Once upon a time, if a music act announced a concert residency in Las Vegas, they declared themselves a has-been clinging to the last vestiges of their fleeting fame. Vegas was where legends went to die, albeit in a comfortable, money-making venture. But in recent years, cinching a spot on the Vegas strip has become a coveted achievement for the biggest stars in music today. What exactly do Vegas residencies entail?
Well, instead of traveling the country and/or world with an entire entourage to perform for fans, the artist remains on one stage while the fans come to them. But that doesn’t make the job any easier. Smaller theater venues replace massive arenas and stadiums, forcing artists to perform more shows to pull the same profit. Expectations of high production values also drive up costs. However, they save on transportation and the personal prices of traveling.
Vegas residencies are known especially for their extravagant sets. Because they don’t have to worry about lugging around equipment and oversized set pieces or moving oodles of dancers, makeup artists and hairdressers, artists can really go all out with the stagecraft and other visual aspects of the show. This provides a unique experience for the fans who shell out extra money to come out to see them and allows the artists to fully flex their performative and musical muscles.
Legends like Liberace, Frank Sinatra and The Rat Pack were the pioneers of Vegas residencies in the ‘40s and ‘50s, paving the career path countless more American singers would trek. Other cities cropped up as residency hotspots, but Vegas reigned supreme, housing countless classics including Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte. The city was a musical mecca, and concert residencies quickly came to stand alongside casinos as a tenant of Vegas’ entertainment industry.
But after a couple of decades, Vegas residencies began to fall out of public favor. As legalized gambling sprouted in Atlantic City and New Jersey and the country entered a recession in the ‘80s, Las Vegas became just a shadow of its former glory. No longer able to attract current mega-celebrities, the Strip resorted to hosting singers somewhat past their prime. Dianna Ross, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Cher reigned over the residency scene, years after the height of their fame. Even Cher called it the “elephant graveyard where talent goes to die” in reference to herself.
For several years, things looked pretty grim for Sin City’s musical scene. Conservative, older audiences of retirees ensured performers had to be remnants of a former era, pushing away younger demographics and stunting the growth of the concert format. Instead of an integral stop along the route toward stardom, Las Vegas became the final resting place of aging artists in the twilight years of their careers. They might have been the hottest thing during their golden days, but their decline in popularity relegated them to the relatively minuscule crowds and venues.
However, the 2000s would prove to be the renaissance of Vegas residencies. In 2003, international songstress Celine Dion launched her first residency, “A New Day…,” revitalizing the concert with a “fusion of song, performance art, innovative stagecraft and state-of-the-art technology.” Her second one, “Celine,” was just as groundbreaking. She found success and happiness almost immediately, moving to the city with her family to center her life around each residency.
Over the course of five years and an astounding 717 total shows, Celine Dion raked in $385 million, the equivalent of $465.2 million in 2018 dollars. That’s over half a rock per show; to this day, she holds the record for the highest grossing Vegas residency of all time. She returned to the Strip in 2011 for “Celine,” roping in a hefty amount of revenue that nabbed second place and cemented her revered status in Vegas history. As president and co-CEO of ConcertsWest John Meglen put it, “For an improbable 16 years, Celine Dion [reigned] as the Queen of Las Vegas entertainment.”
Other artists soon noticed the commercial and creative possibilities of Vegas residencies and began tapping into the now lucrative business. Prince opened his in 2006, followed by Bruno Mars, Mariah Carey, Calvin Harris, Boyz II Men, CeeLo Green, Guns N’ Roses, George Strait and Shania Twain. Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich, who worked on Celine Dion’s shows, commented, “Acts are reacting to the rigors of the road, the uncertainty of fickle audiences and the advantages of being in one place for a defined period of time.”
The appeal behind Vegas residencies extends far beyond their profuse profitability and their potential for prime performative expression. Eliminating travel instantly lowers stress surrounding the tour, audiences are reliable and willing to splurge on quality entertainment and mishaps are less likely due to the stability of the setting. Plus, personal lives are far easier to manage when you don’t have to go weeks or months without seeing the people you care about.
In even more recent years, superstars like Britney Spears, J. Lo and Pitbull have also piggybacked on Dion’s revival, consistently drawing in millions of dollars for their shows. At this very moment, one of the brightest pop stars of the decade, Lady Gaga, is hosting two concurrent Vegas residences, with her “Enigma” centering around her greatest pop hits and her “Jazz and Piano” featuring selections from the Great American Songbook. Along with the classic Aerosmith, two of the most famous names in rap, Drake and Cardi B, are joining the lineup this year and in 2020.
Today, announcing a Vegas residency is a hallmark of peaking success rather than declining. Led by Celine Dion’s theatrical and profitable take on the dying style of concert, the most famous performers are again taking to Sin City to earn a killing and make their individual marks on the Strip. Whether other major cities jump on the bandwagon and begin promoting concert residencies or not, Las Vegas will likely profit from its unique flair for many more years to come.