September 2023

About a year ago, Bruce Springsteen began touring again. It was the first time he and the E Street Band had appeared onstage together since 2017. Like a lot of performers, Springsteen was eager to be performing again. Some musicians who had been prevented from touring by the COVID-19 pandemic were downright cranky. Performers need to perform. They’re addicted to the stage.

Springsteen’s tour got caught in the middle of something called dynamic pricing, an algorithm that Ticketmaster uses to set the cost of tickets. As demand for tickets rises, so do prices. It’s more complicated than that—more complicated than I can explain. The result was clear, though. Some ticket prices for Springsteen shows went into the thousands of dollars. Controversy followed: Jon Landau, Springsteen’s producer and manager, told the New York Times: “Our true average ticket price has been in the mid-$200 range. I believe that in today’s environment, that is a fair price to see someone universally regarded as among the very greatest artists of his generation.”

Bruce Springsteen

When the tour was announced, I saw that the Boss would be appearing in a few months’ time at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center, not far from where I live. When I checked on ticket prices, the least expensive seat was $280, and it was behind the stage. As the show date got closer, prices for seats near the front of the stage dropped slightly but were still in the four-figure range. The cheap seats stayed pretty much the same. Ticketmaster took some heat for dynamic pricing, but industry insider Bob Lefsetz told USA Today: “It’s important to remember that it’s the artist telling Ticketmaster this is what they want to do, not the other way around.”

At this point, you’ll be surprised to learn that my topic here is not ticket prices, but bear with me while I go on about them a little longer. Billy Joel is touring with Stevie Nicks, and the ticket prices are in the same neighborhood as Springsteen’s. The Eagles are on the road, with Steely Dan opening. Fleetwood Mac has put feelers out to Lindsey Buckingham to see if he would join the band for a return to the stage, five years after they sacked him.

Billy Joel

Tickets will be expensive for those shows, which will be held at very large venues, but an important fact jumps out at me as I look at the list. Aside from Joel and Nicks, who have had successful solo careers, the rest of the lineup is bands that have lost key members. Walter Becker died in 2017, and he was one-half of Steely Dan. Donald Fagen has four very good solo albums to his credit, and he could tour with his own material and highlights from Steely Dan’s albums. Tickets would sell, but Fagen would be playing 3000-seat halls, not arenas and stadiums.

Glenn Frey died in 2016. Don Henley’s solo albums did well when the Eagles took a break—they even get played on classic-rock radio—but if he wants the big payoff, he’s going to tour as part of a lineup that calls itself the Eagles. Joe Walsh is a fine guitarist, one of the greatest in rock history, but even if he went on the road with the original James Gang lineup or toured with a focus on his fine solo career, he wouldn’t move tickets the way the Eagles will.

Christine McVie died last November and John McVie’s health prevents him from performing, but Fleetwood Mac’s three surviving members from the Rumours era will sell tickets under their brand. Stevie Nicks can fill big venues on her own, so she’s doing Mick Fleetwood and Lindsey Buckingham a favor by hanging with them.

Stevie Nicks

Make no mistake: these tours are a money grab, and probably the last one for many of these musicians. Most of them are in their mid-70s, some are closing in on 80. In 2019, political pundit Damon Linker opened a piece in The Week on the mortality and impending demise of many musicians from the classic-rock era with a frank statement: “Rock music isn’t dead, but it’s barely hanging on.” Linker went on to lament rock’s death as an artform, a topic he expanded on two years later.

Rock music began dying, in many ways, when the classic-rock radio format became dominant in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The playlists on those stations have always been narrow—nothing by The Who prior to Tommy, very little after Quadrophenia, and the same few tunes ad nauseam from the albums that do make the list. I’m convinced that many bands would be long—and deservedly—forgotten by now without classic-rock radio, but even the good bands are misrepresented. John Mellencamp continues to make vital music, but classic-rock radio plays almost nothing from records he released after The Lonesome Jubilee (1987).

As a result, touring for the big moneymakers has become a lucrative nightmare if they have any creative life remaining. As Steven Hyden wrote in Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock (2018): “The days of forcing the audience to listen to three or four songs from a well intentioned but mostly lousy late-career album nobody cares about are basically over; time is precious and classic-rock tours now are all about the hits.”

Hyden is perhaps being unfair in his assessment of the later work of some artists. I do wonder if mega-successful touring acts are constrained psychologically by the knowledge that no one except the deeply dedicated will know anything from records that aren’t in steady rotation on radio. Who concerts include one or two songs from Face Dances (1981) and It’s Hard (1982) because they had been on MTV and then migrated to classic-rock radio. Pete Townshend, the band’s guitarist and primary songwriter, recorded four solo LPs, but you won’t hear anything from them at Who shows except, perhaps, “Let My Love Open the Door.” Townshend could tour solo, but, again, he’d be playing smaller venues.

In contrast to the big names I’ve mentioned, artists like Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, both of whom I’ve seen live recently, play theaters that hold 3000 to 5000 people and charge a reasonable price for their shows. The concerts I saw were sold out, or close to it, and both musicians played tunes from throughout their careers. People responded with as much enthusiasm to songs from recent albums as they did for the older songs. And, like me, they clearly recognized the songs because they’ve bought Jackson’s and Costello’s recent releases.

Elvis Costello

Some of the old timers can still surprise their audiences. Bob Dylan has been thwarting expectations for so long that anyone seeing him live knows he’s not going to stay true to his records. I’ve been at shows where he’s been well into the second verse before I realized what song he was singing. Resellers might jack up his ticket prices, but not to the stratospheric levels that the big classic-rock acts are charging. However, Dylan’s never been a staple of classic-rock radio.

When these legacy acts move on, the concert industry as we know it will certainly shrink dramatically. I wonder if some decline in music sales will follow. Three of the ten top-selling LPs last year were from the past: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Abbey Road, by the Beatles. Other acts listed, such as Taylor Swift and Tyler the Creator, might have albums that sell through the years in the same way. Time will tell.

The record industry claims that streaming generates a lot of income. Does it also generate interest in high-end audio? I don’t really know. There are plenty of audiophiles who stream music, whether from an online service or from their own servers. But buying patterns signal cultural changes. The prosperity enjoyed by record companies from the late 1960s until about 2000 grew out of the fact that a generation was committed to pop music in album form and then bought their albums again on CD. That commitment helped generate interest in audio equipment.

Maybe LPs and CDs will stay around and continue to encourage people to move into high-end playback gear. I used to think the best I could hope for with vinyl was that the industry could hang on long enough so I could continue to find replacement styli and maybe a few new LPs. I would never have guessed it would still be viable, let alone thriving, in 2023. If vinyl and CDs remain at least marginally profitable—sales are a tiny fraction of what record companies saw during the peak years—then high-end audio has a good chance of remaining with us.

I’m not convinced that downloads, let alone streaming, will attract listeners other than dedicated audiophiles—people who listened to vinyl or CD and then moved on to music servers or streaming. When the legacy acts I’ve listed leave this mortal coil, the concert industry will decline. I wonder if the same thing will happen in audio. I hope not.

. . . Joseph Taylor