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Can the Concert Industry Survive After Mick Jagger and Madonna Retire?

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Madonna Lighter Illustration - H 2013
Illustration by: Kyle Hilton
Mick Jagger, left, and Madonna

More than half of 2012's top 10 highest-grossing acts qualified for AARP membership.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Pop quiz: What do The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, Aerosmith and Metallica have in common? Each of them has been enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, each has announced or is expected to announce major tours for 2013 and each was among the 10 highest-grossing acts in the U.S. -- in 2003.

This critical mass of such "legacy acts" might push 2013's totals beyond 2012's record sales numbers, estimated at $4.7 billion. That figure was boosted by sold-out tours from very familiar faces, with the three top-grossing performers -- Madonna, Roger Waters and Springsteen -- all card-carrying members of the Rock Hall and long since qualified for AARP membership as well. In fact, six of the top 10 touring acts in 2012 were age 54 or older, and they took in 67 percent of the box office among the industry's leaders.

But here's the rub. While North American grosses hit an all-time high in 2012, fewer seats were filled. The total number of tickets purchased by concertgoers -- 36.7 million -- was down 9 percent from the industry's banner year of 2009. So what's at work here? You guessed it: Ticket prices are reaching new heights, thanks largely to legacy acts, whose average ticket cost more than $100 in 2012. Paul McCartney, Van Halen, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Waters and Madonna were in this company last year, headed by The Rolling Stones, whose stupefying average ticket price exceeded $500 (a back-of-the-house, obstructed-view seat at Brooklyn's Barclays Center fetched $176).

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Given the fact that revenues are padded by these long-established artists -- even as attendance drops -- should the live entertainment industry be concerned that some of these groups will retire in the not-too-distant future, taking with them their deep-pocketed supporters? These music fans have grown comfortable paying hundreds of dollars for a chance to watch their favorite rockers give it one more go. Will their children do the same? How about their grandchildren?

We're at a fascinating crossroads. The modern touring rock industry emerged in the late '60s, during the heyday of such venues as Bill Graham's Fillmore East and West in New York and San Francisco, respectively, Jack Boyle's The Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., and Don Law's Tea Party in Boston. Rock music didn't move into arenas until the early '70s, a development that prompted Graham to close his clubs, announcing his decision via a letter to the Village Voice that decried "the unreasonable and totally destructive inflation of the live concert scene."

So how are the smartest people in the industry preparing for the next big shift?

"We need fresh acts to appeal to new generations," says Michael Rapino, president and CEO of Live Nation, the world's dominant tour promoter. "The Rolling Stones was an epic tour, but it's not a long-term business." Rapino suggests that this process already is in motion, as six of the top 10 Live Nation tours of 2012 were by artists whose first hit was in the 2000s, including Lady Gaga, Coldplay, Jason Aldean, Drake, Rascal Flatts and Nickelback. "The beauty of this industry is there are always new acts to win our hearts."

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Chip Hooper, worldwide head of music at Paradigm, echoes this sentiment: "Today you're talking about one group of bands, but what is contemporary and what is heritage just keeps changing as time goes marching on. If you took a snapshot of today, yeah, there'll be some older artists who won't be touring in a couple years, but then there'll be new older artists because younger artists are getting older."