LONDON — A long time ago, in a music business galaxy far away, London lads garnered international fame as rock ‘n’ roll legends while also going very, very wrong on the money side of the business. Back in those days, David Bowie publicly scrapped with ex-manager Tony DeFries and the Rolling Stones famously battled with ex-manager Allan Klein.
Such was the lot of rock stars in the ’60s and ’70s: You rocked, you rolled, and then you woke up — broke, or close to it.
So it’s somehow fitting that 30 years later Bowie is a co-founder of UltraStar Entertainment, the outfit that has built rollingstones.com, the successful Rolling Stones Internet community.
Among the many ways that rock stars today go right on the money is sites like rollingstones.com, which, according to UltraStar CEO Robert Goodale, has sold “multiple tens of thousands” of Rolling Stones fan club memberships at prices ranging from $50 to $95.
It should be pointed out that today’s online fan clubs bear no resemblance to the old “pay a buck and get a newsletter” clubs of yesteryear: Membership today gives fans important advance access to concert tickets. Fortune magazine estimates the Stones’ gross from the early ’90s to their current “Licks” world tour is more than $1.5 billion. Rollingstones.com’s other primary revenue generator is merchandise sales, which allow fans to buy everything from the Stones’ new greatest-hits CD “Forty Licks” to a set of Rolling Stones bobbleheads for only $100.
So how did Bowie wind up launching “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band” into cyberspace?
Readers with long memories may recall Bowie as an Internet pioneer back in 1998, when he launched bowie.net, an Internet provider and fan site.
“Back then,” recalls Goodale, who was also the onetime attorney and exec vice president of Bowie’s management team, “we actually made bets about whether the dial-up (ISP) business or the content business would win in the end. I lost the bet.”
Indeed, while ISP service that gives you a cool star address, i.e. firstname.lastname@example.org, sounded like a hot ticket, so did the AOL takeover of Time Warner. It was content that emerged as the moneymaker.
Around that time Bowie was also at the forefront of another financial innovation that has been emulated by other entertainment figures: bonds. By selling shares in the future value of his various business enterprises, the Bowie Bonds, as they were called, helped Bowie overcome the pain of all those lost Bowie bucks back in the ’70s.
While Bowie, we’re told, “doesn’t comment on business activities,” Goodale is positively messianic about the achievements of UltraStar.
“I don’t think anyone has figured out yet that we’ve done something no one has ever done before,” Goodale says. “We have always planned this as a worldwide operation and it’s worked. We have linked up all of the ticket agencies around the world for the ‘Licks’ tour.
“America is easy. It’s essentially Ticketmaster — end of story. But Europe is scary. Did you know there’s a different ticket agency for Marseilles and Paris? And a different ticket agency for Milan and Rome? We’ve linked over 20 agencies together on this site, and it’s working well despite the nightmare of logistics.”
Says Goodale: “There are actually opportunities right now to improve the tour business, especially in Europe, for the acts,” he says. “There’s no one yet galloping to control the European ticket business, which means that an act with clout can make better deals, for instance, to sell a percentage of the tickets themselves through their sites.”
London still may be “no place for a “Street Fightin’ Man” as the Stones sing. But for a rock star with a smart business team and a thriving online community it’s a gas, gas, gas.