Monday, May 13, 2013

Their Economic Majesties’ Request

“From my point of view, it's like this: We say we want to put a Stones tour together and people come to us with proposals. And these proposals are all basically the same. We actually did push down the prices a little bit. We took the lower offer, in other words. ... I don't have much to do with it other than I would like people to get in, to be able to afford to get in, without sort of starving their babies and all.”

— Keith Richards, interviewed in April by Mikal Gilmore for Rolling Stone

“Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
                                     — Mick Jagger

MICK AND KEITH have been at odds before in their time at the top of the leaderboard of the Rolling Stones. With the recently publicized public pushback against ticket prices for the Stones current tour, there’s another M&K disconnect, distilled in the two previous quotes: a difference in the pain threshold for those who want to see the greatest rock and roll brand in the world, the fans who’ve helped them hold that lofty perch.

The band’s 50th & Counting Tour tour started on May 3 — they play the Honda Center in Anaheim on Wednesday and Saturday — but the group has already encountered reticence from the public about the tour’s ticket prices, the kind of resistance that a band like the Stones doesn’t want: the specter of empty seats on what could be the group’s valedictory lap.

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Edward Helmore of The Guardian reported on May 4: “Last week the band said it was dropping the price of thousands of premium seats — ‘flexing’ in industry parlance — rather than play to half-empty arenas. The situation was so dire, one insider revealed, that the band's own allotment of tickets was released because of a lack of requests.”

“Insiders are even speculating that the band will have to renegotiate the huge guaranteed fees for their American tour ... as ticket prices are radically reduced in light of poor sales,” Helmore reports. “A perfect storm of management hubris, fan indifference and technology change is threatening to turn the tour into a disaster.”

The problem is as simple at looking at the pricing for the current Stones tour shows. Base ticket price is $150; from there the cost escalates to $250, $450 and $600 each. And that’s not including the VIP seat packages ($2,000 a pop).

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CONTRAST THAT with ticket prices for other top tours: Fleetwood Mac ticket prices are moving in a more humane price range ($55 to $165); so are ducats for Paul McCartney’s summer tour stops ($57.50 to $250).

Pricing according to the Rolling Stones business model appears to be a self-inflicted wound where it really counts. First, it’s a slap in the face of the fans what danced with ‘em all these years, the salt-of-the-earth, blue-collar everyday people that have stuck with the Stones for ... forever. This isn’t how you reward your legacy fan base.

Second, it’s a thumb in the eye of music industry practice and common sense. Both indicate, with some uniformity, that bands go on tour to promote their new material. That’s at least a challenge, and maybe a problem, if you’re a touring band that doesn’t really have any new material. Or at least more than the two or three new songs on the band’s latest, “GRRR!”, primarily a collection of old favorites, previously released.

The Stones haven’t released a new album of original material for years, content instead to repackage and recycle old catalog chestnuts, unearthing just enough jurassic tchotchkes — a backstage-pass laminate replica, a tour poster knockoff — to make it all look new, sort of.

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Then there’s the fact that the Stones haven’t gone out of their way to enlarge the fan base they started with in the 60s. The Associated Press reported in November that “The average age for the four living members of The Rolling Stones is about two years older than the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.” It’s probably safe to say that their most reliable fan base is at or close to that average age, too.

The Stones are coming back to the same well of customers, and that well isn’t being replenished by younger fans, who tend to spend money on bands that are making new music. The loyalty of older Stones fans isn’t in question. It’s a matter of how expandable that fan base is, beyond itself. That’s not something a one-off appearance on “Saturday Night Live” or “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” can address.

Now add to that the Stones’ current strategy of playing smaller venues in fewer cities. Helmore reported that the Stones “are playing in arenas holding from 10,000 to 15,000 people, not stadiums.” The 50 & Counting Tour is set for 21 concerts in 11 U.S. cities; a June 24 stop at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., was added last week. So ... the diehards willing to pony up serious money to see the band face the prospect of going on the road themselves, to attend a concert very likely to be some distance from home.

On this tour, the Rolling Stones will be making fewer appearances in smaller arenas and charging dramatically higher ticket prices, touring behind what amounts to another greatest-hits album, performing for a hardcore fan base that’s getting smaller, in the middle of an economic crisis that negatively impacts that fan base — and just about everyone else.

You don’t have to be a student of the London School of Economics to see how big a problem this could be.

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THE STONES have a history of this kind of gravity defiance, but online and en masse, the salt of the earth is weighing in. William McGinniss, commenting at Rolling Stone: “The big story of this tour is the slow ticket sales. Too much money for the same basic set they have toured with for far too long. They had/have an opportunity to mix it up by adding more songs with Mick Taylor, which would bring some spark to a boring and predictable set list. They rehearsed a lot more with him — it's time for a rethink before this tour ends sadly.”

