They began steamrolling their way through arenas four decades ago, creating the live business as it is known today. And they've never stopped.
More than a dozen of the most in-demand headlining tours this summer testify to a refusal to burn out or fade away, including The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss/Def Leppard, Journey/Steve Miller Band, Billy Joel, Tom Petty, Elton John, The Eagles, Aerosmith, Motley Crue/Alice Cooper, Cher and Prince.
For nearly 25 years, acts that first broke in the 1970s or early '80s have dominated the Billboard Boxscore year-end charts. The list of the 25 highest-grossing touring artists from 1990 through 2014 (see next page) includes just three acts that released their first albums in the '90s - Dave Matthews Band and Toby Keith (both of whom released debut albums in 1993), and Kenny Chesney (who debuted in 1994). Only one act that broke through in this century makes the list: Coldplay (which released its first album in 2000). Among the top 10 earners since 1990, the average age of vocalists - upon whom touring takes the hardest toll - is 56-and-a-half, and not one is younger than 46.
Biology alone dictates that at some point these touring stalwarts will relinquish their stranglehold, and the question of which acts will replace them has been posed for some 20 years. The industry, though, doesn't seem too worried about the changing of the guard.
That's because live business is developing artists capable of maintaining long-term box-office clout. A decade of headlining success is a telling barometer, and 2013's top 25 tours included Pink, Beyoncé, Chesney, Jay Z/Justin Timberlake and Maroon 5. All have been in the game more than 10 years but not more than 20.
Perhaps most important is the wealth of new blood rising up to arena level, artists that entered the headlining ranks relatively recently and are now making big noise on the road. Seven acts were in that category among the top 25 in 2013, more than double that of the previous year: Rihanna, Taylor Swift, One Direction, Justin Bieber, Jason Aldean, Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars. This year, Miley Cyrus and Luke Bryan seem poised to enter that group.
With those younger artists come younger fans, the key to the live business sustaining its current boom in coming years. "The younger generation is loving going to concerts," says Rob Light, managing partner at Creative Artists Agency. "To play pop sociologist for a second, when you think of all of these kids when they are 10 to 15 going to see everyone from Miley to One Direction to Justin Bieber to Taylor Swift - what a positive experience they had. These were great shows. And those kids are now concertgoers. They had fun. So we've created a great generation of kids that like to see music in a live setting."
Meanwhile, the old guys aren't ready to pass the baton just yet. The road offers lucrative income when other revenue streams dry up, and the sweat equity they earned through relentless touring when they were young hitmakers continues to pay dividends at the box office, as original fans (many now blessed with sizable discretionary income) return again and again and new generations turn out to hear classic songs.
When 2014 closes, veterans will again dominate the numbers, and that's unlikely to change in the near future. If the Stones are any indication, U2 - preparing its next world tour in 2015 - has some 20 years of future viability.
"Mick Jagger is always going to be the role model," Jon Bon Jovi, 52, told Billboard in a recent interview. Bon Jovi is more than 30 years into his touring career and had 2013's highest-grossing tour. "Until [Jagger] hangs up the retirement number, I don't know where the end zone is," he says. "I just keep running the ball until Jagger says, 'Here's the goal line.' "
Many believe the current Stones tour will be their last, although the band has never stated such. But given that 15 of the top 25 touring acts since 1990 feature artists who are now over 60, a similar tracking of the top touring acts 20 years on will doubtless look vastly different.
Still, what these touring pioneers have accomplished decades past their youth is nothing short of remarkable. The Stones alone have grossed more than $1.5 billion on the road since 1990, a period that began some 25 years after they first hit the airwaves. Bruce Springsteen and his bandmates have churned almost $1.2 billion since 1990; U2, Madonna and Bon Jovi all topped the $1 billion mark in box office for the period; Elton John and Billy Joel have as well, both combined individually and as a dual bill. Most importantly, these acts and their contemporaries have built an enduring touring industry, and they have shown the artists that have come behind them and the audiences that follow them the power of live music.