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Sponsored concerts: Fans get great deal, but is it a fad?

Make no mistake, Ozzfest tickets may be free this year, but it is hardly an act of charity.

"I'm not trying to be the Mother Teresa of the music industry, because I like money more than anybody else," Sharon Osbourne said, then let out a wicked laugh.

Whether it's the MTV show "The Osbournes," the British reality show "The X Factor" that she co-hosts with Simon Cowell, or her famous quote about dropping Smashing Pumpkins as a client for medical reasons ("Billy Corgan was making me sick"), Osbourne has never had a problem attracting attention and profiting from it.

At a concert industry symposium in February, Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne made the dramatic announcement that the struggling Ozzfest would be free this year, supported instead by sponsorship. The nationwide tour kicked off the second week of July and continues through Aug. 30.

While 428,000 free tickets blew out the doors the day they were made available, Ozzfest 2007 may end up being more of an anomaly in the concert industry than the norm, even if others have already jumped on the bandwagon.

It's made viable by a strong lineup of sponsors; a number of metal bands, including Lamb of God and Hatebreed who already had strong ties to the tour and signed on immediately, and because Live Nation owns every venue on the tour, eliminating rent and taking in other revenue such as parking and concession sales.

"You have to cover your overhead somehow. Concessions are not going to be free. Parking is not going to be free," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert-trade magazine.

"The whole 'Ozzfest free tickets' is an experiment itself. I don't think it's a business model that'll be replicated many times. You may see people do it, but it's not going to be a regular occurrence," Bongiovanni said. "Maybe you can break even on it. I don't know if you can make money touring without admission, no matter how many ancillary (revenue) streams you come up with."

That's not the point, Sharon Osbourne insisted in a call from her London home. "You have to be creative. You have to keep evolving. You can't do the standard, standard thing. Concert tickets are outrageous.

"This isn't a Barbra Streisand audience. These kids cannot afford to keep shelling out all this money, every year charging more and more. The brakes have to come on somewhere because it'll end up like the recording industry . . . who've bankrupted themselves. It's a joke."

Does the industry view this as a Sharon gimmick or a wake-up call?

"People are past looking at this as a gimmick. People are looking at it as a fairly creative answer to what's going on with ticket pricing in the industry," said David Goldberg, Ticketmaster executive vice-president in Los Angeles. Ticketmaster has the rights to most of the Ozzfest venues but waived them to see if the concept flies.

"This is an experiment on many levels," Goldberg said. "We essentially said we'll see how this thing goes and revisit it after that."

Ultimately, Goldberg says, the solution is "something in between a full-on ticket price and free that is a great value for the fans and gets the message out that this is a less-expensive alternative."

The concept started with frustration from Sharon Osbourne, who has promoted the show for a dozen years and seen band fees go up while Ozzy's take went down.

"I was talking to Marilyn Manson (management) and I was told, 'Well, he's been offered Family Values, he's been offered to go out with Evanescence, so if you want him you're going to have to bid,' " Osbourne said.

"Then I said to (Live Nation president Mike) Rapino, 'What if we give the tickets away free?' He said, 'We might as well -- nobody's making any money here.' So that's what we did. We found sponsors to come in and underwrite the running part. And we found bands who just want the stage, they just want to perform."

While it may not overhaul the concert business, it's kicking up some dust. Fergie has teamed with Verizon Wireless for a series of concerts where fans get tickets sent to their picture phones for free or little cost. (Go to www.fergieperformances.com for details.)

"I'm seeing (others do free shows), especially in Europe. And I'm happy. If you can do it and you can use sponsors, why not? We all make an awful lot of money," Osbourne said.

"It's a long leap to (say) this is the direction (the entire industry) goes," said Ticketmaster's Goldberg. "I applaud everyone involved in this and their effort to try to shake things up in the live music business. Trying new things and experimenting is always valuable.

"My question is: Does it need to be free and does it devalue to some degree the product and entertainment being provided to the fan?"

What made this experiment float?

"It was absolutely the bands," Osbourne said. "Bands we have great relationships with, bands that believe in what we're doing. They had the same sensibility as us and said, 'Consider us in.' I cannot give them enough credit for holding firm."

Lamb of God immediately jumped on board, as did Hatebreed. Both figured they could make money on selling merchandise and picking up the odd solo date in between Ozzfests.

There are some intangible benefits, including the fact that Ozzfest is now receiving more attention than it has for years.

What does success look like to Sharon Osbourne?

"At the end of the tour, if we've done it successfully, the right people will have gotten in, there'll be no trouble, everybody does well, the buildings are happy with their parking and their beer and pizza sales, and everybody goes home happy and the kids like the music. Then we can do it again."

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