How Classic Rock Found New Life in the 2010s - Rolling Stone
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The Never-ending Afterlife of Classic Rock

Death and retirement claimed some of our most cherished musical icons in the 2010s. But just as many sprang back to life through biopics, holograms, and the countless other manifestations of what one insider calls “legacy mode”

classic rock afterlife

In the 2010s, artists from Freddie Mercury to Elton John became endlessly renewable brands.

Alex Bailey; The Bizarre World of Zappa; Valentin Flauraud/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“Being in Queen now feels like the old times because it has become as big as the old times,” Brian May told Rolling Stone in 2017. The band was still a year out from the release of Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic that would raise its pop-cultural capital even further. But even then, decades after the death of frontman Freddie Mercury, the guitarist felt like they were on top of the world. “I feel very privileged and very fortunate that we can play arenas. It’s on a scale actually that’s bigger than anything we ever did.”

Like Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix before him, Mercury became even more famous after his death. But unlike those artists, his posthumous legacy was built on platforms that treated him and the music he made with Queen as thriving artistic forces: blockbuster Best Picture winner Bohemian Rhapsody, arena tours by the band with Adam Lambert filling Mercury’s shoes, and various reissues and archival releases. The movie brought in nearly a billion dollars in worldwide box office, streams of Queen’s music more than tripled, and their video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” topped a billion views on YouTube. Heading into the 2010s, Queen looked like has-beens; their latest studio album, The Cosmos Rocks, with former Bad Company singer Paul Rodgers on the mic, barely cracked the Top 50 in 2008. But a decade later, they had once again become one of rock’s most bankable bands.

For those working at the record label UMe, the Universal Music Group imprint that Queen has called home since 2010, their success was a foregone conclusion. They’d been working with a five-year plan for the band. They just didn’t know how big Queen would get. “Even before the film started to impact, we prepared ourselves on the basis that we all expected this to go wide because the music is so well loved and received,” Andrew Daw, UMe’s EVP of content creation and international marketing, says. “When we got into the actual campaign, it was about us amplifying and pushing, spending more and making sure people were more aware of the movie.”

As improbable as Queen’s recent success seems, they were hardly the exception to the rule. Although the past 10 years have seen the deaths of more icons and celebrated musicians than the previous decade — and make no mistake, even more music icons will die in the next decade, as baby-boom classic rockers stare down their eighties — artists and their estates have aggressively innovated new ways to keep legacies going. The clock may be ticking on classic rock, but as bands evolve into brands, they’re finding endless renewability.

There were tours by holograms of long-deceased legends (Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison), partial reunions by bands with few surviving members (Dead and Company), Broadway musicals galore (Tina Turner, the Temptations), and on and on it went. Musicians with plenty of vitality wrote memoirs, founded whiskey brands, licensed remixes of their songs to movie soundtracks, reissued their classic works, and aligned themselves with younger hitmakers. Perhaps most surprising, the words “Las Vegas residency” no longer chimed like a death knell for artists, as Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, and others signed up for Sin City engagements. And in addition to Bohemian Rhapsody, the past decade saw biopics of Brian Wilson, the Runaways, James Brown, N.W.A, and many others become successes. Elton John timed his retirement tour to the release of Rocketman, a biopic that brought in nearly $200 million worldwide.

The clock may be ticking on classic rock, but as bands evolve into brands, they’re finding endless renewability.

“What’s changed dramatically is there is a convergence of media going on,” Bruce Resnikoff, president and CEO of UMe, says. “There’s a newfound relationship between an artist’s recorded career, their live career, and storytelling, which is what these movies and documentaries are about. Strategically, what we’re doing is not about marketing catalog, it’s about brand management and being partners with these brands. I think of the bigger artists as franchises or brands. So instead of just working on records, we’re now assigning franchise teams on these major artists. So whether it’s Queen, Elton John, the Beatles, [or the] Rolling Stones, they’re franchising to us and we’re working with them as partners, very similar to how a frontline label would work with a current artist.

“So we’re working with these artists’ management to map out a strategy that converges all these media,” he continues. “In the case of several of these artists, you’ll see there’s a tour, there’s a film, there’s a book, there’s music, there’s a streaming audience. The thing that makes it special is, because of the digital technology that’s around, we now have the ability to share audiences and reach a much broader and much younger audience than we could in the past. I think that’s what’s changed in this decade, particularly in the latter part.”

Queen first linked up with Lambert in 2009 and started seriously touring with him in 2014, playing a few dozen dates a year. As the word spread that, hey, they actually sound pretty great, and Lambert isn’t trying to replace Freddie Mercury, Madison Square Garden became a regular tour stop for them. Similarly, other classic bands found new footing without important members. When Fleetwood Mac ousted Lindsey Buckingham in 2018, they didn’t miss a step in hiring Mike Campbell, from the late Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, and Neil Finn, from Crowded House, to join them on their arena dates. And after Glenn Frey’s death in 2016, the Eagles swiftly recruited Vince Gill and Frey’s son, Deacon, to play his parts live, leading them to a lucrative Hotel California tour. These bands’ fans are so eager to see them live, they won’t balk at paying $100 for a ticket.

