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Mad for Madonna and more
WHEN Madonna's Rebel Heart World Tour makes a pit stop here on Sunday, it will be one of the biggest "live" concerts to ever be staged in Singapore.
The 57-year-old pop diva is a living legend who has sold more than 300 million records over the last three-and-a-half decades and this will be her first ever visit here.
The provocative performer's shows have also smashed various records everywhere: 2008-2009's Sticky & Sweet is the highest-grossing tour of all time for a solo artist (US$408 million); while 2012's MDNA was the most successful tour of that year (US$305 million).
The Rebel Heart gigs - named after the Material Girl's critically-acclaimed 13th studio album - which kicked off in Montreal, Canada last September before heading to North America and Europe - had raked in over US$88 million by the end of 2015 from 49 shows watched by close to 700,000 people.
To think the pop icon almost gave Singapore a miss because local promoters felt her show was too expensive to be viable.
But James Lee, chief executive of Kinglun International Holdings, decided to invest in it anyway even though he candidly admits there is no chance of recouping the US$10 million cost even if Madonna sells out the National Stadium.
The Taiwanese property developer says: "I know some of her Singapore fans were already going to her other shows in Asia which were announced earlier but I feel that is only a minority because it will cost quite a lot of money for them to fly overseas to watch her; the show here is for those who didn't have the opportunity to do that."
A long-time fan of the Queen of Pop himself, the 53-year-old considers the show one of a kind and not to be missed because it is not everyday that Madonna tours the region.
The concert has become a major talking point in the "live" calendar ever since it was announced in early January as many did not expect Madonna to make it to Singapore.
No stranger to controversy and known for her bold stage shows, the Rebel Heart concert has been rated R18 (for those aged 18 and above only) by the Media Development Authority due to sexual references and follows in the vein of Adam Lambert's 2013 gig which carried an "Advisory 16 and above (some mature content)" rating and Lady Gaga's 2012 performance which had a "some controversial religious content" warning.
But all that is still a far cry from the outright ban of Madonna's 1993 Girlie Show World Tour here which the authorities said "border(ed) on the obscene" and deemed "objectionable to many on moral and religious grounds".
Mr Lee reveals that trying to get a licence for the show and getting Madonna to modify her setlist for Singapore after the song Holy Water - performed with scantily clad nuns twirling themselves around stripper poles shaped like crosses - had to be dropped, are some of the challenges which might have scared off other promoters here.
Another is filling the National Stadium with 25,000 fans - more than twice the number of the average 10,000-seater arenas she has been selling out around Asia.
A former record label executive-turned-marketing director and concert promoter, who declined to be named, notes that filling a 5,000-capacity venue is not much of a problem now that Singapore has built a strong gig-going culture but "anything above 10,000 is still scary".
Lauretta Alabons, founder of LAMC Productions, however says with or without Madonna, Singapore has already been steadily attracting big names and crowds: "There was Michael Jackson (at the old National Stadium in 1993) and Metallica (in 2013)." The latter, which was promoted by LAMC, drew a massive crowd of 40,000 at Changi Exhibition Centre.
"(The Rebel Heart Tour) is a landmark show and Madonna is right up there as one of the top acts (who) can play a stadium here," adds Michael Roche, a veteran promoter and managing director of Lushington Entertainments, which has staged mega-gigs by big names the likes of the Eagles, Eric Clapton and Sting. Lushington is also organising Madonna's Singapore show with American entertainment company Live Nation.
But even with all the hype the concert has generated, it wasn't an immediate sell-out, with a handful of tickets left. This is unlike the rest of Madonna's Asian dates where they get snapped up almost immediately after going on sale. Madonna's engagements in Taiwan and Hong Kong sold out in 15 and 10 minutes, respectively; and many countries have had to add second shows to cope with the overwhelming demand.
Mr Lee admits he thought sales would have been brisker but acknowledges the show's late announcement might have affected things.
Record ticket price
Some fans, however, have balked at the eye-watering ticket prices which range from S$108 to S$1,288. In America, top-tiered ones cost US$300-US$350 while the cheapest ones cost just US$35.
The S$1,288 VIP package, which includes a fan pack, sets a new record by beating the S$1,000 K-pop star G-Dragon charged for a meet-and-greet ticket in 2013. It also costs twice as much as the priciest seats for The Rolling Stones in 2014 (S$700), Berliner Philharmonic in 2010 (S$680) and Sting in 2008 (S$600).
But it is still cheaper than what her other Asian fans are paying in the region: the same VIP tickets in Hong Kong are going for HK$11,888 (S$2,148) while in Macau they cost 10,588 Macau patacas (S$1,857) and 57,750 Philippine pesos (S$1,701) in the Philippines.
"Singapore is still OK in terms of pricing (and) the price range helps (to keep things affordable for fans)," explains Ms Alabons, who adds "anywhere from S$200 to S$500 is the norm for a top name".
"There is a common misconception that promoters set high ticket prices because they are greedy, where in reality the prices are set to make the show and future shows happen," adds Dan Gordon, director of Now/Live Pte Ltd and Secret Sounds Asia, which specialises in indie acts.
He also clarifies: "There is definitely a limit (to what the public will pay but) it depends on the act (so) the ticket price is a careful balance between what a fan believes is fair and what is actually viable for the show to work."
According to Mr Roche, higher ticket prices come on the back of rising performance fees over the past five years: "It's very competitive with other promoters also bidding for the same artists and the management wanting the best fees."
That makes Singapore one of the most expensive places in the world to watch a "live" concert.
"The acts have to fly themselves and their equipment in and out to perform a single show, compared to countries in Europe and North America whereby an act will perform shows in multiple cities within each country and can travel by land," explains Mr Gordon, "On the plus side, Singapore receives more shows than any of its neighbours."
Mr Roche adds: "Venues, transport, hotels and catering are expensive here so unfortunately we tend to be above the average on pricing - venues (especially) are the biggest hit and a lot more (expensive in Singapore) than other Asian cities."
Mr Lee reveals that in Madonna's case, reconfiguring the National Stadium so the seats can be closer to the stage has added to the cost, on top of the air freight for 27 containers carrying all the stage, lighting and wardrobe needed for the massive two-hour-plus song-and-dance spectacular.
Despite the challenges and steep learning curve he has gone through, Mr Lee says the experience has been an invaluable one and he is game for more. This is his first time investing in a concert here after having backed shows by Air Supply and Mariah Carey back home in Taiwan.
"I think from this, we've come to understand the industry here a lot better," he quips.
But more importantly, Mr Gordon stresses: "Fans need to support the shows to make sure the acts keep coming."
Additional reporting by Avanti Nim
Madonna The Rebel Heart World Tour 2016 takes place at National Stadium on Feb 28 at 8pm. Book tickets from www.sportshub.com.sg