'Steel Wheels' Spawns New Deals

How much money does the Rolling Stones need?

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards perform on stage during the band's 'Steel Wheels' tour, late 1989. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

On what is far and away the biggest-grossing four-month rock tour in history – expected to rake in an estimated $130 million – the Rolling Stones are making unprecedented moves to increase their take. Among the new twists the Stones are adding to the business of touring are record-high ticket surcharges, an aggressive merchandising program that has tour-related clothing being sold by telephone and through department stores, and a lucrative deal with a company that is reselling tickets for as much as three times their face value.

"Yes, there are some precedents being set," says Don McVie, an owner of Event Transportation Systems (ETS), the Canadian company that is reselling concert tickets for the Stones. As many as 100,000 tickets culled from the fifty proposed dates on the tour are being made available to ETS, which is selling them, along with a bus ticket, for up to $89.95.

Promoter Michael Cohl, who is running the tour, dismisses criticism of the deals. "It's making a mountain out of a molehill," he says. "You figure it out – 3 million people, the average ticket is $28.50. We can all multiply, so we know [the ticket gross is] over $85 million. We also know those 3 million will buy merchandise. Put it in perspective."

Indeed, merchandising sales for the first dates on the Steel Wheels tour have been strong, averaging more than $10 per person, and should easily exceed $30 million by Christmas. In addition to the usual merchandising booths at the stadiums, however, an expanded line of Stones duds – including T-shirts, denim jackets, baseball caps, scarfs, skateboards and a $450 leather motorcycle jacket complete with studded epaulets – is being sold at department stores, including Macy's and J.C. Penney. And would-be concertgoers who telephone Ticketmaster to buy tickets hear a taped message announcing that Stones T-shirts can be ordered, along with tickets, for $21.68 each (the shirts are $25 at the stadiums).

The Stones and BCL, the company handling the tour, are also benefiting from ticket surcharges. (BCL was formed by Cohl, his longtime friend and business associate Bill Ballard, and Labatt's Brewery.) Some of these surcharges – tickets purchased by telephone had a $6.50 per-ticket surcharge in Los Angeles, bringing the cost to $37 – are the highest in the history of the rock-concert business. By contrast, the surcharge in Los Angeles for ordering a Who ticket by telephone was $5.50, bringing the total cost of those tickets to $30.50 each. Although the surcharges for Stones tickets vary from city to city, most, if not all, are higher than usual.

The most intriguing arrangement, however, is the one with ETS. Based in Port Credit, Ontario, ETS operates in small towns and cities where major acts seldom perform. They provide a ticket and round-trip bus transportation to a concert in a major city. Although tickets to the Stones' two Los Angeles shows quickly sold out, ETS was selling tickets to those shows weeks later to people in other towns for $84.95 apiece as part of "coach to concert" packages, which include admission to the show and a ride on a forty-seven-passenger bus to the concert and back. And if you didn't want the bus ride? No problem – you could still have the ticket for $84.95.

According to ETS co-owner Don McVie, he guaranteed the Stones and BCL more than $500,000, and they are receiving more than half of the profits. If ETS sells 100,000 tickets (McVie says 70,000 is more likely), the Stones could earn $1 million, including the guarantee. Cohl contends that making deals with ETS has become a routine part of the modern concert business and that artists such as U2, Bon Jovi and Rod Stewart have provided tickets to ETS in recent years. But some groups – for instance, U2 – provide the tickets to ETS at face value and do not share in the profits.

McVie says he is performing a valuable service to fans who live in out-of-the-way places where major rock groups don't perform. Several managers familiar with McVie's company had only complimentary things to say about it. "We do a service for our money," says McVie.

Rolling Stones business manager Joe Rascoff would not speak to Rolling Stone for this story, but he issued a statement that said, "All methods of ticket distribution through BCL have been approved by the Rolling Stones."

"Every time I see a Brink's truck," says McVie, "I think of the Rolling Stones."

This story is from the October 19th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.