Backing bands of deceased artists — such as Prince’s bands the Revolution and the New Power Generation — also reunited and toured, as did supergroups like Holy Holy, a Bowie tribute act that included the singer’s longtime producer Tony Visconti. Even artists who were no longer alive found stages to perform on. Beginning with the Tupac Shakur hologram that made its debut during Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s Coachella set in 2012, holographic touring proved that there is always life on the road. In recent years, holograms of Frank Zappa, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Ronnie James Dio all became touring entities again. Some had backing bands with musicians who played with specters of the deceased; others got new orchestral soundtracks. But despite the innate kitschiness of the concept, there was an audience for it: Tickets for the Zappa hologram’s 2019 tour went for as much as $125, and the concerts were, on average, nearly three-quarters sold out; Orbison did roughly the same numbers.

In the past decade, many options have opened up for musicians’ estates to resurrect the brands of deceased artists. Some artists had plans for their posthumous catalogs established before their death — David Bowie mapped out exactly how he wanted his oeuvre to be reintroduced to the world — but the estates of others have had to figure things out for themselves.

Prince died in 2016 without a will, leading to a bitter dispute among his family members over his assets. In the midst of sorting this, Michael Howe, who had worked as Prince’s A&R rep at Warner Bros., was appointed the estate’s chief archivist. Since the artist’s death, the estate has put out super-deluxe box sets of Purple Rain and 1999, as well as albums of demos Prince had made for others. Prince had been involved in the Purple Rain reissue before his death, but Howe says it was not totally “mapped out.”

“The kind of stuff that keeps me up at night is whether exactly what we’re doing is what Prince would have wanted,” Howe tell Rolling Stone. “Nobody can say that with certainty, obviously, but the guiding principle to do this stuff, when it comes to releasing expanded bodies of work, is to proceed with the completeness, respect, and integrity that Prince would demand and that the body of work deserves. That’s what informs the decision-making process from the jump.”

For others, determining what an artists’ wishes are is easier. Frank Zappa died in 1993, and his widow, Gail, took over his estate; after her death in 2015, their son, Ahmet, took it over. He was instrumental in bringing the Frank Zappa hologram to life and even joined the staff at the company behind it, Eyellusion, serving as its executive vice president of global business development. He says it was a safe bet that Frank would be into it since he had written in his autobiography that he had a patent idea for holograms “potentially worth several billion dollars.” So he recruited members of Frank’s bands over the years, put them on the road, and even got onstage himself to sing some songs.

“Ahmet is quite an entrepreneurial character, and we wanted to create a Zappa experience that would travel,” says Daw, who works with the Zappa catalog at UMe. “Really, this is just the start of that, as part of what he wants to do with the brand.”

“I do hope that [hologram concerts] become more of the norm,” Ahmet told Rolling Stone. “Other artists are going to pass away, and if we want to keep having these magical experiences, technology is going to be the way to keep people engaged and hearing the music.”

Representatives from Eyellusion and Base Holograms, the latter of which produced the Roy Orbison hologram and has plans for a Whitney Houston show next year, say that they’ve been approached by managers for living artists, too. Musicians, both living and dead, have also embraced the idea of keeping their legacies alive by putting concert films in movie theaters for one-time-only events. Soundgarden, Nick Cave, Black Sabbath, Depeche Mode, BTS, and many more all extended their reaches by bringing concerts to movie theaters. INXS, whose singer Michael Hutchence died in 1997, are in the midst of launching something of a comeback next year with both a documentary and a concert film with theatrical screenings. Ray Nutt, the CEO of Fathom Events, which holds these sorts of movie-theater screenings around the world, says that these engagements extend an artist’s reach to audiences that might otherwise not be able to go to a traditional concert.

“Typically the most successful music events we’ve done have featured two distinctly different audiences: young new artists like One Direction and BTS, and classic ‘cult’-followed artists like the Grateful Dead, Elvis, and Rush,” Nutt says. “In terms of a one-time performance, an event in excess of $750,000 in gross box office — such as the ones we’ve done with BTS and the Elvis Presley ’68 Comeback Special — is a success in our books. For perennial [events], such as the Grateful Dead, we’re looking for at least 30,000 in annual ticket sales.… It really provides the audience with a larger-than-life way to be entertained, second only to being there in person, but all of the same — if not better — accouterments in terms of convenience, food and beverage, and communal appreciation.”

Even when a band is done touring, there are many opportunities. The thrash-metal heroes Slayer threw in the bloody towel this year, but their management recently told the touring-industry trade magazine Pollstar that they still have plenty of work to do, even though the band will not play together again or make another record. “They still have their endorsers, there’s still merch and branding to do — sync licenses and who knows?” Kristen Mulderig, who works at Rick Sales Entertainment Group, said, calling the next phase of Slayer’s existence “legacy mode.” “Maybe coming up with some sort of event that is Slayer-based. This is all stuff we’re thinking about and talking about. Slayer lives on, absolutely.”

The whole idea of “what’s next?” has rejuvenated classic rock from top to bottom. As classic rock moves into its next plane of existence, the possibilities are endless. “Everybody needs to think this way,” Resnikoff says. “Every band will approach it in a different way, but every legacy band has an opportunity to think much differently than they ever did and to work with their music and tell their story — movies are one way to tell a story, books, documentaries, and video streaming are other ways — to a much wider audience and in much bigger ways than they ever could. Everybody, in every aspect of this business, has to think differently than they once did.”

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