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The Future of the Concert Business Is … Old Dudes?

Not exactly. Rock isn’t dead, and festivals are thriving. But who will take over for the geriatric stars of yore?

AP Images/Getty/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Getty/Ringer illustration

If 2016 isn’t the end of days, it sure as hell feels like the end of rock ’n’ roll. We lost David Bowie, the innovative hero of so many rock gods. We lost Glenn Frey, the creative force behind the Eagles and the all-time best-selling album in the United States. And we lost Prince, who outlived fellow royalty James Brown and Michael Jackson before dying tragically 4 us. The accelerating death of rock’s individual icons is almost as painful as the glaring demise of rock’s ideals: Ringo Starr made a Skechers commercial. Jon Bon Jovi is serenading jaded lovers for DirecTV. Even Bob Dylan is conversing with a chess-playing machine for a goddamn IBM commercial. The times they are a-changin’ indeed.

So it was fitting when concert promoter Goldenvoice — founder of the world’s most influential music festival, Coachella — announced what might be the last memorable gathering of rock ’n’ roll. It’s called Desert Trip, a two-weekend event in the middle of October that will take place on the same Indio, California, site as Coachella. Six stupefyingly famous artists will play over three nights each weekend: the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan on Friday, Paul McCartney and Neil Young on Saturday, and Roger Waters and The Who on Sunday. It’s a remarkable lineup for both obvious and discrete reasons — like a first-ballot Rock and Roll Hall of Fame yearbook photo sprung to life. The Stones and the Beatles have played only two shows together; it’s been five solid decades since their last one. Naturally, the internet jokingly renamed the festival “Oldchella” — only it’s not a joke. The average age of this lineup? 72.5 years old! Let that sink in. The average age of an NFL player is 26.2. The Civil Rights Act celebrated its 52nd anniversary this year. The average age of an S&P 500 CEO is 56.9. Global life expectancy is 71.4 years old. These guys have collectively slammed more drugs than the doors on a shipment of Mexican refrigerators, and somehow, they’re still performing their day jobs at seventy-two and a half years old.

Sensing one last moment to bask in the fading sunset of rock glory, fans came out to purchase in droves. The 140,000 available tickets “sold out” in three hours. That means with a gross of $150 million, Oldchella will blow away the record for the highest-grossing live event of all time. Standing-room tickets in the pit are posted on the secondary market for anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000. Someone offered me a suite in the upper reaches of the stands that seats 20 people for $200,000. (Um, no, but thanks?) And of course, a significant chunk of tickets never made it “on sale” and were allocated to the event’s “official premium seating partner,” Viagogo, at elevated prices (not that there’s anything inherently wrong with that). Travel packages with eye-popping prices are scattered across the internet, and people with means will be voyaging to Oldchella from dozens of countries. It’s going to be the largest gathering of rich old people since … well, since ever. There’s never been anything like it. Two football stadiums’ worth of people are splurging more than $150 million to stand in a field and listen to septuagenarians sing 50-year-old songs. Let’s hope the old guys can still hit the high notes.

Goldenvoice has a stellar track record of softly integrating sponsors into its events; I suspect it resisted the temptation to grab the sponsorship money from Cialis that’s surely been thrown at them (even with Mick Jagger’s impending seventh encore in fatherhood). Still, with its massive gross sales figure, Oldchella will stand as a monument to the inexorable merging of corporatism and concerts. The spirit of rock has surely passed, and with the year we’ve had, we’ll be lucky to make it to Indio with the full lineup of artists intact. The computers are here now, ready to replace our instruments, and our heroes.

So, Oldchella looms. It’s a morbid gift that (for a price) we can actually be there as rock dies. That’s all you can ask for when you go: to be surrounded by your closest friends and family. Conventional wisdom says that rock ’n’ roll will flatline in a field in the California desert in October, after one final gasp during which we’ll all think, for just a fleeting moment, that maybe it’s still alive.

Holy shit is conventional wisdom wrong.

Last month, the music business trade bibles Billboard and Pollstar released their midyear touring updates. Which one is better? Who knows? Like nearly everyone and everything in the music business, these two have an epic Biggie-Tupac-level beef. Fortunately for us, their data is strikingly similar. Despite the narrative of a dying genre, rock and roll is still playing power chords at the turnstiles. Half of Pollstar’s top-50 global tours through the first half of 2016 are rock acts, and that’s before answering questions like, “Should we count Garth Brooks because of the Chris Gaines debacle that I will never let anyone forget?” And, “What genre is ’80s Lionel Richie?” And, “Is it even possible to tell the difference between a high-energy country show and a rock show?”

Collectively, these rock acts sold more than a billion dollars in ticket sales in the first six months of the year. Did you know that the median age of those rock acts is only 58 years old? And that’s with some of the Oldchella artists pulling up the average. Eddie Vedder and Slash are “only” 51. While this stat makes anyone over the age of 30 reflexively scream, “OH MY GOD WHEN DID THOSE GUYS GET OLD?!” it also means they could perform for two more decades and still be younger than the average Oldchella performer. Springsteen (66), Billy Joel (67), and Elton John (69) make up a fifth of rock ticket sales through the first half of 2016. Together, they sound like a pretty good starting lineup for Oldchella 2020.

So the reports of rock ’n’ roll’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But its evolution from a creative art to a nostalgia museum is a harbinger of things to come in the live concert business overall, where, because of the demise of recorded music sales, artists now make as much as 90 percent of their income. The average age of Pollstar’s global top-50 touring artists across all genres so far this year is 49. Filtering for the top tours in North America, the average age rises to 52. That’s good news for artists in search of career longevity. As fans age, their income tends to rise, and hence the ballooning box office figures accruing to performers who build an enduring catalog.

