How Multimillion-Dollar Paychecks and Fan Nostalgia Lured Guns N' Roses and LCD Soundsystem to Reunite for Coachella
On Easter Sunday, James Murphy, the 46-year-old frontman of LCD Soundsystem, stepped onstage for the first time in five years. The occasion was the live resurrection of Murphy's dance-punk band at New York's Webster Hall, the first of two hometown warm-up shows before headlining Coachella's two weekends in April. "It has been a hot minute," said Murphy, before a maze of keyboards and colleagues. "We're still not used to it."
LCD Soundsystem is one of two substantial reunions topping Coachella's 2016 lineup. The other is Guns N' Roses, a second coming of the hard-rock behemoth's essential trinity -- singer Axl Rose, guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan -- a reconciliation 20 years in the making that not even the band's 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction managed to prompt.
The two are very different entities. Guns N' Roses was one of the biggest rock bands of all time, selling out stadiums, arenas and coliseums all over the globe. LCD Soundsystem was a critically lavished electro-rock outfit that sold out ballrooms, theaters and large clubs in North America. GNR has sold 44.5 million albums in the United States, according to the RIAA, while LCD Soundsystem has sold 588,000 albums, according to Nielsen Music. GNR imploded in a long-brewing storm of violence, addiction, litigation and acrimony. LCD Soundsystem disbanded because, well -- that's still unclear.
LCD Soundsystem's end came abruptly in February 2011, with the sudden announcement of a farewell concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. "Our last show ever," the band's site declared. "If it's a funeral, let's have the best funeral ever!!!" The reasons behind the split were never exactly explained. ("There's a lot of things I want to do," Murphy said on The Colbert Report in 2011, adding, "I like making coffee.") But the arena sendoff was framed in monumental terms, preceded with four lead-up club shows, revisited in a theatrically released concert film (2012's Shut Up and Play the Hits) and repackaged as a five-LP live release. The sold-out concert alone grossed $567,354, according to Billboard Boxscore, and pulled in an attendance of 13,781. (Ticket prices on StubHub topped out at $1,500 a seat.)
Now, half a decade later, LCD Soundsystem is back, with a forthcoming album -- and in a far bigger way. In 2010, Murphy's band was a mid-tier act at Bonnaroo, billed after Tenacious D and Weezer; one agent estimates that back then LCD Soundsystem was paid "$100,000, tops." Now, it's headlining Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and the highest-grossing festival in the world, Coachella -- for a fee that tops $1 million per show. Retiring a band early, it seems, can be a power move.
There was little skepticism at Webster Hall, where ticket sales were awarded by lottery and Spike Jonze turned up. "If they just came back for a reunion tour, that would be a little bit cheesier," says Michael Meyerson, a 2015 University of Michigan graduate who discovered LCD Soundsystem in 2011. "This is a more real reunion: There's new music coming."
"It's within a band's rights to hang it up for a while and come back when they want," says Coachella booker-founder Paul Tollett, whose faith in LCD Soundsystem as a major touring act helps make it one. Since the Indio, Calif., festival's earliest days, he has positioned it as an ideal platform to premiere a reunion -- and no other talent buyer has been better at getting groups back together. Acts that have previously reunited at Coachella include Jane's Addiction (2001), The Stooges (2003), The Pixies (2004), Nine Inch Nails (2005), Bauhaus (2005), Daft Punk (2006), Rage Against the Machine (2007), The Jesus and Mary Chain (2007), My Bloody Valentine (2009), Pulp (2012) and Outkast (2013).
Reunions are one of popular music's essential narratives. Only six years after their formal breakup, The Beatles were offered sums up to $230 million to reunite for a one-off concert in 1976 -- in 2016 money, that's nearly $1 billion -- amounts so outrageous that Lorne Michaels lampooned the gestures, offering $3,000 for John, Paul, George and Ringo to show up on Saturday Night Live that same year. The Blues Brothers were built around the conceit. In 2004, VH1 framed the reality series Bands Reunited around the prospect of convincing mid-level acts to reform. (A Flock of Seagulls did, Squeeze did not.)
