If your favorite music performer or band is suffering from a Bob Seger earworm this summer, have a little sympathy. Life on the road just got more elongated because the tour schedule got extended. Chances are, that tricked-out touring bus is due for an oil change.
What is causing this sea change in the way that musicians go on the road? It is due entirely to how their business model has changed just in the past few years.
Not that many years ago, performers would be totally focused on snagging a big label deal, many of which were worth millions of dollars. While mega-stars like Drake and Jay-Z have inked over the top deals, major signings have all but evaporated.
And the culprit, of course, is digital streaming. While we once longed to own our own music collections, digital music changed all that. Albums, 8-tracks, cassettes, and CDs all took up space, but were also part of what defined us. In another decade, when you visited someone’s living space, you might have looked at their collection of albums and CDs to get a measure of a person. (“Oh, interesting – you’re into Joni Mitchell.”) Today, it’s all been reduced to Spotify playlists.
Owning music has gone from being a priority in our lives to a bother today. We’ve bought into the notion we simply don’t have to possess the music, as long as it’s readily available in a nearby cloud.
On the podcast episode I talked about last week, “Plain English” with Derek Thompson, guest Ted Gioia talked about while growing up in the 70’s, he and his friends spent a substantial share of their allowances on music – buying albums, mostly. Contrast that to what today’s teens spend on music – at most, $9.95 a month for an all-you-can-eat streaming service. And in many cases, they may be using someone else’s password.
Digital streaming has changed the economic game for fans, but more importantly, the folks who make the music we love to listen to. Whereas physical sales of music filled their caches with cash, that ship has sailed. Few artists can count on sustainable revenue from the sales of artifacts like vinyl records or cassettes, both buoyed by a populace that puts a continually high priority on nostalgia.
They have to tour. And tour with some degree of regularity in order to realize a steady income. Sales of merch and fan club revenue are helpful, but the real money in the 21st century is generated by concert performances (which also sells that merch) and sponsorships.
And after two very difficult years for any artist who relies on touring, 2022 is looking to be a historic period for the revival of live shows here in America, and around the world. I talked about this in a blog post earlier this summer.
So who is “King of the Concerts?” Which bands have taken touring to that next level? And which artists and groups have turned their box office revenues into a sustainable business?
Look no further than Pollstar, the trade the covers live shows and tracks concerts and the live music industry. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, they’ve compiled charts that ranks the best of the best on stage, in both revenue and tickets sold.
Since any artist – specifically AC/DC – will tell you “Money Talks,” I focused on the first of these concert cash countdowns – Box Office Grosses.
Pollstar provides the top 100 bands, but the inset below shows the biggest of the biggest – the top 30 since started tracking this data in 1980.
And check out who’s on top:
The Rolling Stones top all competitors, racking up more than $2.1 billion (with a B) in grosses (with 22 million tickets sold). According to Pollstar, the first Stones concert during this period was two Philly shows in September 1981 at the since-demolished J.F.K. Stadium.
Billed as “The Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band in the World,” this Pollstar data supports the Stones’ claim. As I’ve discussed in the past, the Stones pioneered the concept of tour sponsorships when Jovan underwrote that same 1981 tour.
Not only do the Stones put butts in seats – 22,137,799 of them to be exact – but they also paved the way in what has come to be a key financial component of touring – snagging a big sponsor.
U2 is in a strong second place position, also with more than $2 billion in box office receipts with 26 million tickets sold.
If you’re wondering about the average cost to see both bands, the Stones’ tickets have historically been a tad more expensive than what it costs to see U2: $98 versus $81.
There are some other fascinating highlights, including a shoutout to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, coming in at an impressive #21 with nearly $769 million in box office receipts. Impressively, the “band” was founded in 1996, 14 years after Pollstar started its concert tracking. Paul O’Neill’s troupe didn’t actually start touring in 1999.
Through consistent touring over the holidays and a commitment to consistency and putting on great shows, TSO has proved to be a great family event, more than competitive with “The Nutcracker” and other seasonal attractions.
And then there’s André Rieu (full disclosure: I had to look him up), the amazing Dutch violinist who has sold more than 40 million CDs and DVDs. He is immensely popular in Australia, selling north of $50 million dollars of his music in the land down under.
Billed as the King of Romance, Rieu ranks an amazing #20 on the Pollstar chart.
It turns out he’s 72 years-old and performs classical and waltz music with his Johann Strauss Orchestra, totally anywhere between 80-150 musicians, depending on the venue. Obviously, Rieu knows how to put on a show.
I also took the liberty of placing gold stars next to Classic Rock artists. There are 14 of them, and nine that have broken the billion dollar barrier.
They are four Country performers in this condensed Pollstar top 30: Kenny Chesney, Taylor Swift (I’m being liberal), Tim McGraw, and George Strait. Chesney is the only one to surpass $1 billion in box office receipts.
Interestingly, there’s a marital story here that hopefully doesn’t spur a spat. Beyoncé finishes at #15 with $1.1 billion in concert cash, while Jay-Z is the 24th biggest concert touring act with just north of $700 million in ticket sales. Hopefully, this data doesn’t cause any household disharmony.
Enjoy this year’s concert tours – it promises to be a big year.
And while you’re shelling out hundreds of dollars to see some of the performers on this Pollstar list, put a little cash aside for artists who wouldn’t rank anywhere on these charts.
After 2020-21, and a year when the biggest acts are touring, they need the love – and the money.
The Pollstar 40th anniversary concert rankers are here.
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