Inside Classic Rock's Sudden, Lucrative Gold Rush - Rolling Stone
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The Sudden, Lucrative Gold Rush for Old Music

As the giants of classic rock contemplate retirement, music execs are dreaming up increasingly bold new ways to eke value out of their brands, images, and back catalogs

bob dylan classic rock gold rush collage

Catalog sales, biopics, holograms, and other media are extending the lifespan — and sometimes enormously expanding the value — of rock's classic brands.

Photo illustration by Rolling Stone. Photographs in illustration by Jan Persson/Redferns/Getty Images; Kirk West/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Jeff Jampol has managed the estates of the Doors, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, and Tupac Shakur. “None of my clients tour,” he says. “They’re all dead.”

That hasn’t stopped him from generating big money on their behalf, whether it’s organizing a touring exhibition of Cobain’s artwork, setting up Oliver Stone’s 1991 Doors biopic (which tripled the band’s catalog sales), or producing the 2015 Joplin documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue. Jampol compares an artist’s legacy to a dark, cold fireplace with five or six matches on the mantelpiece: Each represents a tool that can spark new interest in the brand — from a book to a docuseries, Broadway musical, or biopic. “If you light the fire incorrectly with one of those matches, it glows for 15 seconds,” he says, “and then you’re left again with a cold, empty, dark fireplace and one burnt match.”

Up till now, living, breathing classic-rock icons like the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and Bob Dylan haven’t had to worry much about tending to their respective flames. Touring, merch, and clever marketing of their catalogs have sustained them for well over six decades. But the pandemic has kept them off the road for more than a year, and several of them are reaching an age where road work won’t be possible much longer. “Mick Jagger is 77,” Jampol says. “At some point you’ve got to go, ‘I’m going to enjoy my grandkids.’”

It’s at that point when a band or artist, and the team around them, faces a crucial question: How can the afterlife of a career in rock maintain, or even surpass, what that act achieved in their prime?

Among artists and investors, an aging group of classic-rock superstars and the inevitable wave of retirements on the not-too-distant horizon has set off something of a gold rush. Entrepreneurs have begun entering Jampol’s line of work and trying to concoct new ways to profit from the legacy of rock stars from days past. Some well-heeled investors are shelling out hundreds of millions of dollars for lucrative publishing catalogs; others are making use of TikTok and developing technologies like holograms; others envision deepfake software that could create “new” songs by departed artists. Industry experts say that’s just the beginning.

While today’s media are new and the dollar figures larger than ever, rock has been trying to broaden its audience and keep older artists in the public consciousness since the very beginning. Documentaries about the Monterey Pop festival and Woodstock canonized those events for posterity. Starting in the mid-Seventies, Hollywood realized the potential for rock biopics and produced films about Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Subsequent decades introduced tell-all memoirs, docuseries, jukebox musicals, Vegas residencies, full-album playthroughs at concerts, traveling museums, and other endeavors to hold on to consumers’ interests.

Through it all, artists did everything they could to retain their lucrative publishing rights, even if that meant messy, costly battles with their labels and former business associates. But in the past few months alone, not coincidentally at a time when touring hasn’t been possible, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Paul Simon, and David Crosby, as well as Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood, have all sold their songs to outside investors. The Beach Boys and Linda Ronstadt went a step further by each parting with the rights to their name, image, and likeness, meaning the bulk of the money generated by T-shirts, tote bags, potential biopics, and Broadway musicals will no longer go to them.

There are precedents for these sort of rock mega-deals. David Bowie sold his future royalty rights to fans as Bowie Bonds in 1997, making $55 million in the process, and the Elvis Presley estate bid adieu to the singer’s name, image, and likeness for $114 million in 2005. But the sheer number of deals that have taken place in recent months is unlike anything the industry has ever seen. 

“Once a song becomes part of the fabric of our society, it almost always stays part of the fabric of our society.”

Some experts cite historically low interest rates as the reason for the recent surge in sales, while others point to fears that the Democratic majority in Congress will raise capital gains and estate taxes. There’s also the simple fact that artists want to put their estates on proper footing while still able to call the shots. “Time is passing,” Young explained to fans on his website. “I want to cover my family and my art.… A good father plans on how to take care of his children.”

And even though Young is no longer on speaking terms with his former CSNY bandmate David Crosby, they agree that selling their publishing at this point in their careers is a wise move. “Given our current inability to work live,” Crosby said, “this deal is a blessing for me and my family.”

