'It's terrifying': why young pop stars are suddenly playing arenas

Musicians used to start out playing pubs – now the likes of Lewis Capaldi are booking arenas before their debut album. Is this sudden success damaging long-term careers?

Picking up an honour earlier this month at LA’s Pollstar awards, which celebrate achievements in live music, Elton John delivered some advice. “To people who manage people who are young: don’t put them in big arenas too soon, make it interesting. If I was Lewis Capaldi’s manager, I wouldn’t put him into Madison Square Garden. I’d say, we’ll play two nights at Radio City. Let him have the demand … You build up a career.”

But Capaldi, the Grammy-nominated Scottish singer who had 2019’s biggest-selling album in the UK and a No 1 single in the US, is already at arena level – his 2020 tour, beginning next week, will see him play some of the UK’s biggest venues, including two nights at London’s Wembley Arena. He is one of a few artists playing giant rooms after just one album: Sam Fender and Dermot Kennedy will soon play two shows each at Alexandra Palace, and Billie Eilish plays four O2 Arena dates in July. Scottish troubadour Gerry Cinnamon is set to play arenas, castles, parks and even Glasgow’s Hampden Park stadium. Selling that many tickets on a debut album campaign contrasts with the slow-and-steady strategy that worked for Elton John and many more of the world’s biggest acts. Even Adele didn’t play the O2 Arena until releasing her third album, and Ed Sheeran visited on his second.

Billie Eilish.
Billie Eilish, who is set to play four O2 Arena dates this summer. Photograph: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

So why is it happening? Adele and Mabel’s agent Lucy Dickins, who heads up the UK music division of super-agency WME, says that social media is a big influence. “Some artists have huge followings without having to play small shows. This often means they haven’t had the time to work on their live show and develop as artists used to.”

The unfettered availability of music via streaming also plays a role, according to music promoter Steve Homer, co-CEO of AEG Presents. As a result, “there are so many artists who can sell large numbers of tickets. The way that people now show their love of an artist is going to see them live.”

The trend is a sign of the health of the live music market, which contributed nearly double the amount of the recorded music sector to the UK economy in 2018, with revenues rising 10% to £1.1bn. But artists risk harming their longevity. “The natural cycle of an artist might be shortened by the discovery procedure,” Homer says. “There are more artists able to reach more people at an earlier stage of their career, but because everyone can discover an act, there is no one left for them to go to. The only way from that is to have a contracted audience. You might burn bright for a shorter time, but you might burn brighter than you ever would.”

Jack Garratt was playing to almost 10,000 people across two nights at the Eventim Apollo in London shortly after releasing his debut album and winning the critics’ choice award at the 2016 Brits. As he recently told the BBC, the pressure and expectation that came with his fast rise led to a three-year period of self-doubt. He is now playing smaller venues before releasing his second album. Acts such as Years & Years, Tom Odell and John Newman have also experienced up-and-downs in venue size and ticket sales after reaching a wide audience with their first albums.

Which isn’t generally considered good, as ATC Live booking agent Alex Bruford, who works with acts including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Metronomy and Shame, explains. “You don’t want to be in a position where, within 18 months, you’ve sold 10,000 tickets then on the next tour you’ve sold 5,000. The festivals and labels, and people around you, will start thinking that you’re on the way down.” There’s also the potential of a big show falling flat – while Capaldi sold out his arena tour in 10 minutes (and added a second London date), other artists haven’t had as much luck. Lorde was playing to arenas that were a third full in 2018, and some reviews for the Weeknd’s O2 Arena shows in 2013 and 2017 mentioned a lack of variety and a “rough” and “unpolished” live show.

Nina Nesbitt performing at Electric Ballroom, London, in December 2019.
Nina Nesbitt performing at London’s Electric Ballroom last December. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

Suddenly going from the pub and club circuit to playing in front of large crowds during a busy worldwide tour can contribute to health problems. Capaldi, Fender and Kennedy have cancelled tour dates due to vocal issues, and psychotherapist Tamsin Embleton, who specialises in working with musicians, says she’s seen “many artists whose bodies are displaying the signs of chronic stress or who have burnt out due to excessive intensive touring”.

Nina Nesbitt was 17 when, in the space of six months, she went from playing pubs in Edinburgh to supporting Example on an arena tour. “I’d played about 10 gigs in pubs and suddenly I was on stage in front of 3,000 people – it was terrifying,” she says. “I was also super-grateful, because it’s amazing to be given those opportunities. I didn’t want to let my anxiety get in the way, but I’d get so nervous, feel sick and dizzy on stage and leave a song early.” She says her experience is a “very common thing for most musicians – you really have to play loads of gigs to get to a level where you’re comfortable. Something that I was told at the time was you’ve got to ride momentum and hype because it’s not something that can necessarily be created. So I felt a lot of pressure to go with it and do a bit of a crash course.”

With the UK music industry eager to produce more Capaldis, it is worth closely examining how these artists are being nurtured. Bruford concludes: “I think we are in a very healthy phase in the live industry at the moment. It’s just that we have to give artists a chance to develop before their audiences without trying to milk them too fast. Young artists need to be given a chance to grow.” As it stands, too many are burning out, or fading away.


Rhian Jones

The GuardianTramp

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