Boomer bands seek new riches in iTunes era

There’s plenty of nostalgia to be had on the concert circuit this summer. The Eagles, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Smashing Pumpkins, the Who and Oz’s the Saints have all reunited and will be playing familiar tunes of yore.

Their ambitions, however, are anything but retro.

All are promoting albums of new material via non-traditional methods, looking to connect with loyal fans and new auds in fresh ways.

The Eagles, for example, will roll out their first album in 27 years not through a record label but via an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart. The Stooges’ tour is aimed not so much at pushing the band’s new record as boosting licensing fees for classic tunes.

Even former Beatle Paul McCartney is brewing something new, signing last week as the anchor act for Starbucks’ nascent label, Hear Music. He’s not touring yet, but his new album will be in coffee stores and available for download in June.

In the iTunes era, classic acts are being rocked by a changing world.

As singles continue to drive the music marketplace, the business model for classic acts is increasingly about Web sites, digital downloads and licensing agreements, not about radio play or album sales.

Reunions sell concert tickets, but these reconstituted acts don’t generate the disc sales they once did. While the Who grossed a whopping $41 million in ticket sales for the first leg of their reunion tour last year, their 2006 album “Endless Wire” has sold a modest 232,000 copies.

The group’s Pete Townshend, kicking off the band’s latest promo leg at the recent South by Southwest confab in Austin, Texas, recounts that in a recent visit to New York, the CEO of a major record company told him, “Rome is burning.”

The rocker says the key is not to give up but to change with the times. Still, mixing rock traditions with new technology doesn’t come easily.

“I feel like I have one foot in the old camp and one foot in the new,” says Townshend.

As for Top 40 play, “I’m not sure radio is necessary,” Eagles co-founder Don Henley tells Variety.

Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, has a year-long exclusive to sell the Eagles’ new disc, a radical move given that any band, no matter how big, needs exposure on as many levels as possible.

“We’re all curious to see what will happen with this record because we know we can sell out arenas, but we’re not sure how much of an audience is out there for new Eagles music,” Henley said during a break from recording overdubs earlier this year.

“Bringing in a new business partner is somewhat the wave of the future,” he concluded. “The face of the music business has changed drastically since we last recorded.”

The epitome of successful reunions is Steely Dan, whose “Two Against Nature” was released in 2000, 20 years after the band’s last studio record. The supporting tour successfully combined oldies with new material; the album won Grammys for album of the year and rock vocal album; it reached No. 6 on the Nielsen SoundScan chart and has sold 1.1 million copies to date.

But there has yet to be another reunion success story quite like that one.

The Stooges, the seminal Detroit rockers of the 1970s, have just released “The Weirdness,” the band’s first new album in 33 years. In its first two weeks of release, it sold a measly 10,000 copies.

But their reunion is not about pushing sales of the new disc, says frontman Iggy Pop. It’s also a reminder of their old hits. Pop says the reunion has pushed “through the roof” the amount Stooges tracks earn from each sync license.

Vintage Stooges tracks have most recently appeared in the pic “Smokin’ Aces,” NBC’s “Friday Night Lights” and the Major League Baseball videogame. (The songs “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and “Down on the Street” get the most requests.) And Pop’s recording of “Lust for Life” has been the Carnival Cruise Line theme for years.

“I have always had a very positive and accepting” attitude toward licensing, Pop laughs.

For Pop, the reunion has meant bigger concert paydays, larger crowds and an increase in the value of their catalog. They have done about 30 shows over the past three years. On their small theater tour, which starts April 7, the Stooges are earning in the low six figures for each show. Pop figures he was making a quarter of that most nights as a solo artist, when he was playing in venues with 500 to 1,500 seats.

Besides pushing closer fan interaction and aggressive licensing — things that they probably would not have done in the past — reunion acts are also marketing their albums to new audiences, like families and even children.

Luscious Jackson, the first band that the Beastie Boys signed to their Grand Royal label, had only one top 40 hit, 1996’s “Naked Eye.” But lead singer Jill Cunniff has a new solo album, the band released a greatest hits package in February — and a children’s record is in the works. Music for kids?

“The band split because we all went off to have children and raise families,” Cunniff says. “It’s a natural.”

A lot has changed in the decade since the group’s breakthrough hit.

“In 1999, we spent $10,000 to start a Web site, and I thought it was a waste of money because it didn’t sell much merchandise,” says Cunniff. “The other day, I had a friend do one for us in an afternoon. It’s not that long ago that you didn’t even think about the Internet.”

While the pursuit of a hefty payday is the key reason behind most reunions, some performers cite more personal reasons underlying their efforts.

“Releasing an album doesn’t mean you’re getting back into the business,” says folk-blues guitarist-singer David Bromberg, 62, who recorded for Columbia and Fantasy in the 1970s, retired in 1980 and just released his first album in 17 years at the end of February on the indie label Appleseed.

“It’s liberating to not have to do something to support an album. When it comes to music, I no longer want to stress.”

Artists also face the additional challenge of being written off by younger execs, who not only doubt that their records will sell but that they will be able to adapt to the new environment.

“There are a lot of mature musicians who still have something to say,” says Jim Musselman, owner and founder of Appleseed Recordings. “The industry discriminates against older artists.”

When Pop and the Asheton brothers re-formed the Stooges for the 2003 Coachella fest, “I immediately insisted, ‘If I am going to accept this gig, we’re going to be a working band. Otherwise, it’s a museum piece.’

“This way, we’re in a different stress category — which is a good thing. You’re trying to hook a producer or hook a song or forget a song that’s not working,” Pop says.

While the Stooges are looking to revive their creativity, other rockers see revivals as a chance to work with their offspring. Eddie Van Halen has son Wolfgang on bass; America’s Gerry Beckley brought in his son Matt to engineer the new album. To promote it, America, which has never stopped touring, performed recently on “The Late Show With David Letterman.”

Still, some reunions can be puzzling. The Hoodoo Gurus, which disbanded in the 1990s and reunited three years ago, saw their reunion album greeted with a yawn in Oz. Head Guru Dave Faulkner is not even sure if the disc will ever come out in the U.S. Instead, they’re touring to support a DVD of videos and performances and the reissue of their 1983 debut, “Stoneage Romeos,” which included the song that announced their arrival, “I Want You Back.”

So why even bother with a reunion tour? Faulkner has a theory that has little to do with the desire to stay relevant or to make more money.

“There’s a spirit, a presence that comes into being once a band has an identity,” he says. “It’s four guys making music, but there’s a fifth element in the room. The Hoodoo Gurus are an entity, and as long as that unique spirit is there, there will be a Hoodoo Gurus. When it’s gone, that’s when it’s over.”

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