Rat Pack to Fame Monster: The Rise, Fall and Lucrative Rebirth of the Las Vegas Residency
In 2003, Céline Dion ushered in a new age of residencies that, with arrival of Britney Spears, Jennifer Lopez and more recently Lady Gaga, Aerosmith and Lil Jon have tripled business in the last five years, according to one industry veteran
With 5,200 seats, the Park MGM’s Park Theater is a fraction of the size of the arenas and stadiums that Aerosmith has been playing for decades -- and that’s exactly the point.
In early April 2019, the rockers, who this year are celebrating 50 years as a band, launched Deuces Are Wild, their first Las Vegas residency. Steven Tyler and Joe Perry -- alongside Brad Whitford, Joey Kramer and Tom Hamilton -- took the stage beneath a giant reproduction of their winged logo. Tyler, 71, and Perry, 69, who were long ago dubbed the “Toxic Twins” due to their former drug use (both are now sober), headed to the front of the stage where they proceeded to scream and shred through “Mama Kin” and other Aerosmith classics.
Once the hum of Perry’s guitar faded on “Sweet Emotion,” the band broke out a pair of deep cuts, the bluesy murder ballad “Hangman Jury” and the bleak “Seasons of Wither.” Tyler, holding a harmonica, and Perry, with an acoustic guitar, eased into chairs set on a platform that jutted out from center stage. Hands from the front rows grabbed for the scarves trailing Tyler’s microphone. The rockers hadn’t been this close to their fans since the band’s earliest shows in dank Boston clubs, and, according to Perry, reestablishing that intimacy without sacrificing the pomp and power of an arena tour was exactly why the band had come to Vegas for a 50-show run that has been extended through June 2020.
“It was important to us to maintain the hardcore, garage band feel of what Aerosmith is while bringing in the big show element of a Las Vegas production,” Perry told Billboard before a Deuces Are Wild performance. “When you move closer to the Strip and its flavor, it’s a world of its own. Over the last few years, we’ve talked about coming in and doing some kind of residency, and then we were hearing about the pop acts doing it. It got to a point where we didn’t feel like doing another album, and we wanted to do something different. This seemed like the natural thing. We said, ‘Look: if we’re going to do it, let’s do it in a way no one has for a rock band.”
What Aerosmith has done, with the guidance of creative director Amy Tinkhim, producer Steve Dixon and Academy Award-winning design firm Pixomondo, is create an aural and visual retrospective of its five-decade history. In addition to a hit-laden live concert, Deuces Are Wild includes a half-hour video presentation that features clips of early performances and never-before-seen backstage photos and other memorabilia. Inflatable versions of the stuffed animals and playthings depicted on the cover of the band’s 1975 breakthrough album, Toys in the Attic, descend from the ceiling at one point. The stage show features dancers in surreal costumes that take a page from the visual style of Vegas staple Cirque du Soleil.
“You’re immersed in Aerosmith’s world when you come to this show,” says Perry.
Aerosmith is one of the latest acts in a growing group of legacy and contemporary artists seeking to mine the Strip’s potential as a magnet for music fans. One industry executive who’s involved in the residency business (and requested anonymity) estimates that it has tripled in the past five years, and other data indicates that Vegas is thriving as a market for live music. In 2018, 58% of the city’s 42 million annual visitors -- a total that’s roughly 14 times its actual population -- attended a show of some kind. Of that number, the average tourist caught 1.3 DJ sets during her stay, which translates to approximately 25 million people dancing to Calvin Harris at OMNIA, Zedd at Hakkasan, The Chainsmokers at Encore Beach Club and other stars of the EDM scene.
And those are just the DJs. On any given evening in Vegas, a patron can hit three residency shows (or more, if they’re ambitious), sometimes without even leaving their block on the Strip. Aerosmith shares the Park Theater with Janet Jackson’s song-and-dance retrospective, Metamorphosis, and Lady Gaga’s two residencies, her set of Great American Songbook standards, Jazz & Piano, and her cosmos-themed celebration of her biggest hits, Enigma. The 14 residencies that mounted 10 or more performances in 2019 -- which include Mariah Carey’s Butterfly Returns, Gwen Stefani’s Just a Girl and Diana Ross’ Extraordinary Evening -- grossed a combined $195 million and each sold in excess of 10,000 tickets, according to Billboard Boxscore. Gaga sold over 150,000 tickets during the course of 28 shows in 2019 -- about 7.5% of the 2 million tickets that Live Nation Las Vegas president Kurt Melien estimates his division sold in 2019. (Live Nation is co-producing and co-promoting Gaga’s residencies with MGM Resorts International.)
Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson, Sting, Keith Urban David Lee Roth, Def Leppard, Robbie Williams, Cher and living Vegas legend Wayne Newton are among the pop, rock and Vegas stalwarts with 2020 residencies. Hip-hop fans can check out Lil Jon, Drake, Tyga, Gucci Mane, 2 Chainz and more.
The artists are coming for big paydays, certainly: According to Billboard Boxscore, Céline Dion, who had the two highest-grossing residencies of all time, A New Day (2003-07) and Celine (2011-19), grossed over $630 million; Gaga’s Enigma and Jazz & Piano grossed $48.4 million in 2019; Aerosmith’sDeuces Are Wild, also at the Park, grossed $37.5 million in the same year; Jennifer Lopez’s All I Have (2016-18) at the Zappos Theater at Planet Hollywood took in $101.9 million.
But there are other key factors as well. With a typical tour, the artists are the ones passing through town, but in Vegas, the world comes to see them. Sets can be more ambitious because they don’t have to be pulled down in tight windows of time, and the artists aren’t subjected to the grind of being on the road. Los Angeles-based artists merely have to take a 45-minute flight to Vegas (and then a 10-minute drive to the Strip from the airport). Or an act can simply make a beeline from the hotel suite to the stage. Perry says that for the first few shows of Aerosmith’s residency, he didn’t leave his hotel when there wasn’t a show or production refinements on the agenda. As Deuces Are Wild producer Steve Dixon puts it, “If [the artists] have a better quality of life, it allows them to put on a better show.”
Still, a residency isn’t necessarily a sure bet -- even with big investments in talent, tech and spectacle. Six months after A-list DJ-producer Marshmellobegan what was supposed to be a two-year, $60 million residency in the brand-new KAOS nightclub at the Palms Resort Casino, the commitment was canceled and the club was closed after losing $13.2 million in 2019, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The executive team that brokered the deal has also since departed the Palms, and the debacle now serves as a cautionary tale for those in the Vegas nightlife industry.
And yet, the artists keep coming.
The golden figurehead of Cleopatra’s Barge looms a few slot machines down from the lobby at Caesars Palace. Behind her, Wayne Newton waits. The floating lounge’s stage is just big enough to fit a drum kit, a few sidemen in tuxedos and Newton, who spent 2019 celebrating 60 years of performing in Las Vegas with his latest (of many) residencies on the Strip, Up Close & Personal. As soon as the lights go down, Newton pops up in the back of the venue, his broad grin and sequined tux glinting as he snakes through the crowded cocktail tables to the stage. As he moves among the audience, he shakes hands and poses for photos without missing a line of his opening number, “Viva Las Vegas,” from the Elvis Presley movie of the same name.
The audience, especially a young, wide-eyed couple visiting from England, revels in Newton’s campy bravura performance. It is one of his first nights back at work after an emergency spinal procedure forced him to cancel a run of shows in April 2019, but save for a reference he makes in a joke at the top of the show, he betrays no sign of his ordeal.
“Years ago, I was with [show-business legend] Danny Thomas on his television show,” he says backstage after a Wednesday night set. “We went out to lunch on one of the breaks, and he said, ‘You feeling OK?’ I said, ‘I just got a little bit of a cold.’ He said, ‘You don’t tell your audience that, do you?’ I said, ‘No! I don’t, why?’ He said, ‘Because they don’t deserve to hear it. They’re there to forget their problems, not hear about yours.’ That is a rule that I’ve truly lived by my entire career.”
Mr. Las Vegas, as Newton has been called for ages, arrived there as a teenager from Phoenix with his brother, Jerry, in 1959. His rise to lounge regular corresponded with the ascent of the Rat Pack and Presley, who would electrify Vegas audiences 10 years later during a four-week engagement at the International Hotel. Up Close & Personal serves as both a retrospective of Newton’s work and a condensed lesson in Vegas entertainment history, with his own career-defining single, “Danke Schoen,” featured among a set list of Presley and Frank Sinatra favorites.
Newton has witnessed Vegas’ tremendous evolution over his six decades there. He has long been known as a cheerleader for the town, and, as such, says he’s frustrated by the lingering misconception that, despite the influx of such contemporary music stars as Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Kelly Clarkson, the city is still largely a place where dinosaurs of the entertainment industry roam.
