The Economics of Stardom

(Pictured: this early Led Zeppelin shot gives you an idea of how small were the venues they played between 1969 and 1971.)

I have been reading David Hepworth’s Never a Dull Moment: 1971, The Year That Rock Exploded, and I could blog about it until approximately Christmas. Better you read it yourself—even if you are as passionate about the history of popular music as I am, you will find yourself surprised by some of the stories of 1971, and interested in Hepworth’s insights.

One of his early chapters discusses the unique nature of British rock touring at the time. Only the Beatles had been able to fill stadiums, and they hadn’t toured since 1966. Typical concert venues at the turn of the 70s were clubs or concert halls that seated only a few hundred people; the biggest and most prestigious, the Royal Albert Hall in London, seated only 4,000. Bands made most of their money from touring and not record sales, so it wasn’t unusual for a band to work all week, recording or at day jobs, and then play several shows on the weekend. Led Zeppelin was the first act to break out of the small halls and into larger arenas, where the financial take would be bigger.

Here in the 21st century, the circle has come back around: record sales are sufficiently low and streaming revenue such a relative pittance that stars make most of their money on the road once again. But the economics of touring are different now; Madison, Wisconsin, where I live, hosted a remarkable variety of stars from the 60s to the 80s, acts that would often play here and then play the next night in Milwaukee, 90 miles away. Now, however, major Madison shows are extremely rare; the arena that hosted them back in the day, the Dane County Coliseum, seats maybe 11,000 for concerts, which is not big enough anymore. Big stars are more likely to skip Madison and play in Milwaukee, where the Bradley Center can seat around 19,000. And Milwaukee doesn’t get acts like it used to, either.

The new economics of stardom are particularly visible in country music. Every major star hits the road in the summer as part of a package. Sometimes two A-listers go out together, as Kenny Chesney and Miranda Lambert are doing on a few dates this year, and as Chesney and Jason Aldean did last year. More often it’s one big star packaged with acts of lesser stature. This summer, for example, Luke Bryan is headlining a tour with Little Big Town and Dustin Lynch. “Lesser stature” is relative, however: both LBT and Lynch have scored #1 hits within the last year.

Lynch is indicative of a relatively new phenomenon in country, one that hasn’t really translated to pop music yet as far as I can tell: country artists are releasing singles that are intended to get a reaction from the concert audience. Lynch’s recent single “Hell of a Night” is built on a riff that owes more to Lynryd Skynyrd or Def Leppard than to anything from Nashville. The record itself is forgettable, but that big riff is going to sound awesome on the stage, which is the point. Aldean’s current single, “Lights Come On,” is even more unsubtle—powered by a giant riff but otherwise generic, “Lights Come On” is a country checklist song (blue collar/Budweiser/Friday night) that’s mostly about attending a Jason Aldean concert, and the song is absolutely intended to be a show opener. Even in mainstream country marketing and promotion, this level of calculation is remarkable.

There is a defense, for this kind of thing, though. The Nashville suits behind Dustin Lynch and Jason Aldean, and the artists themselves, are no more interested in making bank than Led Zeppelin and their legendary manager Peter Grant were 45 years ago. (Hepworth makes this very point when discussing Zeppelin’s work ethic.) The main difference is the amount of bank there is to make. And if some fans today believe that the hype surrounding an act, and the falling for said hype, is just as important a part of the experience as listening to the music, that’s not new, either. Hepworth notes that bands as big as Roxy Music were interested in redefining art as a plastic commodity as early as 1971.

But all of this just my opinion. I could be completely wrong.

2 responses

  1. The Stones had a memorable arena tour in ’69. There’s a long-running legend that Zeppelin played a show at a local youth center here that year – http://www.ledzeppelinplayedhere.com/

    1. Hepworth tells a great anecdote about Zeppelin’s big American tour in 1971—when Peter Grant mentioned to former Yardbird Chris Dreja that Zeppelin would play Madison Square Garden, Dreja assumed Grant had misspoken.

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