What Does It Take to Headline Madison Square Garden in 2024?

Emily Lichter has managed the band Lake Street Dive for more than a decade, since “they were playing for tips” in small clubs on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. While the retro-pop group is not a household name, their fortunes have changed quite a bit: Later this year, they’re slated to play New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden for the first time, where capacity ranges from 12,000 to 18,000, depending on the configuration of a show.

“Our joke is they’re the biggest band that no one’s ever heard of,” Lichter says. 

Sure enough, some onlookers have expressed surprise that the band has the oomph to headline the World’s Most Famous Arena. “Someone asked me who Lake Street was supporting at MSG,” adds Leigh Millhauser, the band’s agent at Wasserman Music. “And I said: Themselves.”

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Every year, a new crop of artists tries to level up their live act and make the leap to arenas. Going for it can be fraught — even for those who are confident they can pull it off. “I’ve heard all the horror stories about people who make the arena jump too soon,” says Ed Harris, manager of Cigarettes After Sex, the tranquil rock band who will also play MSG for the first time later this year. “You’ve got to be very careful.”

“You can’t have a weak stomach,” agrees Andrew Friedman, who manages Wallows, playing their first MSG show in August. The process can involve “a lot more sleepless nights, and more calls to the band’s agents and promoter than they would probably love,” Friedman continues.

Managers and agents often speak about the live side of the music business as if they are basketball coaches stressing the importance of fundamentals in post-game interviews. Be “methodical” and “consistent;” rely on “hard work” and “elbow grease.” Nearly everyone offers up a variation of the same phrase: “Don’t skip steps.” (Olivia Rodrigo used a version of this rationale to explain why she didn’t jump straight to arenas after the runaway success of her first album.)

“You’re trying to sell out every show and you’re trying to not go backwards,” says Robby Fraser, a partner at WME Music. “A way to not go backwards is not jump ahead too fast.”

Those who don’t adhere to those rules — who try to fill an arena without the highly enthusiastic fan base needed to support the move — may see their live opportunities suffer down the line. “Festival bookers want to know you’re worth X tickets,” explains Kirk Harding, co-owner of the label and management company Bad Habit. “If you’re out here saying you’re worth 10,000 tickets, and 5,000 people show up, you’re not as hot as you’re telling them. You might not get that festival slot you want, which is huge.”

On top of that, “the artists’ egos get bruised” when ticket counts come up short, according to Duffy McSwiggin, svp at Wasserman Music. Acts can become the butt of jokes, as screenshots showing large patches of empty seats or bottom-of-the-barrel ticket prices circulate on social media. Plus logistically, “there’s damage control we have to do,” McSwiggin continues. “That might be rescaling the house, closing the top and moving people down — that takes a lot of people hours.” 

To avoid ending up in this position, agents say they pore over data from past shows, trying to determine the extent of the demand for a performance in any given market. Streaming numbers offer one measure of an artist’s appeal, but they are less useful for gauging whether a listen will support an artist financially, whether that means buying a ticket or merchandise.

“Somebody can have 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify, but they might not even fill out a 500-capacity club,” Fraser says. “Those are people that at one point click a button. But that doesn’t really equate to your faithful fans.”

Instead of scrutinizing streams, Millhauser is “obsessed with all the data surrounding previous market plays:” For example, “did the tickets blow out at the on-sale or slowly trickle to sell-out;” “what zip codes did the fans come from;” “was it a Tuesday night show or a Friday night show last time?”

Managers have their own rules of the road. “When you can put up two Radio City shows” — capacity over 5,700 — “and sell them out quickly, that is a clear indicator that you’re worth Madison Square Garden,” says Drew Simmons, a partner at Foundations Artist Management. (A rep for MSG did not respond to requests for comment.) 

After Lake Street Dive performed two nights at Radio City in 2022, the band’s team found that just 31 people attended both shows. “Add up all those tickets, and you’re like, ‘we sold around 10,000 tickets,’” she explains. “That’s kind of an MSG.”

For Mt. Joy, who are making their MSG debut in September, the equation was different. “Last year we did two Central Parks,” says Jack Gallagher, the band’s manager. Like Radio City, Central Park Summerstage can fit more than 5,000 people. 

However, “arenas are way harder to sell than a field,” according to Gallagher — with a field, “people don’t have to coordinate with their friends and figure out where they’re going to sit, and seats are cheap.” While “it’s definitely still a risk to put up a venue that’s not much bigger than two Central Parks,” he continues, “we just went for it.” (Ali Hedrick, a partner and agent at Arrival Artists, points out that the band has played more than 30 times in the state of New York since 2017; New York City and Chicago are two of the group’s strongholds.)

Wallows also took an alternate route to MSG. “We know that the audience wanted to be close to the band and on the floor,” Friedman says, “and those balconies at Radio City, they’re far away.” Instead, Wallows elected to perform four shows at Terminal 5, a 3,000-capacity venue. “Now do we go back and do Radio City?” Friedman asks. “That starts to feel like a lateral move. You can either play it safe, or you can take a swing.”

Some artists have gusts of wind at their back which might speed their path to arenas. Many bands didn’t tour during COVID, but once the world began to open up somewhat, Mt. Joy “did 33 drive-in shows” — outdoor performances with social distance measures in place — “during the pandemic,” according to Hedrick. “So when other artists went away, they kept touring and played in front of a lot of people. That was one thing that made them stand out from the crowd” when life returned fully to normal. 

It’s not surprising that TikTok virality can also give a band a lift. Before COVID, Cigarettes After Sex typically played 3,000- to 5,000-capacity venues. Then during the pandemic, a new audience started to find the band’s music on TikTok. “That injected steroids into everything,” Harris says. “The fan base got a lot younger and a lot more enthusiastic.” Last year, the band played Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, which fits more people in some scenarios than MSG, even if it’s less iconic. 

One of Harding’s longtime management clients is The Neighbourhood, who spent much of their career steadily growing their live business. “Touring was leading the way; it wasn’t streaming super heavy,” Harding says.

During COVID, songs from The Neighbourhood became the soundtrack of choice for millions of TikTok videos, leading to a hefty increase in streaming. “Should they reassemble and come back from hiatus, they’ll do an MSG now if they want to — when you have explosive moments, you can maybe miss a step,” Harding says. 

But “if you’re not having those, you’re just slowly building,” he continues. “You quietly, diligently take the steps until people are like, ‘Wait, they’re worth that many tickets? I had no idea.’”