One of the biggest players in this field is Merck Mercuriadis, whose company Hipgnosis recently bought the catalogs of Young, Buckingham, Shakira, Jimmy Iovine, and many others. Details of the sales haven’t been disclosed, but the Young catalog alone cost him an estimated $150 million. “Once a song becomes part of the fabric of our society, it almost always stays part of the fabric of our society,” Mercuriadis said earlier this year. “If you were listening to a Nirvana record 25 years ago, chances are you’re still listening to that record when you’re 42 or 60, [and] when you look at those traits of predictability and reliability, those are the same reasons we invest in things like gold and oil.”

Richard Foos, the co-founder of Rhino and Shout Factory, says the show-business aspect of publishing is attracting a new breed of investor. “If you can be certain that a Van Morrison song is going to generate a million dollars a year, you feel really good about paying 20 times that to own it,” he says. “And it’s a lot more fun to own ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ than just getting interest from a bank.”

And there’s certainly no guarantee that Van Morrison will be singing “Brown Eyed Girl” at concerts in 10 years, when he’ll be 85. He hasn’t announced any sort of farewell tour, but many of his peers — including Elton John, Kiss, and Bob Seger — have told fans that their days on the road are indeed ending. “I’ve come to the conclusion that we can’t continue [as a touring band],” says Kiss’ Paul Stanley, 69, who hopes to resume the group’s farewell tour in 2022. “It’s not feasible. … There’s an age factor, which makes it more real for people who may have doubted the idea of the ‘end of the road.'”

“Eventually age does become a factor,” says Jeff Pezzuti, CEO and founder of Eyellusion, a company that stages classic-rock hologram tours. “How do you extend that? Does it just end? Do they just break up and they call it a day? Do they just release DVDs of the old shows? Or is there a way to actually continue that and make something cool and exciting that would cause buzz?”

As Jampol sees it, artists have all sorts of new opportunities once they stop touring. “That’s because no matter what people say, the overwhelming amount of tickets sold to these shows are to older people,” he says. “It’s their existing fans and they’ve already been to the concert and gotten the T-shirt. They are saturated. And counterintuitively, they’re outside the main buying demographic since they’re older.”

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2019 file photo, Adam Lambert, left, and Brian May, of Queen, perform at the Global Citizen Festival in New York. Lambert and May, along with bandmate Roger Taylor, recently gathered virtually to record a new version of the Queen classic, “We Are the Champions.” “You Are the Champions” was released early Friday on all streaming and download services, with proceeds going to the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ grossed nearly a billion dollars and generated a huge wave of new interest in the band.

Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Once the touring stops, the focus shifts to cultivating new fans. “For them, the magic of this music will be 100 percent relevant and resonant,” he says.

Queen are a rare example of a band that’s managed to find a new audience on the road decades after the death of their frontman. They’ve been gigging with Adam Lambert for nearly 10 years, but it was in 2019, after the release of the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, that keyboardist Spike Edney started to notice something incredible. “People were lustily singing along to every song that was in the movie,” he told Rolling Stone in 2019, “and looking blankly during every song that wasn’t.”

The movie grossed nearly a billion dollars worldwide and earned Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury. It allowed Queen and Adam Lambert to launch their biggest tour since the Eighties, but the windfall it generated went far beyond ticket sales.

“The film was a wrecking ball that knocked walls down,” says Greg Linn, senior VP of marketing and reporting for Sony Legacy. “And then you’re hearing their music in all these other places because there’s a big uptick in licensing and sync requests. With Queen, you’ve got songs that are instantly recognizable. You have a compelling story. And credit where credit is due, they just nailed it.”

Elton John’s Rocketman wasn’t quite as big as Bohemian Rhapsody, but it still  grossed nearly $200 million and helped goose ticket sales for the singer’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. Now, biopics are in the works for Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Madonna, and Bob Dylan, who will be played by Timothée Chalamet. “That could bring lots of young fans,” Jampol says. “What 14-year-old is going to resonate with Bob Dylan now? A movie might change that.”

There’s even talk of a new Doors movie. “The Oliver Stone one was 31 years ago,” Jampol says. “That means that everybody on planet Earth who’s 31 and under was not alive when that movie came out. That’s why we’re looking at making a new one.”

While big screens matter, so do smaller ones. During the lockdown in particular, artists and their reps have been learning how to extend their brands using technology. When TikTok breathed new life into Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” last year — thanks to a clip of a skateboarder serenely sipping cran-raspberry juice to a Mac soundtrack — drummer Mick Fleetwood deftly re-created the clip (in the rain, no less). In the weeks that followed, the song climbed to Number Two on the Rolling Stone Top 100 Songs chart.

“I think with TikTok and to see the way kids are, [classic] songs are valuable because they’re in movies and commercials and they make you feel good,” says David Fishof, founder of Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp and veteran concert promoter.