Stonesy at Rolling Stone agrees: “No one complains about their age, but if you pay 600 dollars to see the ever same setlist only this time it's going to be out of key, out of time and out of breath, performed by musicians who don't even look at each other anymore on or off stage, then something is dramatically wrong. No effort, fun, passion or connection whatsoever. They play for the buck and their egos only, contemplating the ashes rather than carrying on the fire and in that dragging their entire legacy through the mud on their way out. It's a shame.”

Monsieur Verdoux at Rolling Stone: “The angry fans and the half empty seats being filled in a last minute act of desperation are what this tour will be remembered for.”

The LessDeceived, writing about the band’s historical fan base at The Guardian (UK), observed: “The trouble is, those same people are no longer stupid enough to pay what the Stones are asking. And younger people, who might be stupid enough to pay what they're asking, know nothing about them, or have barely heard of them.

“So I'd say the Stones are dropping down a demographic well. Which is precisely what they deserve.”

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What’s emerging now with the Stones 2013 tour, even in its infancy, is an unfortunate narrative about the haves and have-lesses of our society, and how the historically reliable antenna of the Rolling Stones got it wrong this time, either misreading the parlous state of the U.S. economy, or charging prices for tickets as if they didn’t care what the economy was doing.

In “Life,” Keith Richards’ autobiography, Richards said this about the necessary evils of megatour economics: “Touring was the only way to survive. Record royalties barely paid overheads; you couldn’t tour behind a record like the old days. Megatours were, in the end, the bread and butter of keeping this machinery running. We couldn’t have done it on a smaller scale and been sure to do more than break even.”

That may have been true in earlier times. Like during the Stones legendary Tour of the Americas in 1972, when the group played 50 dates in the United States. Or during the Steel Wheels Tour, which put the group onstage at 115 shows in the U.S. and globally between August 1989 and August 1990. Or the Voodoo Lounge Tour, with the Stones playing 129 shows from 1994 to 1995. Or the 108 shows on the Bridges to Babylon Tour (1997-1998). Or the 147 shows of the Bigger Bang Tour (2005-2007).

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BUT WHEN you downsize the scope of a tour, like the one they’re on now, there should be a similar downsizing in the ticket prices. It shouldn’t cost as much to attend a Stones show when there’s 10 or 11 stops on the tour, compared to when there’s 50 or 100. They're not on the road as long. The small-tour overhead, even adjusted for inflation, shouldn’t be nearly as high as the megatour overhead. Neither should the cost of tickets on that smaller tour.

Unless, of course, the band is committed to the idea of trying to make the smaller tour pay out like any of the bigger tours. (Receipts from the A Bigger Bang Tour totaled $558 million. If what Keith said in his book was true — “We couldn’t have done it on a smaller scale and been sure to do more than break even” — we’re into a whole new definition of what it means to “break even.”)

We don’t know what the Stones Inc. break-even point is for the 50 & Counting Tour now underway. But when the base price is $150 for seats in the wilderness and $250 for something slightly better ... we’re entitled to think the Stones are trying to make the small tour recoup like a midsize tour. With fewer stops. In smaller venues. With no new music to support. In this economy.

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The Stones tour that structurally most resembles the current one — 1999’s No Security Tour — saw the band playing 34 dates in the United States and Canada. Ticket prices? A perfectly palatable range, many selling for between $40 and $75.

But even earlier back in the band’s heyday, things could be very reasonable. I saw the Stones perform on the Steel Wheels Tour at Shea Stadium in October 1989, part of that tour’s 115-show duration. Ticket price: $28. I saw them again, during the 129-performance Voodoo Lounge Tour, at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in August 1994. Ticket price: $39.50.

But fast forward to now and ... something’s not right somewhere. And it’s not the best way to roll out an anniversary celebration. Doing a 1985 promo spot for MTV, Mick Jagger famously said “Too much is never enough.” That’ll always be true if you’re on the receiving end of “too much,” a beneficiary of the Voodoo Lounge economics that nets you some handsome percentage of the approximately $1.7 billion you and your band’ve grossed on U.S. and global tours since 1989.

If you’re a loyal fan or you’d maybe like to be, and you’re forced to live within something called a budget, “too much” for that band’s concert tickets is likely to mean exactly that.

Too much.

Image credits: The Rolling Stones band images, logo and related indicia: © 2013 The Rolling Stones. Keith Richards: “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” © 2013 NBC. Detail from Web site: Ticketmaster. 

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