And for all their promises of closure, nostalgia trips and mended fences, reunions are, more than anything, lucrative. The biggest Boxscore of 2015 was The Grateful Dead's 50th-anniversary Fare Thee Well concerts, five dates that grossed more than $52 million. The Police regrouped in 2007, 25 years after the trio's demise, and brought in $362 million and 3.3 million fans to 144 shows, not including a Bonnaroo gig. "The demand to see them one more time was huge," says Arthur Fogel, chairman of Live Nation's Global Touring division, who produced The Police's reunion tour. After 14 years apart, The Eagles embarked on a post-reunion global touring career that generated an estimated $1 billion in box office from 10 million tickets sold.
"I get offers every day," says longtime R.E.M. agent Buck Williams. "But I've got no one to offer them to."
But not every act has that ready-made fan base: Reunions can be a risky niche in an inherently risky business. Riot Fest founder Michael Petrysyhn was willing to take that leap to secure The Replacements' first shows in 22 years. "We could've lost [money] and it wouldn't have mattered," he says. "To be a small part of The Replacements' history is something I'll take to my grave."
"If, miraculously, Pink Floyd decided to go out under the name of 'Pink Floyd,' or Led Zeppelin under 'Led Zeppelin,' it becomes a no-brainer," says Fogel. "Below that, it becomes more of a challenge to figure out what it's really worth. Do people really care, and to what degree?"
As North American festivals have exploded -- Nielsen Music reports that 32 million people attend at least one music festival annually in America -- so have their budgets. For niche bands, a major-festival invitation can help offset that risk.
That's the case with Lush, an alt-rock British band bookending a five-date North American tour, its first in 20 years, with two Coachella appearances. "If we hadn't had Coachella we probably wouldn't be coming to America, because it wouldn't have been financially viable," says singer-guitarist-songwriter Miki Berenyi, 49. Formed in 1988, the London foursome was a formative act in the shoegaze scene, though its records never went higher than No. 189 on the Billboard 200. But curiously, Lush's popularity seems bigger now than when it quit. "It's surprisingly strong," says Windish Agency president Tom Windish, who typically books dozens of acts at Coachella and says he has been discussing Lush with Tollett for years.
That's also what happened with The Pixies, an alt-rock foursome whose first run ended after four albums and seven years. Among the annals of messy divorces, theirs was particularly cold: In 1993, frontman Black Francis broke up the band in a fax. "When we broke up, that was it," says drummer David Lovering, who abandoned music to become a professional magician. "I resigned myself to the fact that we would never reunite."
But then much more popular acts like Radiohead, Weezer and Nirvana frequently cited the college-radio staple as an influence. So when The Pixies re-emerged at Coachella in 2004, they had reached a whole different level of awareness. "The entire audience knew every word to every song," recalls Lovering. "That was new to me. It was, 'Are you kidding? This is crazy.' "
The Pixies remained together for longer than they were initially a band. Then bassist Kim Deal quit in 2013.
"It's like a marriage gone bad," says one executive with experience in reunions. "You can reunite, but the problems usually return."
That's a large part of the appeal of reunions: They're unlikely to happen again. The specter of implosion looms large over Guns N' Roses — though the reunited trio did pull it off on April 1 at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, where they performed together for the first time since 1993 — and there's substantial money at stake. Rose, who owns the GNR brand, has been touring semiregularly with different musicians under the GNR name since 2001, a booking priced to promoters at between $350,000 and $500,000, according to industry sources. Slash and McKagan add tremendous currency to the brand, with multiple sources telling Billboard the Coachella payday for both weekends soars as high as $8 million. A Live Nation-promoted stadium tour of roughly 20 dates will follow -- and sources say the company will be ponying up $2.75 million on average for the stadium shows, with production and supporting allowances boosting that figure to $3 million per concert or more. (GNR agent Ken Fermaglich and Live Nation reps declined to comment.)
The opposite problem can be fatigue -- as when Outkast reunited in 2014. Initially, there was internal pressure to bring back Big Boi and André 3000 for an arena tour, but then it was determined the Atlanta rap duo's cultural significance -- and its considerable live energy -- made Outkast a more ideal festival booking. That turned into a run of about 40 festivals, for paydays that ranged from $1 million to $4 million, according to sources. "That can be way better for the legacy than just going out and preaching to the converted," argues one executive. Others felt the ubiquity cheapened the experience. As one Grantland writer lamented: "The specialness of the Outkast pilgrimage was lost."
"Every show has to be better than the best show we've played before," wrote Murphy on LCD Soundsystem's site in January, evidently feeling the pressure. "We know all that."
Additional reporting by Frank DiGiacomo and Chris Payne.
This story originally appeared in the April 16 issue of Billboard.