“So many acts that I ran into on the road [would] say, ‘I would never play that town,’” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Well, it’s the image…’” Newton is referring to the elements of seediness, such as prostitution and mob corruption, that led to Vegas’ “Sin City” nickname. “I said, ‘Do yourself a favor,’” says Newton. “‘Quit reading the news, quit watching television, come to town and take a look.’”
“The term ‘residency’ has been beat up pretty good,” says Chris Baldizan, senior vp entertainment and development at MGM Resorts International (which includes the Park Theater, T-Mobile Arena and other venues). But, he adds, it’s now viewed as a “model for artists to do something besides touring. That whole stigma around Las Vegas being where you go to die or whatever, that’s long gone. Now, the artist has to be right, and it has to be the right time in their career.” For Baldizan, Lady Gaga is an excellent example of this serendipity. “The only place you can see [Lady Gaga] right now is in Las Vegas,” he says. “One of the things that struck me when we sat down to talk to her was that she’s in the prime of her career. I think she already has changed the landscape of Las Vegas and the entertainment scene, and we’re only in year one of the two years we know we’re doing for sure.”
In the 1950s, casino tycoons, hoping to coax visitors to their budding desert oasis, booked star entertainers -- Liberace, Sinatra, Dean Martin, Don Rickles, Buddy Hackett and Sammy Davis Jr. -- into their lounges and ballrooms. The Rat Pack, with Sinatra, Martin and Davis at its core, turned the Copa Room at the Sands into a destination and drew foot traffic to the casino floor in the process. The Rat Pack’s popularity swelled into the ’60s, as did Vegas’ reputation as a place where entertainers aspired to perform because of its high standard of talent.
Although Elvis’ first Vegas two-week run in 1956 was panned as a “jug of corn liquor at a champagne party” by a Newsweek critic, his return to the town in 1969 was a triumph that led to a long stretch at the International. Presley earned $100,000 a week there when he played the Showroom -- by comparison, Lady Gaga is guaranteed a little over $1 million per show for her residencies -- and continued to perform there through 1976, the year before he died. As Presley morphed into a bloated caricature of himself, Vegas declined with him, and residencies there became associated with relics running on the fumes of nostalgia.
In the 1980s and ’90s, casinos sought to overcome the stigma by investing in nonmusical ventures. “We went through the white tiger syndrome with Siegfried & Roy -- and every hotel had a magic act with a white tiger,” says Newton. “Then we went through the impersonators -- show after show after show,” followed by what Newton calls “the Cirque syndrome,” a reference to Cirque du Soleil’s ubiquity in the city. There are currently seven ongoing Cirque productions in Vegas, including The Beatles LOVE, a tribute to the Fab Four musically directed by late Beatles producer George Martin and his son, Giles Martin. (The elder Martin died 10 years after the show’s premiere in 2016.)
Newton says Vegas is now in the midst of an entertainment renaissance. “We’ve moved into a very diverse show policy, which is wonderful, because no matter what people’s preferences are in music or entertainment, there’s something here for you,” he says.
He and other Vegas insiders agree that, in terms of live music, the resurgence began in 2003 when Céline Dion’s A New Day opened at the Colosseum at Caesars Palace. Caesars built the venue for the residency at a cost of almost $100 million with AEG Live (now AEG Presents) and its Concert Wests division agreeing to pay for the production and guaranteed performance fees. Concerts West then operated the Colosseum and produced all of the residencies there until last year.
“For Céline’s first residency, the investment in the production was really as much as the cost of building the theater itself, but it turned out to be a wise investment because people kept coming for all those years,” says AEG Presents/Concerts West senior vp John Nelson, who assisted Concerts West president/co-CEO John Meglen in bringing Dion’s first residency to fruition. “The economics of a resident show in Vegas are such that these super-large production budgets can be amortized over a number of years, over a lot of performances.”
A New Day, which ran until 2007, remains the highest-grossing Las Vegas residency of all time, according to Billboard Boxscore. Dion’s second residency, Celine, which ran from 2011 to 2019, ranks second. Combined, they sold nearly 4.6 million tickets and grossed over $630 million. The latter, which boasted a full orchestra, a company of dancers and a water curtain that swirled around Dion as she sang the final bridge of “My Heart Will Go On,” set a new standard for production values in Vegas without sacrificing intimacy. With just 4,300 seats, the Colosseum gave Dion the opportunity to banter with fans and interact with those in the coveted first row.