He also believes streaming and interactive online events, which started as a lockdown novelty in the early months of the pandemic, will have enduring value even after life returns to normal. “I just did a master class with [Doors guitarist] Robby Krieger,” Fishof says. “Seventy people paid $100 to come on a Zoom and talk about the Doors.”

“We went to school for sure,” Chamie McCurry, Danny Wimmer Presents’ CMO, says of the company’s digital awakening over the last year. “I joke and say I feel like I get my master’s and doctorate every summer. So we spent a lot of time researching and just making sure we were approaching it with not only the short term, but also the long-term plan of how this is going to evolve.”

That idea of going back to school has caught on across the industry. Thomas Scherer, president of repertoire and marketing at BMG, says the label has been tracking technological developments as they emerge. “We are exploring NFTs,” he says. “I mean, when was it, two weeks ago when it comes to NFTs? I was like, ‘Oh, that’s quite interesting.’ So then immediately we started really to put a work group together [on it].” 

The extension of a band’s or artist’s lifespan doesn’t always have to play out online. Before the pandemic, artists, living and dead, engaged fans through traveling museums and immersive events. During the past decade, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, and the Velvet Underground, among others, have taken cues from the Hard Rock Cafe and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, displaying their guitars, costumes, handwritten lyrics, and even Syd Barrett’s bike for fans to see up close. Floyd heads got to stand right up against the Wall.

These types of engagements are an especially good fit for bands like Pink Floyd, who made psychedelic visuals one of their calling cards. And after decades of touring Dark Side of the Moon laser shows, it’s only fitting they’d want to make an immersive event of their own. But there still are other avenues to pursue.

Before the pandemic, Maureen Valker-Barlow — the L.A.-based president of DWP’s BrandMark Agency — noticed the success of Wisdome LA, an “immersive art and music dome park” in the city. Events there feature live bands playing music with kaleidoscopic visuals projected onto a planetarium-like geodesic dome above audiences’ heads. Two that were especially successful for the company were “Beyond the Wall,” which featured Pink Floyd’s music, and “Dead in the Dome,” set to songs by Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead.

“If you look at Billie Eilish, when she first launched her album, her label did an immersive album journey in Downtown L.A., and it sold out right away,” Valker-Barlow says. “Then the Wisdome and other things popped up. So I think there will be a lot more [experiences like that], as we look to the Sneakertopias, the Ice Cream Museums of the world, as we try to tap into that hyper-fan who is so passionate. … It’s about the music, but it’s also about the lifestyle, and it’s about going to a place where you can celebrate all of that with people who have the same appreciation for that very specific art.”

“I think that as the new blood starts to come into the industry, they start to realize, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we can’t do it the old way anymore,'” Pezzuti says. “Or it’s not going to be as financially successful as it has been in the past. How do we reset the bar and at the same time, continue to generate revenue?”

“We know, personally, that every hotel in the game is going to be looking for the hook. Well, our shows are those hooks. ‘Come here and see this.'”

As technology improves, the ways some artists hope to reach fans are beginning to look more and more like sci-fi. Touring holograms of Buddy Holly, Frank Zappa, and Ronnie James Dio made respectable money before the pandemic. Scherer says the Buddy Holly touring hologram that BMG backed worked so well, “we have two more hologram tours in the making.” Olivier Chastan, CEO of Iconic Artists Group — which now owns most of the Beach Boys’ intellectual property — hopes to bring the group’s California girls to the final frontier. “In five years, I could send you a text and say, ‘At 2 p.m., let’s put our Oculus Rift glasses on, and let’s go see the Beach Boys record ‘Good Vibrations’ at Western Recorders,’” he said after the acquisition. And a lawsuit Chris Cornell’s widow has filed against the late grunge superstar’s bandmates cites her interest in tours with a replacement singer, hologram concerts, and “deep-fake renditions of Chris’ vocals drawn from extant recordings by artificial intelligence that could mint brand new Soundgarden hits.”

Jeff Pezzuti, whose Eyellusion launched both the Zappa and Dio holograms, decided to leave the world of finance and help put the specters of some of his favorite artists back on the road. His tours use uncirculated live recordings of the singers, unique visuals, and performances by live musicians on each date. Like Jampol, he recognized a market among classic-rockers who could no longer tour, either due to old age or death, and decided to serve it.

“Many acts always had relied on the road always being there,” Pezzuti says. “Every summer, the bands are going to go out, do their shows, and it’d be a normal thing. And then all of a sudden [the pandemic] happens. And you know what people realized? That most of those people didn’t have a plan. There was no backup. It just stopped. So we used this time period to actually develop those plans for the future, to say, ‘Hey, these are things we could do for these acts that would be exciting and actually allow these brands and these legacies to continue.’ We realized that, especially now, if you look at the top touring acts in the world and most of them are either over the age of 65, you have somebody in the band with a preexisting health condition, you name it, they check all those boxes, so they’re going to need something.”

