Cuba is a long way from becoming the next red-hot touring market, but when The Rolling Stones bring their massive production into Havana on March 25, it will mark a major milestone in the cultural emergence of this Caribbean — and Communist — frontier. Billed as the “first open air concert in the country by a British rock band,” the show has a chance to be something much more: A symbolic opening of a new era, ushered in by a group that for decades was considered the epitome of Western decadence.
The 14th and final date on the band’s Latin American tour will be free and is expected to pack 500,000 people into the city’s Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana (with possibly hundreds of thousands more in the surrounding streets).
“We are witnessing a historic embrace between the Cuban people and the international music community,” says Adam Wilkes, svp at AEG Live, which oversees the Stones show with AEG’s Concerts West division, producers of all the Stones’ shows since 2013.
Though only 90 miles from Florida, Cuba is still some distance — perhaps years — from becoming a profitable fixture on the global touring circuit. But the fact that the Stones are rolling in at all shows how quickly things can change. Speculation that the Stones might play Havana began when Mick Jagger visited the city in October; it was finally confirmed on Feb. 29, with negotiations taking place during the time in between.
The idea to play Havana came from the band, but the legwork was done by Stones manager Joyce Smyth. She and AEG Asia/ Concerts West worked with the Cuban government to secure the date. The parties declined to comment on negotiations, but Concerts West co-president John Meglen says the show received “the support and permission of the Cuban Institute of Music, and we wouldn’t do it without that.”
Still, the political and physical logistics of staging a show on such a scale in such relatively virgin territory cannot be underestimated. On March 6, Diplo’s group Major Lazer played a free outdoor show in Havana that drew an estimated 450,000 people. “You can’t just fill up a shipping crate and ship from Miami because of the embargo,” says the group’s agent, Sam Hunt of The Windish Agency. “Relations have warmed, but there are still a tremendous number of restrictions in place.”
While the Stones show’s free status simplified some matters — neither the band, which has grossed around $400 million in touring since 2012, nor AEG is taking a profit — the issue remained of how to pay for it. The group will be bringing 61 sea containers and a 747 freighter full of gear, as well as a 350-strong crew. “We have to bring in literally everything,” says Concerts West co-president John Meglen.
Ultimately, Smyth secured the necessary funding — estimated at over $7 million — to bring the country the Stones’ full stadium-level production. The majority of financing comes from Fundashon Bon Intenshon [FBI] on behalf of the Island of Curacao, which “initiates and supports international charitable projects in the fields of education, athletics, cultural literacy, healthcare and tourism,” according to the Stones’ press release. (The concert is being filmed, which could bring in additional revenue down the line.)
“Between the politics you need to deal with in order to make this event happen properly, through the financing and funding that keeps this a free event, you have to give [Smyth] a tremendous amount of credit for putting this together,” says Meglen, adding that, in this case, free really means free. “We’re not doing VIP packages or any of that type of stuff. The band wanted this for the people of Cuba, and if you’re in Cuba, you can go.”
Producers expect the audience to be massive. In addition to the 500,000 people in the park, “If [the crowd] branches off into the streets, [attendance] could go over a million people,” Meglen says. And while he points out that “the British have always had open relationships” with Cuba and the Stones could have performed in the country at virtually any point in their career, that doesn’t diminish the significance of this concert. “I think for the band it’s more about opening up this world to see the Rolling Stones,” he says. “We know [Cubans] know their music, but they’ve never had an opportunity to see the Rolling Stones live.”
While two free concerts do not constitute a new live-music industry, the shows are in many ways a jumping-off point for a new era in Cuba. “The Rolling Stones are the catalyst for exciting times to come,” says AEG’s Wilkes. “It will be a slow road, but there is so much potential and opportunity ahead.”
A version of this article was originally published in the March 19 issue of Billboard.