“We learned from Celine that there are key characteristics of successful residencies today,” says Jason Gastwirth, president of entertainment at Caesars Palace. “When you were in that theater, you felt like you were getting to know her; that you were spending the evening with her. Those who have successful headliner residencies have understood that in this more intimate environment, you need to engage with the audience in that way.”
Dion benefited from more than box-office grosses and the adoration of her fans. The residency kept her off the road, allowing her to spend more time with her twins, Nelson and Eddy, who were born in 2010, and to care for her husband-manager, Rene Angélil, during his long battle with throat cancer, from 2013 to his death in 2016, in Vegas, from a heart attack at the age of 73. When Celine closed in 2019, the twins, now 10, and her 18-year-old son, René-Charles, joined her onstage for the show’s finale: Dion sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” while a slideshow flashed personal photos, including one of her holding hands with René-Charles as a toddler backstage at the then newly built Colosseum.
Where the members of the Rat Pack had availed themselves of the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas nightlife during their heyday, Dion had taken advantage of the stability that a residency offers. And so it’s no surprise that other artists raising young children, including Christina Aguilera, Kelly Clarkson and Mariah Carey, are gravitating to the format.
Dion’s success signaled a shift in the allure that Vegas held for tourists. “The casinos used to use performers to bring in people to gamble,” says Newton. “Frank, Dean, Sammy, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop were doing two shows a night at the Sands, and the cover, with dinner, was $5.95.” Today, he says, “People come to town and gaming is their third choice; shopping is second. Entertainment is their first.”
Larry Rudolph, who manages Britney Spears, Aerosmith and Pitbull, noticed this development as well. “I saw a change in the demographic very clearly,” he says. “Instead of middle-aged couples coming in, grabbing dinner and a show, gambling and going to sleep, there were these 21-, 25-, 30-year-old people coming, and they had a different agenda. They didn’t care about gambling. They were there for the entertainment and the nightlife and everything related to it.”
Rudolph saw an opportunity to fill the entertainment gap that, he says, existed between the residencies that appealed to an older early-bird demographic, such as Newton and Donny and Marie Osmond, and the late-night EDM- and hip-hop-centric clubs run by the Wynn and Hakkasan groups that attracted more of a millennial crowd.
The latter group was “underserved,” says Rudolph. “There was an open space for a pregame show, where that audience, instead of going to a 7 or 8 o’clock show as the older crowd wanted, had an opportunity to attend one that started at 9:30 and ended at 11, where people could come, drink, have fun and get pumped up for the club.” And Rudolph was confident he had the ideal artist to do that show: Britney Spears.
Marco Piraccini\Mondadori via Getty Images
Spears opened her Piece of Me residency across the street from the Colosseum at Planet Hollywood’s Axis Theater in 2013 (since rebranded as the Zappos Theater), and demand extended its original slate of 96 performances to 250. The residency grossed $138 million before its final show in 2017. A number of Spears’ pop peers then followed in the same venue, including the Backstreet Boys, Jennifer Lopez, Stefani and, most recently, her fellow Mickey Mouse Clubalum Christina Aguilera.
Although Rudolph looks like a genius now, he says he was initially met with a lot of resistance from those with a vested interest in Spears’ success. “When I first announced the show, I almost got death threats from various people,” says Rudolph. “The president of her record company at the time called me and said, ‘What are you doing?! You’re going to kill her career!’ I said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’ve been spending a lot of time in Vegas. I understand the market. Watch what’s going to happen: Britney’s going to come in, she’s going to slay it, and every other pop artist is going to want a Vegas residency.’ And that’s exactly what happened.”
Rudolph has since installed Aerosmith at the Park; secondary-market tickets to the Live Nation-produced Lady Gaga shows have set a record on StubHub, and it seems like every month another major artist announces a Vegas residency. But there have been unsettling developments as well. The abrupt cancellation of Marshmello’s residency and the shuttering of KAOS has some Vegas nightlife insiders concerned that the DJ market has peaked, and in February 2019, Spears canceled a second planned residency at the Park, Domination, because, she said then, she wanted to spend time with her ailing father. Subsequent reports, however, indicated that ticket sales were soft.
Asked if there is concern about residency saturation, Live Nation’s Melien says, “We’re not even close,” adding, “There’s so much growth ahead for us -- for the whole pie.”
Rudolph agrees. “Vegas isn’t the place where artists go to die -- it has been proven,” he says. “Vegas is the place where artists go to thrive.”
Additional reporting by Joe Lynch and Dave Brooks.
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