Nation than those who do. Under this new music industry regime, you buy a ticket from a Live Nation company to see a band that are managed and promoted by Live Nation in a venue that is owned by Live Nation. Even the artist’s websites are owned by the company in some instances.
It’s a form of show business hegemony the likes of which we’ve never seen before. The real skill here has been Live Nation re-defining the phrase “past their prime” (as in falling album sales) to now mean “the highest earning musician of the year”. Madonna and other heritage name Live Nation acts can charge and get twice the concert admission price that Justin Bieber commands ($160 for Madonna’s last tour vs $74 for the boy Bieber). The two-shows-a-year audience has the disposable income to pay these prices.
When it comes to music entertainment, it truly is a Live Nation world. We just pay to live in it.