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“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

Why Sin City Entertainers Are Touring In Order To Survive…

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

Several years ago this writer published a two-part piece entitled “Four Walls and a Dream”. In it, I detailed the entertainment scene in Las Vegas, which is frequently one of frustration for performers.

Gone are the days when casinos paid their talent to put on productions. This was done as a perk for gamblers. Now it’s a pay-to-play situation, where showrooms, advertising, staff, and every related expense is shouldered by the talent. Oftentimes, the entertainers find themselves battling their own “hosts” for marketing space and support. It’s a jungle out there, for sure.

While the four-wall concept may come as a shock, it’s no secret that live Vegas entertainment is suffering. Major shows have closed, superstars like Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul have belly-flopped, and long-established celebs like Criss Angel and even Mariah Carey have resorted to seat-filling services or Groupon to lure bodies inside. What gives?

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

One answer may be that the entertainment landscape is a constantly changing one. Whether it’s our movie-going habits, the methods in which we acquire in-home media, or the latest trendy ways to spend our discretionary income, nothing stays the same.

Here in Las Vegas, gaming and fine dining have experienced a post-pandemic surge. So have sporting events and nightlife venues. Sadly, live entertainment has suffered the most significant blow. Unless your name is Adele, it’s nearly impossible to create significant buzz. And we all know how that turned out.

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

We literally have hundreds if not thousands of starry-eyed entertainers residing throughout the valley. They’ve come from every continent on the planet to make the City of Entertainment their home. But low-paying bar gigs and half-empty showrooms aren’t the stuff of dreams, are they?

As a result, many acts and even entire productions have resorted to hitting the road. They’ve discovered that touring can usually supplement…and sometimes exceed…their Vegas-based income. And you thought that “Leaving Las Vegas” was only a movie. Isn’t it ironic?

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

Pop-culture references aside, it seems rather telling that Vegas-based entertainers have resorted to using “Live from Las Vegas!” as their greatest selling point elsewhere. One of the first major headliners in recent memory to take this approach was Terry Fator.

Several years ago, the former superstar (read about his career plummet here) and America’s Got Talent winner was boasting about his $100 million contract with Mirage Hotel Casino. Then boys2men began outselling the ventriloquist/singer, and his show was stricken from the weekend schedule. Who would have imagined a takeover of the Terry Fator Theater by a 90’s nostalgia group? Ouch!

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

Before you could say “Who’s the dummy now?”, Fator was stuffing his puppets into a trunk and hitting state fairs. Other acts followed suit, including names like The Bronx Wanderers and Penn and Teller. In some cases, the decisions weren’t strictly economical, as some performers truly enjoy their life on the road. But after a series of near-capacity shows, it’s a reality check to return to the half-filled Vegas showroom that bears your name.

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

Vegas-based “The Bronx Wanderers” played to a packed July 4th crowd in Arizona this summer

Vincent John is the musical director and a lead for The Bronx Wanderers. He offered his take on the situation to VEGAS 411:

“Most of my friends have found refuge in the bars and lounges because there just aren’t B and C-level productions anymore in town. It’s turned into a giant headliner and sports town. A couple will go see Bruno Mars for $800 and maybe see a Golden Knights game, which leaves little to no extra income for a show like ours (The Bronx Wanderers). Luckily, we’ve been around so long (18 years) that we have a giant following across the country and can survive by traveling.”

“Most shows can’t just tour at the drop of a hat like us and I see them hurting. Traveling is where we can make a profit. If we stay here, between marketing costs, union costs, room costs – breaking even is a hard thing to do nowadays. Especially in the summer.”

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

There’s no question that the phrase “Live From Las Vegas!” is a powerful marketing tool. It’s been used for decades by superstars from Tom Jones to Sonny and Cher. In May of this year, an Australian producer brought his show to Sin City simply so he could mention “Vegas” in his Australian ad copy. He admitted to me that he was only moderately invested in a Stateside success.

The Aussie version now proclaims”The New Show Taking Vegas by Storm”…even though the Vegas counterpart closed within three months.

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

There are a number of factors beyond changing tastes that have hobbled Las Vegas entertainment. For instance, the “locals crowd”, once a significant contributor to the bottom line, has been essentially driven away. Blame Strip and Downtown parking fees for this. There’s little motivation for a Vegas resident to leave their neighborhood, face chaotic road construction and traffic, then pay $20 or more for the opportunity to enter a casino.

Tourists are seemingly unaware that there are over a dozen large-scale hotel casinos spread throughout the valley. Virtually all of them offer ample free parking and quality live entertainment….quite often for less than the price of Strip parking alone. Combine that with value-priced meals and superior gambling odds, and you have nearly three million potential Strip/Downtown customers that you’ve effectively pushed away.

