As Boomer Musicians Retire From Touring, Concert Industry Faces Uncertain Future
The announcements came fast: In the same week earlier this year, three of the biggest touring acts in the music industry – Elton John, Neil Diamond and Rush – announced farewell tours or retirements. Then Paul Simon said his tour beginning next month would bring his live career to a “natural end” and Ozzy Osbourne cheekily titled his upcoming tour “No More Tours 2.” Their reasons varied – Diamond had just learned he had Parkinson’s Disease, while Joan Baez, also on a farewell tour this year after losing her famed vocal range, told Rolling Stone, “I think it’s time, one way or another.”
The onslaught of announcements seemed to usher in what promoters have been dreading for years: the end of the classic-rock era. “As these boomer rock & roll artists are passing and retiring and disappearing, I don’t see anything that’s going to take their place musically,” says Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates for the Doors, Ramones, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin. And Marsha Vlasic, agent for Neil Young, Iggy Pop and the Strokes, raised a key question about the future of her business: “It’s extremely worrisome. Once these artists really do retire, who will be the replacements?”
The concert industry is healthier than ever, making $5.65 billion in worldwide ticket sales in 2017 compared to less than $5 billion the previous year. But of Pollstar’s 25 highest-grossing tours last year, six were of retirement age – including road warrior Tom Petty, who died last October at 66, as well as Billy Joel, 68, who has mostly given up touring for a lucrative indefinite residency at his hometown Madison Square Garden. Of Pollstar’s Top 100, 23 were 65 or older, from Roger Waters (who made $92 million) to Paul McCartney (who earned $55 million from just 22 shows).
The concert business is jammed with stars of all ages who can fill clubs, theaters and even arenas, but most who charge top prices of hundreds or even thousands of dollars are in their 60s and 70s. In 2016, Bruce Springsteen, now 68, made $288 million on a world tour, while the Stones played just 14 shows and grossed nearly half that. When the Rolling Stones, McCartney, Young, Waters, Bob Dylan and the Who joined forces for the Desert Trip festival in late 2016, promoters sold 150,000 tickets, charged up to $1,600 and reportedly grossed more than $160 million.
Over the next five to 10 years, as the top baby-boomer stars disappear from the road, it’s unclear whether stars like Taylor Swift and the Avett Brothers will make up the revenue. What will the concert business do at that point? “Good question,” says Peter Shapiro, who has booked Dead and Co., Steve Winwood and other retirement-age rockers at his venues, including New York’s Brooklyn Bowl and Capitol Theatre. “I don’t think people have thought it through a lot. You’re about to lose that generation of classic arena bands.”
“I don’t think people have thought it through a lot,” says one industry vet. “You’re about to lose that generation of classic arena bands.”
At least for now, some of the biggest baby-boomer stars who are quitting the road aren’t really quitting. Osbourne, as his tour title suggests, has retired from the road before (as have the Who, going back to 1982, when Pete Townshend was in his late 30s). John’s farewell tour is scheduled for 300 shows over three years and, says veteran New York City promoter John Scher, “I’m sure if the business is there, it’s going to be extended.” The Eagles replaced Frey with his son, Deacon, and country star Vince Gill and have resumed playing stadiums (co-headlining with 71-year-old Jimmy Buffett). “The money coming off Elton John’s farewell world tour is going to be so gigantic. Is that going to leave a hole [in the business] when he’s done with it? I assume yes,” says Andy Cirzan, vice president of concerts for Chicago’s Jam Productions.
The easiest way for promoters to solve their problem of aging megastars is to simply replace them with the next generation — U2 grossed $176 million last year, and right behind them were Guns N’ Roses, Metallica and Garth Brooks, all in their mid-to-late-50s. (Bruno Mars, 32, was the only act in Pollstar’s Top 5 younger than 50, and his ticket prices are comparatively low — he had to play twice as many shows as U2 to gross $112 million.) But even these acts are struggling with age and injuries; Bono, 58, has had health problems and recently described his body as an “inconvenience,” and Metallica’s James Hetfield, 54, canceled a show last year due to throat issues.
Many in the concert business say the bench is deep enough to replace the Johns and McCartneys — this year’s top acts will probably be Swift and Justin Timberlake, with Mars, Adele, Lady Gaga and the Dave Matthews Band unlikely to go anywhere. “There will always be a business like this. We’ll always have superstars,” says longtime promoter Ron Delsener, Live Nation’s New York chairman. “Justin Timberlake and the National, they’re the new guys coming up—they’ll be the new U2 or the new whatever.”
“The sky isn’t falling,” says one promoter. “But it may be a little cloudy for a little bit.”
Tom Windish, an agent who represents younger stars such as Lorde and Alt-J, says his clients are selling more tickets than ever, and it doesn’t matter whether the concert business has McCartneys and Joels to command ticket prices of $400 or more. “If there are less artists playing stadiums who are in their 70s, there are going to be 200 artists who are going to sell 500 tickets [apiece], which are going to be the same amount as that stadium,” he says. “It’s just the audience of people is being distributed in different ways.”
Besides, while Dead and Co. and the Stones have played plenty of stadiums in recent years, the most consistent stadium-fillers have included Beyonce, Swift, Ed Sheeran, Luke Bryan and other acts from their 20s through their 40s. And ticket prices are increasing for some of these acts — a bad sign for fans but a happy one for the future of the concert business. Swift’s 2018 tour includes multiple price levels, some as high as $475. “Once somebody announces their retirement, it’s important,” says Marc Geiger, the William Morris agent who represents Jack White, Neil Diamond, LCD Soundsystem and others. “But people look at the next team.”
“The sky isn’t falling,” adds longtime Atlanta promoter Lucy Lawler-Freas, who booked Prince’s final show and predicts acts like the Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam will “step up” into the McCartney-Stones slots over time. “But it may be a little cloudy for a little bit.”