Towards the end of the first show of his farewell tour at Allentown, Pennsylvania’s PPL Center, Elton John paused to explain why, after 50 years of being one of the biggest and most profitable forces on the live circuit, he decided it was time to say his extended goodbye.
“I have the most beautiful family and I really need to spend more time with them,” he said. “I know you understand since a lot of you have children of your own. I just want to be there for them and that’s why I’m doing this tour. It’s to say thank you and say goodbye to touring.”
Though he has loads more dates left before he actually calls it quits, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is hardly the only legendary, major venue-touring artist planning on retiring this year – he’s joined by iconic musicians as wide-reaching as Paul Simon, Ozzy Osbourne, Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS, Slayer, Bob Seger, and George Clinton, though many have concerts booked well into 2019 and in Elton and Ozzy’s case, 2020.
Coupled with notable recent deaths including Tom Petty and Aretha Franklin, the pool of bona fide classic arena (or large theater) acts is beginning to shrink quite a bit. While heavy hitters like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, Billy Joel, and Fleetwood Mac (albeit with a new lineup) are all still hitting the road at the moment, the trend of recent farewell tours reminds us that all things must end at some point, and that the live industry won’t be able to lean on this golden generation of stadium performers for much longer.
So with a large percentage of the most seminal acts of the baby boomer generation soon to be out of the touring picture, what happens now for the concert industry — particularly for those who book and promote shows at arenas?
If you’re Cody Lauzier, the VP and General Manager of the newly created AEG Presents’ newly expanded global touring division, it’s an opportunity to start working with developing acts from a younger age. Though he works with megastar Katy Perry and arena pop rockers Panic! At the Disco, Lauzier has spent the last few years looking towards the future, adding Tyler, the Creator, Billie Eilish, and Brockhampton to his client list.
“We want to start investing in these artists from an early, early age to really almost do the A&R for the next ten, twenty years,” Lauzier explains. “As people who produce arena and stadium tours, who are we targeting for growth now? Even though it might be a ten-year bet, Billie is one of those, Brockhampton is one of those, Tyler for sure. You just never know when somebody who’s truly resonating with the public is going to break through, and you have to be prepared to know how to take them to the next level.”
And the past few years have seen a new changing of the arena guard, with a large number of younger artists rising to the pinnacle of the touring game. As a result, Darren Pfeffer, Executive Vice President of MSG Live — a company that books marquee venues like Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall, the Beacon Theatre, Boston Calling Music Festival and more — acknowledges that the Garden, which has hosted many of the dates on the above farewell tours, has never been busier.
“Over the past few months and into 2019, MSG has hosted and will host a number of new artists including Travis Scott, Childish Gambino, Logic, Drake, Ariana Grande, Ozuna, and Twenty One Pilots,” Pfeffer says. But he also notes that the relative dearth of acts that appeal to the older demographic is a bit overblown, clarifying that “on the flip side, Billy Joel continues to sell out one show per month as part of his residency, Dave Matthews Band just played two consecutive sold-out shows in their return to MSG for the first time since 2010, and Phish will be back for their annual New Year’s Eve run – so there’s certainly something for everyone at The Garden.”
When looking at the list of highest grossing tours of 2018, Pfeffer is correct in his assessment that there is something for every demographic. Veteran rock bands like U2 (No. 7), The Rolling Stones (No. 8, at just 14 shows), and Journey & Def Leppard (No. 10) all crack the top ten, but the list is topped by Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé & Jay-Z, Bruno Mars, and Pink. This represents a complete 180 from 2017, where U2, Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, Depeche Mode, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, and Garth Brooks all made the top 10, which included only three acts under the age of 50 – and only five in the top 15.
“Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and even Bruno Mars and Ariana Grande – these are the next generation of stadium, arena headliners for the next 20 years potentially,” Lauzier predicts. When you look at the changing statistics over just the past few years, it’s hard to argue with him.
While the farewell tours are definitely good for business – Elton John’s first leg of 45 shows saw him hit No. 22 on the 2018 highest grossing tours list and he’ll certainly be closer to the top of the list in 2019 with over double the amount of dates from this year – the trend of younger artists taking over the touring industry is overwhelming. (It’s also worth noting that their individual statistics are deflated by playing festivals, which don’t count towards the overall total).
As the total of touring “classic rock” artists continues to dwindle, the pool of acts tailoring towards the older demographic is simultaneously beginning to phase itself out as well, creating a sort of vacuum of sorts for the concertgoing baby boomers. But according to Mike Luba, the promoter at New York’s Forest Hills Stadium and president at Madison House Presents, this isn’t necessarily an issue, as that generation has begun going to less shows overall — and for the ones who still do, there are plenty of younger artists that compliment their general tastes nicely.
“I think the audience ages up with the artists,” Luba says. “Whereas Paul Simon’s crowd when they were younger used to see ten shows a year, maybe they see two shows a year or maybe this year the one show they saw was Paul Simon’s last show. I don’t know that Mumford and Sons guys are trying to cater to the Paul Simon crowd, although I think for the Paul Simon crowd, it comes from the same space, so I think they’d really enjoy it. All things come to an end at some point; the cool thing is the music transcends the people who both make it and enjoy it as fans.”
Due to the increasing amount of farewell tours we’ve seen in 2018 and beyond, the touring industry is transforming in record time, as more of the highest grossing artists of the last few decades are beginning to call it quits. But because of a high demand for live entertainment complimented by a steady crop of extremely profitable (and increasingly younger, and much more ethnically and musically diverse) artists, we’re now seeing a new wave taking over for the classic rock generation, dominating the concert industry in a much different way. Consequently, business has never been better for those promoting on the live circuit, especially for ones who went all in on developing artists.
“There’s no replacing Tom Petty,” Luba allows. “There’s no replacing Paul Simon. There’s no replacing Elton John. But at some point, Mumford and Sons and Chance the Rapper is going to be playing stadiums and Greta Van Fleet is going to play in arenas. The cycle will continue. I think those guys who carved the path have created the industry around themselves and have laid down the blueprint of how to do it, and there’s tons of fertile ground for generations to come. I think the industry as a whole is in as good of shape as it’s ever been.”