Nowadays, he’s especially eager to work with living artists on creating holograms they could use now and after death. “With living artists we would actually set up a stage of some kind, and we would actually record one show with the intention of creating holographic performances,” he says. “So basically you’d be creating a show where the artist looks like they’re there. Obviously, they’ll sound like they’re there because there will be live sound. But basically it could be in five or 10 or 15 places at once. So the idea is, the older acts could actually be out there in front of people generating revenue and quote-unquote ‘touring.'” He even has an idea to take it a step further. “A lot of times you can’t have two A-level artists, unless you’re charging $200, $300 a ticket. But in this scenario, you could charge like a $50 ticket and still make the financials work. You could have some triple bills that could never, ever [otherwise] assemble.”

MADRID, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 12: A hologram of American singer Buddy Holly performing is projected on stage at Teatro La Estación on February 12, 2021 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Aldara Zarraoa/Redferns)

The Buddy Holly touring hologram. “We have two more hologram tours in the making,” says BMG’s Thomas Scherer.

Aldara Zarraoa/Redferns/Getty Images

He even has an idea for the Beach Boys, if Iconic wanted to partner with him. “If you can modernize some of the sounds and at the same time create cool content and graphics around it, and make it really immersive, it actually could translate, right?” he says. “That’s a really fun experience to see the Beach Boys that way versus the seven or eight guys or whatever they bring onstage, just standing there playing; there’s nothing going on up there.”

His goal after pandemic lockdowns end is to stage more events around the country that feature both living and deceased artists. “We’d like to create opportunities not just at traditional venues but in residency scenarios,” he says. “I think if you create permanent installation residencies, and you put A-level acts — I’m talking about living artists now — and they don’t have to travel, but you put [hologram performances] in resorts, casinos, cruise ships, you could have those people generating revenue, keeping their brand out there and providing excitement for people who are traveling.

“We know, personally, that every hotel in the game is going to be looking for the hook,” he continues. “‘How are we going to get people to come here, especially now?’ Well, our shows are those hooks. ‘Come here and see this.'”

But despite Pezzuti’s passion, it’s still an uphill battle to convince artists that hologram tours are viable. “We were offered an AC/DC hologram of Bon Scott,” says CAA agent Christopher Dalston, referring to the band’s singer who died in 1980 (he didn’t say which hologram company approached him). “We asked ourselves, ‘Do we want to represent something with Bon Scott?’ And it just wasn’t right for us at that point. It’s a very personal thing to the groups. … You have to be careful what you do there. AC/DC is still a very current band with Brian Johnson singing.”

Some people in the industry feel the success of holograms comes down to the cost of admission. “Would I pay $200 to see a Jimi Hendrix hologram? No,” Michael Dorf, who owns City Winery, says. “Fifteen dollars for Hendrix with real energy behind it, though, I think I’d pay that.”

Others, like Jampol, are skeptical. His major gripe with the technology is that many hologram companies use a 19th-century magician’s illusion called Pepper’s ghost, a projection on a translucent screen, for their so-called holograms. “You can’t walk around it,” Jampol says.

“I looked into virtual opportunities,” Fishof says of his Rock and Roll Fantasy Camps. “How cool would it be if you could go to virtual Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp where you pick your band? Then I said to myself, ‘Anyone who can do this virtual stuff has to be really young to want to do it.’ The core audience of 50- to 60-year-olds is smart and won’t do that. It has to touch us.”

But as Fishof says, that doesn’t apply to fans of what will be the next wave of classic rock — Gen-Xers who grew up with technology and will be more interested in embracing it. “There’s a lot of new AR and VR experiences,” says Valker-Barlow. “There’s this ‘volumetric video experience’ now where we can record Travis Barker in a studio. If we did a livestream with him, you could pick him out of the livestream and have [it look like he were] playing on your living-room table.” 

“That’s the exciting stuff in the future that’s going to be here hot and fast,” she continues. “I think the Google glasses and all of that, that’s where we’re headed. So we’re going to have to adapt to do those things. We’re certainly going to look for ways to embrace them and wrap our arms around them and bring them to life at our shows.”

“There’s always money out there,” Pezzuti says. “And when people see this industry kind of come to a complete halt, they always want to say, ‘OK, how do we get this industry reignited?’ And they reach out, and I say, ‘Oh, well, what are you guys doing to circumvent this? Well, here’s the solutions we have in play.’”

This feature appears in Rolling Stone‘s 2021 Future of Music issue, a special project delving deep into the new era of the multibillion-dollar global hitmaking business. Read more of the stories in the print issue, which is on newsstands now, or online next week on June 15th.

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