Rock icons cash in with new projects

New revenue streams include tours, vidgames

THE BEATLES, Zeppelin, Hendrix — rock ‘n’ roll’s three icons with three strongly safeguarded legacies — returned to the news pages last month with different projects but a common theme. Years of maintaining a distance from the contemporary marketplace are giving way to efforts to take advantage of new revenue streams.

The Beatles inked a deal for a videogame; Led Zeppelin’s guitarist and bassist, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones, are considering touring under the name with a replacement for their lead singer, Robert Plant; and after three years of VSOP shows, the Jimi Hendrix estate put an all-star cast on an 18-city tour to pay tribute to the original guitar hero.

In an age when seemingly any musical act is repercussion-free in any commercial transaction, those icons who have tightly controlled their legacies stand out. These are big steps for the acts’ copyright controllers, but baby steps in the current marketplace.

The Beatles and Hendrix moves are sharp decisions on both artistic and business levels. Page and Jones, however, could undo nearly three decades of good will derived from avoiding a cash-in. Hendrix, in particular, offers a great win-win: Having esteemed guitarists try their hands at his material expands the audience for the performer and the Hendrix catalog. If they could join the party, Fender guitars and Guitar Hero would be staring at the ultimate target audience.

Led Zep without Plant, no matter how well they perform, would probably only anger and disappoint — and that’s before any inevitable corporate involvement is announced. Led Zep fans love the purity of their band.

IT’S SURPRISING that the first digital presentation of the Beatles music will likely be an MTV videogame, but in some ways that signals a desire to put the music in the hands of youths rather than the people who would be buying the catalog for the third or fourth time. The vidgame move takes the Beatles from a position of passive timidity to forward-looking copyright owners. If the game is a big seller when it is released in a year, they will be oracles.

Led Zep has fought off the overtures of game manufacturers despite having already acquiesced to placements in television commercials. Their vaults have been opened only to release a live album and a concert video, which has kept interest in a Plant, Page, Jones and Jason Bonham tour at a ridiculous peak level; even kids born after the band’s break-up are intrigued.

Then there’s Hendrix, whose name belong on the list as much for his achievements and the way in which the estate has been run. Like the Beatles and Zeppelin, he not only dominated his era, but no guitarist has replaced him on the list of rock’s greats since his death in 1970.

SUNDAY AT the Greek Theater, Hendrix’s music was performed by two of his cohorts, Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell and Band of Gypsys bassist Billy Cox, along with 11 guitarists of renown, among them Buddy Guy, Hubert Sumlin, Eric Johnson and Los Lobos’ Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo. Three continuous hours of blues-based music — much of it invigorating, some of it outdated — the guitarists reinforced the notion that Hendrix still stands alone and that his best songs defy age, much like the Beatles and Led Zep.

Hendrix records don’t sell the way the Beatles and Led Zeppelin do — “Electric Ladyland” has sold 521,000 copies since Experience Hendrix assigned the rights to Universal in 1997 — and the company has been slow in releasing vintage videos or tapes. They’re in on games, though. Guitar Hero: World Tour will release a three song Jimi Hendrix Track Pack on Nov. 13.

Interesting, and satisfying, was the absence of corporate tie-ins at the Greek show. No banners behind the musicians, no touting of product and, by modern rock standards, only a small number of t-shirts for sale. The odd thing was the Gibson guitar logos that flanked the stage. Not only did Hendrix only play Fender instruments, all but one of the guitarists who took the stage did as well. Next year’s tour, it’s safe to assume, may well see a different approach to sponsorship. Another baby step.

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