U2 to Make India Concert Debut, Marking Turning Point for Country as Global Touring Destination

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The band will play Mumbai on Dec. 15, following performances by Katy Perry and Dua Lipa in November.

MUMBAI — U2 will perform its first-ever concert in India on Dec. 15, closing the 2019 leg of its The Joshua Tree tour in Mumbai. In so doing, the event will also be a significant marker of the country's growth as a destination for tours by big-ticket international acts.

India, which struggled for years to persuade the band to make the trek to the country of 1.3 billion people, is turning a corner towards becoming a legitimate touring market. There are now multiple promoters booking acts across a variety of genres to play either stand-alone concerts or headlining slots at festivals.

"It was not by chance, it was by design" that U2 is ending its global tour in India, says Ashish Hemrajani, founder and CEO of BookMyShow, which is bringing the show to India along with Live Nation. "This is an extremely positive message that gets carried for us as a country."

When U2 announced they would make their historic appearance in India, the legendary Irish group ended at least a decade of frustrations and near-misses due to logistical and infrastructure challenges, and the high cost of the stage production, promoters said. "We've had several conversations with them over the years," says a representative of a leading promoter in India who did not wish to be identified. "I don't think we could ever afford how much they wanted."

For its part, U2 said it had long coveted an Indian show. "India has been on our bucket list for a long time," The Edge tells Billboard.

U2 will be the fourth in a series of global superstars to tour India this season. Katy Perry and Dua Lipa will perform at the inaugural edition of the OnePlus Music Festival in Mumbai in November. Wiz Khalifa played two cities here this past weekend.

India is one of the world's youngest countries and is home to millions of consumers with access to some of the cheapest mobile data connections on the planet. The last three years have seen a substantial increase in the number of Indians seeking "social experiences," says Hemrajani, a sentiment echoed by other promoters. As a result, there's an established audience for concerts by chart-topping western acts, and artist managers and booking agents around the globe are realizing there's a considerable market in India.

A turning point was the Indian edition of the Global Citizen Festival in 2016, which was headlined by Coldplay and included sets by Jay-Z and Demi Lovato, according to Sabbas Joseph, founder-director of Wizcraft International Entertainment. A record 80,000 people attended.

Then, in 2017, Justin Bieber was able to draw more than 30,000 people on a weekday during the muggy month of May in Mumbai, another sign that India's audience for foreign music acts had reached a critical mass.

However, India is an extremely price-sensitive market, where the cheapest tickets are typically sold for 1,500 Indian rupee (about $20). Tickets for the U2 show start at 3,000 Indian rupee (about $40). Most promoters depend heavily on sponsors and rely on brands to cover anywhere between 50% to 70% of the costs.

"Our experience with really big acts has always been that until audience members are able to pay [an average ticket price of] upwards of $200 and in a sizable number, it won't [make] economical sense to do it without brands. And you know how few people can pay that," says Gunjan Arya, managing partner at Only Much Louder, producer of India's most popular multi-genre festival, the NH7 Weekender, which is bankrolled by Bacardi.

Top international talent is usually booked for India only if they're already touring near the region. A stand-alone gig, promoters say, would be financially unfeasible. "For the live acts that have large touring parties and large production riders, it's probably going to happen when they're touring Asia," says Karan Singh, chief operating officer of Percept Live, which brought Ed Sheeran to India for his maiden show in the country in 2015. Sheeran returned in 2017 with BookMyShow.

Arthur Fogel, head of global touring at Live Nation, tells Billboard that one of the reasons U2 is finally coming to India is that "we're going to Southeast Asia, and there was the ability to add on a week at the end to accommodate Mumbai."

For the majority of the world's major music acts, India is unfamiliar territory and many aren't aware they have a massive fan base in the country. "We're used to walking out into a roar like a 747 taking off," says Bono. "All across the United States, Europe, everywhere. In India, we don't have a right to expect that same roar. We haven't put in the time."

Until about a decade ago, India was primarily a rock and metal market. Venkat Vardhan, founder and chairman of DNA Networks, which organized the majority of international concerts staged in India during the 1990s and 2000s, said his three most successful tours were by Iron Maiden, Metallica and The Rolling Stones, each of which drew audiences of more than 35,000 people.

In contrast, Beyoncé and Shakira, both of whom visited in 2007, played to about a fifth of those numbers. Vardhan says at the time 70% of the concert-going crowd in India was male and pop was not as strong as it is today. The exception was Bryan Adams, who has toured India several times since his first gig in the mid-1990s.

The big difference between then and now is the appetite for international music of all kinds has grown exponentially in both size and scope in the streaming era. "When I started doing these tours it was maybe 15-20 countries on an itinerary, and now it's 50-60," says Fogel.

Despite the general sense of optimism, promoters in India say the country still has a long way to go. "If you were [to compare us] to a really tiny city in the U.S., we don't get our fair share of acts and quality performances," says Hemrajani. "The floodgates haven't opened."

There remain several challenges to staging large-scale events here, the chief among them being a lack of adequate infrastructure, especially venues that can host large audiences. There are issues related to timing -- noise pollution rules prevent the use of loudspeakers beyond 10 p.m. Taxation is also a concern, with promoters having to pay 28% on every ticket sold.

With vast parts of India subject to high temperatures or heavy rainfall during large portions of the year, weather also restricts the time frame within which concerts can be performed. Even when venues are available, they're not always conducive to staging big shows, says Sameet Sharma, vp and business head of Live Viacom 18, the company behind the multi-genre VH1 Supersonic festival. "Taking a big act to an indoor stadium in Delhi doesn't make sense because there are restrictions," he says. "You can't sell alcohol at venues managed by the Sports Authority of India."

The D.Y. Patil Stadium in Mumbai, where U2 will take the stage, can hold more than 50,000 people but it's located on the outskirts on the city, sometimes taking upwards of two hours one way to get there. Hemrajani says venues in other parts of Mumbai either didn't have the crowd capacity or the parking facilities required.

Joseph believes that India is "at least three to five years" from becoming a mature market. "If we stay on course," he says. "Whatever you do right, India benefits as a territory. Whatever you do wrong bites everybody."

Fortunately, there have been fewer and fewer instances of concerts being canceled at the last minute. There are also rumors of AEG partnering with an Indian promoter to build an arena in Mumbai.

Now, after Coldplay, U2 will soon be checked off the list of India's most-anticipated acts. The next name on that list is Taylor Swift. Devraj Sanyal, managing director and CEO of Universal Music Group in India, is optimistic that she will soon make India a part of her tour plans. "A bunch of promoters are talking to me about our absolute A-list acts," he says. "They believe the time has come when individual artists will sell stadiums."