“Rock is dead” has been floating around for decades. It’s true that four-quadrant pop success in the traditional sense still dictates the touring circuit’s biggest earners. In 2019, Billboard’s Year-End Top Tours ranking was dominated by Ed Sheeran, P!nk, and Elton John – three artists with an average of five No. 1 singles each on the Billboard Hot 100.
But while top-40-formatted radio, social media, and streaming data favor hip hop and dance music as the more influential pieces of the greater ‘pop’ mainstream, rock bands have continued to develop long-lasting careers, fueled by success on the road.
Throughout the 2000s, bands like Green Day, Coldplay, The Killers, and more graduated to stadium and arena status on the back of globally recognizable hits like “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and “Mr. Brightside.” But in clubs across the U.S., indie rock was blossoming, propelled by emerging blogs and critics championing acts like The Strokes, Interpol, and TV on the Radio.
As 2009 turned to 2010, some of these acts began cashing in on good will with fans after years of van tours and support slots. Arcade Fire averaged 8,270 tickets per show in 2010 (according to figures reported to Billboard Boxscore) on the back of their third album The Suburbs, punctuated by $1 million-plus engagements on both sides of the Atlantic, all before ever hitting the Billboard Hot 100.
But despite their newfound success in some of the most famous venues around the world, The Suburbs didn’t compromise any of the acclaim that first ignited their die-hard fanbase. The band staged a major upset when they won the Grammy award for album of the year over Eminem and Lady Gaga, paving the way for an even higher peak of $534,000 and 9,812 tickets per show on their 2014 Reflektor Tour.
And just as ‘Who is Arcade Fire’ memes flooded social media following the band’s Grammy shocker in 2011, the same thing happened the following year when Bon Iver won best new artist over platinum sellers Nicki Minaj and J. Cole. Concurrently, The Black Keys began the 2010s on the rise, becoming darlings of Alternative radio and Grammy contenders with wins for Best Rock Song and Rock Album in 2011, followed by nominations for album of the year and record of the year in 2013.
During this period, they expanded their nightly attendance tally from 1,788 in 2008 to 4,928 in 2010, and then to 9,524 in 2012.
The Grammys remain the most prominent industry institution to recognize traditional singer-songwriter-instrumentalist rock acts. Winning major awards and showcasing their individualist takes on blues, folk, and pop with live TV performances allowed these acts to bypass top 40 radio and big-budget music videos while scaling their music on the road. Bon Iver and indie heroes Vampire Weekend returned to the Grammy’s inner circle this year with three nominations each including Album of the Year for both bands, just as they wrapped their biggest tours yet, selling more than 7,000 tickets per night.
In addition to awards buzz, Arcade Fire found their way into arenas after several album cycles playing smaller venues and playing support slots. In between their own headline tours around breakout albums Funeral and Neon Bible, they got exposure in bigger venues opening for U2 and The Killers. Paying it forward, The Black Keys served as Fire’s opener in 2005, on their own journey from 100 to 10,000 fans.
And on the 2012 arena tour in support of El Camino, The Black Keys hosted Arctic Monkeys as direct support. The British buzz band was in between albums and had been touring mid-sized clubs in the U.S. since 2006. The headline tour that followed supported their 2013 album AM, which rode a wave of momentum from The Black Keys run and growing support at Alternative and Triple A radio.
The trek mixed larger clubs with theaters, stretching the band’s reach as the tour went on, ultimately selling out Los Angeles’s Staples Center at nearly 15,000 seats, while breaking an average of 10,000 seats on the trek’s Australian leg. They took a half-decade off and returned to their biggest success yet: the 2018-19 Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino Tour averaged 13,460 tickets per night on a global basis.
Whether technically signed to a major or independent label, the broader indie scene has allowed these bands to find their respective niches through multiple album cycles before hitting the big time. For many acts, that means not being beholden to traditional rules of what makes an artist ‘rock’. Acts like The 1975, Tame Impala, and Florence + The Machine have evolved over the last decade, dabbling in different sub-genres and coming out with a bigger and broader audience.
Florence has blended big sweeping pop hooks with baroque arrangements to bring her and her machine worldwide, reaching more than 10,000 fans each show in North and South America, Europe, and Australia. Tame Impala has journeyed from the psychedelic rock of 2010’s Innerspeaker to the disco-synth of 2020’s The Slow Rush, touring almost non-stop in between from a 273-ticket average in 2010 to 3,788 in 2015, to 7,377 in 2019.
Perhaps most drastically, The 1975 have weaved between the thrashing rage of “People” to the tropical bounce of “TooTimeTooTimeTooTime,” culminating in an 81% increase in revenue from 2016 to 2019.
Tame Impala and The 1975 both had tours scheduled for later in 2020, and once COVID-19 lifts its curtains and concert venues re-open, these will be two of the rock bands carrying the torch. Both groups can expect to earn more than $10 million on their forthcoming treks, translating critical and industry buzz, the influence and shared fan bases of their peers, and a diverse sonic palette to sold-out crowds in arenas around the world.