Rock on the Road Again: Bubbles, Plan B, Spotify and the Monkees

After the World Health Organization declared covid-19 a worldwide pandemic on March 11, 2020, the entertainment business was effectively shut down.

By Ian Howarth, November 24,2021

Concerts, live theatre, museums and cinemas were among many of the estimated 12 million people associated and employed with all aspects of the performing arts, now suddenly cut adrift. With estimated revenues of $1 trillion annually, the business shifted online. Some were able to adapt and wait. Others simply had to change course. And find completely different sources of income.

Some had the resources to get more adventurous and try to create a kind of live performance buzz –  safely.  Psychedelic-rock band the Flaming Lips performed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in June, performing to a select live crowd, all of whom were encased in individualized “space bubbles,” plastic inflatable balls they had purchased from a Chinese manufacturer. (Given that covid-19 had its roots in China, the irony may have escaped The Lips’ collective psyche.) Wayne Coyne, the band’s lead singer, had used a plastic bubble to crowd surf in pre-pandemic concerts so he decided to expand the idea – a concept that got them off the couch and onto the stage. In October 2020, they used the bubble concept at a concert in their hometown of Oklahoma City, providing about 200 of the space bubbles for devoted fans not averse to sweaty, enclosed spaces. A noble and earnest idea, but unfortunately one that didn’t travel well. And one that was not particularly cost-effective.

Flaming Lips performed on the Stephen Colbert Show

Flaming Lips performed on the Stephen Colbert Show in June 2020 inside giant plastic bubbles, their attempt at a covid-safe live concert. A handful of guests were invited, most of whom are not likely to forget the experience.

There are mostly losers rather than winners in the pandemic-decimated live entertainment biz. The fact that Netflix added some 16 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2020 says a lot about how things have unfolded for the people formerly employed in the myriad of components that go into the live performance business. The dearth of live concert opportunities has hit performers’ bottom line – up to 70% of their income is derived from live concerts. (Global live music revenues took in an estimated $27 billion in 2019.) The Plan B revenue intake for most performers was streaming services like Spotify or Apple Music. But how much does a singer, song writer or band make per download? As of 2019, Spotify reported that it pays between $0.00331 and $0.00437 per download. But that revenue has to be split among the record label, the music publisher and in the US, the American Society of Authors and Composers, which is one of the Top 10 acronyms of all-time, ASCAP. (SOCAN and Re:Sound are a few of the Canadian equivalents.) Let’s say an artist is fortunate enough to get 500,000 downloads of one popular song from their album or EP. That translates into about $2,185.

One source says an average single person living alone  in Canada would need to have $2,770 to cover their monthly living expenses.

Want to go solo in Toronto? A one-bedroom apartment there could set you back $2,100.  It’s no wonder music artists just scraping by pre-pandemic have found other jobs and have left the unpredictable income world of music for good. 

Like many big names, Drake is back doing live performances, but unlike many others in the music biz, he doesn’t have to worry too much about the money involved with touring. He is one of the top-streamed artists with over 5.615 billion downloads in 2020… so far.

 

They can’t all be Taylor Swift, who is one of the top streaming money earners of last year $23.8 million. Or  hip-hop artist Drake who amassed 5.615 billion downloads of his songs in 2020. If about three-quarters of the world’s population had a mobile phone, they’d have at least one Drake song on their playlist.   

Out of the ashes of 2020, music artists of all genres are gradually getting back on the tour bus (or jet if they’ve got the dough), trying to make up for lost time or cancelled early 2020 concert dates. The Rolling Stones just wrapped up their No Filter Tour, their first without drummer Charlie Watts. Jagger, who once said he hoped he wouldn’t be singing Satisfaction for the rest of his life, has moved past that sentiment and the Stones’ setlist always includes that song. The idea for senior rockers who have deep song catalogues is to deliver the hits to fans who have forked out $200 for tickets. The days for onstage experimentation are done. 

A dive into the list of performers who have taken to the road in 2020 includes a solid representation of classic rock bands and solo artists. The Eagles, Yes, Rod Stewart, Journey, Steely Dan, Deep Purple, Elton John and Kiss have lubed up their vocal chords for perhaps one last rock resurrection. Some groups are seriously wounded, their ranks decimated by time and tragedy. ZZ Top is touring without bassist/group founder Dusty Hill, who died last summer. One-half of Steely Dan, guitarist Walter Becker, has been gone since 2017. “It’s been a bit of a ride to get here, you know,” Keith Richards said of the Stones’ impressive durability.

But perhaps the biggest surprise for this writer is the discovery that the two surviving members of the Monkees, drummer/singer Micky Dolenz and guitarist Michael Nesmith, just finished a modest tour in mid-November. At 78, Nesmith is the same age as Mick Jagger and Dolenz, 76, the same age as Keith Richards. It is strange to attempt any parallel between these two groups considering that the Monkees were not an actual group, but a TV studio concoction, an idea hatched by the producers of the 1965 TV show, The Monkees.

Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz

Hey, hey we’re the Monkees. (Left) Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz just completed a covid-delayed concert tour at almost the same time as the Rolling Stones wrapped up theirs mid-November.. Jagger and Nesmith are both 78 and likewise Dolenz, 76, shares longevity with Keith Richards. Both groups (though the Monkees were at first 4 guys playing at being a band) have a special kind of durability. And both were likely on tour for the final time.

Though the Stones formed in 1962, it wasn’t until the British Invasion of 1964 that groups like the Beatles and Stones caught fire. It’s no accident that the Monkees lead singer, Britain-born Davey Jones was chosen as the group’s front man. He was cute, he could sing – and he had a British accent. So Nesmith and Dolenz have used the 55th anniversary of their TV show to do a Monkees Farewell Tour. And I think we can take them at their word, given Nesmith had quadruple bypass surgery in 2018.  

 

It’s just astonishing how much mileage some “60s and “70s rock/pop music acts have had the great good fortune to accrue, despite the ageism and nastiness that is built into the DNA of the rock industry. I salute all the musicians still standing after more than a half century of somehow maintaining momentum. So we can continue with the Keith Richards memes and Facebook jokes, but he gets the last laugh. If the Stones 2021 tour is even half the $180 million they earned in 2019, they’ll be pleased, I’m sure. Back on the road, baby.

1 Comment

  1. Deborah Wickwire

    Another good read from Ian. Insightful and thought provoking and makes me appreciate that I have been alive at the very best era of music. And I won’t complain about high-priced concert tickets anymore.

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