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

You may remember Australia’s Human Nature, the Motown-driven act that played for over a decade on the Strip. Not long after signing a contract extension with Venetian, the quartet re-evaluated their long-term prospects. It was no secret that “Human Nature” had been underselling, often resorting to seat fillers. So only three months into the pandemic shutdown, they released this statement through local agency Caprio Media Design:

“After much consideration, Australia’s Human Nature, SPI Entertainment and The Venetian Resort Las Vegas have decided to end the group’s seven-year residency and current show, “HUMAN NATURE SINGS MOTOWN & MORE.”  This unforeseen period is now an opportunity to reassess the next steps for the show.  Human Nature have always made their personal and professional decisions from the heart and, though this is a very difficult decision for them, they believe it is the right decision at this time given the challenges impacting live performances.”

After a successful tour in their homeland, “Australia’s Human Nature” will briefly return to Las Vegas as a trio. This time they’ll avoid the gouging practices of the Strip by setting up shop at South Point…a massive and popular “locals casino” with free parking, an inexpensive buffet, and friendly staff…just like Vegas used to be. Tickets are priced at only $40 (order here).

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

While preparing for this piece, I was contacted by three separate entertainment entities who informed me of their frustrations with local media. Each of them singled out the Las Vegas Review-Journal (and entertainment columnist John Katsilometes in particular) for lack of coverage. In every instance, the entities stated that the Review-Journal “only gives coverage to its favorites” and those who “pay to play”, which means to purchase advertising space.

They stated that Katsilometes has continually been non-responsive to requests for coverage.  Another complaint was that he does not reply to invitations to their shows and events. I contacted Katsilometes via email, citing these concerns and offering him an opportunity to respond. His statement was as follows:

“I write every day, including weekends and holidays. I post hundreds of columns a year. I do my best to cover the beat.”

– Kats

While two of the sources will remain unnamed, the third is Shea Arender, CEO of the Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra. After a years-long battle to foster growth and exposure for the LVSO, Arender took to Instagram to blast Katsilometes and the Review-Journal. He blatantly stated that he was unconcerned about potential negative ramifications, as he already considers himself and his organization “blackballed” by local media.

Here is his entire video and post:

The impact of our city’s most prominent newspaper on ticket sales is one that should be analyzed. It’s already been noted that residents aren’t buying many tickets (seat-filling subscription services like Fill-A-Seat and House Seats are a large factor, too). That leaves tourists, who are unlikely to base their entertainment decisions on a local newspaper, especially when user-driven sites like Yelp! and TripAdvisor have nationwide reach.

So why take issue with an accomplished, prolific journalist like Johnny Kats (as he’s known around town)?  In the above video, Shea Arender stated “we only have one entertainment writer that’s considered ‘credible’ in this city”. Let’s hope he bookmarks VEGAS 411 going forward.

As with their annual “Best of Las Vegas” contest, a write-up or mention by Kats in the LVRJ provides a sense of accomplishment…an ego boost, if you will. It’s a goal that offers bragging rights on social media, too. But does it noticeably affect a performer’s bottom line? Unlikely.

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

Photo via “Best of Las Vegas” Facebook page.

Another Vegas entertainment professional offered their views on LVRJ‘s “pay to play” scenario:

“At first I was like, ‘Wow!’ We have invited Kats over and over but he never shows up and we never get a mention in the Review-Journal — and then I remembered from experience that absolutely no one buys tickets from a mention or advertisement in the Review-Journal.” 

“It’s more than that – the Review-Journal is irrelevant. Advertising there is a total waste of money for ticketed shows. Even ‘Best of Las Vegas” is nothing short of a farce in which nominees with a huge social media following for silly online videos use that base to promote and ‘win’ awards — votes from people who not only haven’t seen their show but probably have never even been to Las Vegas. The Review-Journal counts all that as targeted traffic to their website and charges ad rates based on those numbers.”

“Did you know that even if you ‘win’ a BoLV award, to be allowed rights to use the BoLV graphic badge on any advertising you have to spend a minimum of 3k in advertising in the RJ? One of the many advertising choices is an ‘editorial’ story on the BoLV website about the nomination — which you can write yourself.”

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

So, back to the “Live from Las Vegas” syndrome. In order to continue operating, Las Vegas Symphony Orchestra took its production overseas. Wildly successful performances in Ireland, London, Austria, and more have brought acclaim to the Symphony…creating a level of buzz that no single publication could match.

Fronted by Arender, the orchestra is currently packing gorgeous European halls and performing in world-renown castles. Not even the Las Vegas Philharmonic has accomplished this. By leaving home in order to remain afloat, LVSO has ironically turned an international spotlight on the city that hasn’t supported it.

When the orchestra finally returns to the “Entertainment Capital of the World”, it will do so without a venue to call its own. The King must surely be rolling over in his grave.

“Direct From Las Vegas”…With a Catch

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