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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Rock's Patriarchs Hit the Road - Turning rebellion into money -

Rock reunions

Turning rebellion into money
Sep 15th 2007

Why old rockers are back on stage

DINOSAURS might be revived in one of two ways. Fiction suggests applying the techniques of genetic engineering to DNA extracted from bloodsucking prehistoric insects trapped in amber. To resurrect the dinosaurs of rock, however, all you need is a fat cheque and a block booking at a vast stadium. The biggest bands in the history of rock‘n’roll now reform with the metronomic dependability of their own rhythm sections. The latest rock legend (and one of the greatest) to announce a return to the stage is Led Zeppelin. The band said this week it would stage a one-off gig later this year, nearly three decades after its last one.

Ageing rockers are almost indecently keen to shout to the world through towering speakers that they have still “got it”. Many claim that the mid-sixties to around 1980 were unsurpassed golden years in the history of rock music. And so audiences are given opportunities to judge for themselves—again and again. The 55-year-old Sting has laid down his lute to reform The Police, currently on a worldwide tour. Genesis, never scared to over-extend a tune, recently got back together for a belated encore. In recent years, and despite the inevitable losses to the rock‘n’roll lifestyle, the Eagles, Queen, Pink Floyd, Cream and a host of other music-makers have hit the road again.

Despite the riches accumulated by these titans of rock in their heydays most commentators suggest that cash is the motivating force. “Musical differences” generally precipitated the acrimonious splits that took the bands off the road in the first place. But time and money—and there is plenty of profit to be made—are great healers.

Some 1.5m tickets have been sold for The Police’s tour, and revenues should hit $168m. In general, concert-ticket revenue is becoming more important, as sales of music wane because of internet piracy. Concert revenue from tours in North America alone reached $3.6 billion in 2006, 16% more than the year before, according to figures from Pollstar, a trade publication. The Rolling Stones, a band which has not had a hit in years, will still earn perhaps $500m from its current “Bigger Bang” tour (which began back in 2005).

Topping up the pension pot is one factor explaining the return to the stage of rock’s leviathans. But many revivalists are in no need of cash if they fancy a new castle or a young wife. If money were the only motivation surely ABBA would have agreed to reform, at least if offers that are said to have topped an astonishing $1 billion are to believed. Instead, perhaps the rebels of yesteryear see reforming for a high-grossing stadium tour as merely the latest phase in their careers.

Like the greying bankers and tycoons who now make up a significant proportion of their audience, the pursuit of money for its own sake may long have ceased to excite. Perhaps the measure of success in the rock pantheon includes not only penning some memorable tunes three decades ago but playing them to huge new audiences.

A new careerist approach to the rock business may well have opened the door for the older generation. Record sales are in decline not only because of piracy. Some would argue that there is a dearth of quality among music-makers today. Schools and colleges have sprung up to teach the art of the rock musician, TV programmes exist to create bands. Rock musicianship has become a legitimate trade that parents might endorse. Previously it was (like journalism) what a gifted amateur might choose to do for want of anything better. Success was generally an unexpected bonus.

But the corporate attitude that now sustains the biggest bands acts as a deadening influence on newcomers. The young rock musician, mindful of his future prospects, must study and sweat like his contemporaries heading for jobs in finance or the law. Talented and creative eccentrics have given way to jobbing professionals, arguably to the industry’s detriment. And for an increasingly affluent audience the guarantee of a proper show, a stream of well-known hits and a whiff of nostalgia in a comfortable modern stadium is less of a risk than standing through ill thought-out filler tracks from that difficult second album in an unpleasantly sweaty club.

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