Some oldies are more golden than others

Great concerts and hard work help keep the music and profits healthy for rock geezers like the Stones and Elton John.

February 28, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Imagine, for a moment, that you're a fully vested member of a classic English rock act. Yours was one of the biggest bands of the '60s, and continued to have hits through the '70s and '80s. Your last album was not a hit, but your back catalog continues to sell, and the band remains one of the best-known names in rock.

Now here's the question: You've got a big American tour coming up, and there's a Lamborghini you have your eye on. Do you spring for the sports car now, knowing you'll make millions on the road? Or would it be safer to wait and see how well your band does at the box office?

It all depends on which British band you belong to. If it's the Rolling Stones, then by all means buy the car (unless you're Mick Jagger, and need to save up for the divorce). If, on the other hand, you're a member of the Who, you may want to wait before trading your current car in.

When it comes to the concert business, some oldies are definitely more golden than others.

Acts like Rod Stewart (who performs at the Baltimore Arena Tuesday) and the Rolling Stones (who play Washington's MCI Arena March 7-8) have no trouble filling seats, despite declining album sales. According to the concert industry trade journal Pollstar, Stewart did $21.6 million on the concert circuit last year -- $300,000 more than the much younger and hipper Pearl Jam.

Even so, Stewart lagged behind others of his generation. Former Led Zeppelin leaders Jimmy Page and Robert Plant sold $24.9 million worth of tickets; the Rolling Stones did $31.8 million in business; and Eric Clapton's tour brought in $33.6 million. But no one did better at the box office than Elton John, whose $46.2 million gross put him well ahead of more contemporary acts like the Dave Matthews Band ($40.1 million), Celine Dion ($38.1 million) and Garth Brooks ($37.2 million).

What makes the older rockers' performance particularly impressive is that, apart from Clapton, none of them had hit records last year -- whereas Matthews, Dion and Brooks each released multiplatinum albums. What's going on?

One theory, says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni, involves the baby boomers. Boomers, he says, "grew up on rock and roll. And as we got older -- speaking as one of them -- we tended to keep our same musical heroes." By this logic, even if acts like Stewart and the Stones don't have hits, there are still fans eager to see them.

Even so, this principle only applies to bands whose success stretches across several decades. "Any group that has lasted long enough really benefits down the line," says Mark Rowland, a former executive editor at Musician magazine who is now working as a producer for the VH1 series "Behind the Music."

Rowland says that the importance of long-term success was driven home for him when he began work on a "Behind the Music" episode about Eric Burdon, the former lead singer with the British Invasion band the Animals. "People over a certain age, when I tell them I'm working on a show about Eric Burdon, say, 'Oh, wow, that'll be great,' " he says. "But people under a certain age kind of look at me quizzically, and ask, 'Who?'

"It's pretty startling if you're old enough to recall that when the Animals first came to this country, with the Beatles and the Stones, they were pretty much considered an equal part of that triumvirate," he says, adding that the band sold well throughout the '60s.

"But then, from the '70s on, there were no more Animals," says Rowland. And as the band and its members faded from view, its importance diminished, while steadily working contemporaries like the Stones continued to be seen as stars.

Still, fame is only part of the equation. It also helps if you have a reputation for consistently delivering a great stage show.

Bongiovanni cites the Stones as an example. "They still can produce live," he says. If anything, the band seems to be getting better with age. Reviews of the Bridges to Babylon tour in '97 were even more glowing than those for the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.

"It's not just a band going through the motions, playing the hits and collecting a paycheck," says Bongiovanni. And that convinces an audience that it's getting value for its money -- even at $300 a seat.

Likewise, the planned summer tour by Bruce Springsteen and the E St. Band will likely do blockbuster business regardless of whether the tour is accompanied by a new album. As Bongiovanni puts it, "If Bruce has ever done a bad show, I haven't heard about it."

By contrast, the Who's Quadrophenia tour last year was a disappointment at the box office because it seemed a disappointment to the fans, offering little of the lean, angry spirit that made the band an arena rock staple in the '70s and early '80s. "It just wasn't what their core fans remembered from them," says Bongiovanni. "The shows weren't bad, but they just weren't the same."

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