Then again, the list of top tours contains glaring holes that are cause for some alarm in certain segments of the business. Of the top-50 global tours, exactly one was a rap/hip-hop act: Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. None of the top-50 tours in North America were headlined by rap/hip-hop artists. (Clearly Drake, Kanye, and Jay Z could poll here were they active, but the point stands.) None of the top-50 tours globally feature an EDM artist. How can these genres transcend racial and socioeconomic lines, drive such a huge part of our culture, resonate so intently on social media … and still struggle to sell tickets?

Getty Images
Getty Images

The oldest of old-school promoters will claim that these acts simply don’t draw people to the turnstiles. But the rise of festivals tells a different story. In the U.S. alone, about 32 million people attend at least one festival every year; their demographics skew heavily toward millennials in their mid-20s. A festival ticket remains the single best value in live music, as anyone under 30 would tell you. For $200 to $450, you can enjoy many artists on your bucket list, play a game of Where’s Waldo with Vanessa Hudgens, and freely experiment with whatever ingestibles the local Walter White has on hand. Those festivals also reveal where the demand for rap/hip-hop and EDM artists is hiding. Of the top-20 highest grossing festivals around the world in 2015, half featured at least one act from these genres as a headliner. Much has been made of millennials favoring experiences over things; festivals are the single best place to experience the music that shapes their lives.

So maybe this isn’t about the death of rock, but the imminent death of traditional rock shows. The rise of festivals provides an interesting conundrum for the concert business. Much like streaming altered the digital download business, festival fans can consume a whole lot more for a whole lot less. Why see an artist’s arena or stadium show for $200 when I’ve already seen them at a festival with a host of others for only twice that cost? If festivalgoing becomes learned behavior, then much like the transition to digital music, it will be tough to go backward. But unlike in digital music, artists control their supply in live events. Going forward, expect the largest artists to use festival appearances the way they use the Super Bowl halftime show: play, create social buzz, and put the world tour tickets on sale the very next day.

As millennials age, who will have that kind of market power to dictate their supply? Looking back at the top global tours of the year thus far, only seven artists on the list were born after 1986; it’s doubtful that a group like Little Mix (is it a cereal or a band?) will produce enough material to last multiple decades. If we had to wager our belongings on which artists in their 20s could carry an arena tour in their 50s, these would be our picks:

Absolute locks: Taylor Swift, Drake, Rihanna, the guys from One Direction, Justin Bieber, Adele.

Possibilities (but we need to see more): Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes, 5 Seconds of Summer, Kendrick Lamar, Ellie Goulding, some iteration of the Jonas Brothers.

Complete and total wild card: Miley Cyrus.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The most interesting case? Miley, mainly for the possibility that a study of her brain could do for child acting/performing what head-injury studies have done for youth sports. Did you know my 10-year-old daughter isn’t allowed to head a soccer ball in California? But she can star in a television show acting out semiadult issues in front of millions of kids while they judge and talk about her online! Miley’s gonna be patient zero for the end of kids walking red carpets.

The most interesting traditional case? Shawn Mendes is the youngest of the lot at 18, and his roots as a Vine star hint at where we are headed. Distribution of music is no longer constrained. Artists can be discovered from anywhere. That’s the promise of the digital age — it allows for the proliferation of something for everyone. Inherent in that promise is the notion that we each have our own unique fingerprint of musical taste, and that with unfettered distribution, there is enough variability in tastes to allow more stars to rise.

But because of such hyperpersonalization, the next generation of stars will, for the most part, have smaller audiences than in the days of old (e.g., maybe Whitesnake was popular in the ’80s because there were only 20 spots on terrestrial radio playlists and the band got one of them; with a broader pool of options, perhaps they’d have been significantly less popular). This, coupled with our shrinking attention spans, makes superstardom fleeting. And so it’s going to be easier to become a performer with an audience, but harder to become an entrenched arena act. Music festivals are a move to a subscription-based model from a one-off transactional model, no different from Netflix or Amazon Prime, intended to accommodate the plethora of young artists and the splintering of young tastes.

Will festivals make the whole greater than the sum of the parts for fans? Absolutely. The question is whether it can be the same for artists. And that’s why Oldchella is actually the birth of something new, not the death of something old.

Confucius said: “Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator.” As the Oldchella headliners are gently (and richly) shouldered off the stage in a few months, they’ll be watching with us to see if future generations can breathe new life into the business they invented and innovated.

The projected gross of Oldchella is roughly equivalent to what the Stones, McCartney, and The Who have collected across the 62 shows (by Pollstar’s count) they’ve cumulatively played so far in 2016. That’s half a year’s worth of work in two nights. Artists have long hid their efforts to make money from touring, fearing retribution from their fans. It’s created a convoluted secondary market and ticket distribution system that frustrates those same fans to no end. But if the next generations of artists can band together to protect their integrity while extracting their full value, across fewer shows, with a lower cost of supply and happier fans? How truly rock ’n’ roll.

Nathan Hubbard was CEO of Ticketmaster from 2010 to 2013, leading a turnaround and making the company more fan- and artist-friendly. He then oversaw music and sports (among other things) as head of commerce and global media for Twitter until this past June, and was previously a touring singer-songwriter who released five albums. His next project is currently in stealth.