When Glenn Frey died, Don Henley said that the Eagles would never play live again. So much for that promise. Why is Rogers Waters still touring at age 73? Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey would rather they never have to play “Baba O’Reilly” ever again but are still on the road. We can say the same for Bob Dylan, Fleetwood Mac, U2, Steely Dan and a host of others. Are they still working because they love to? Or because they have to?
In the days before the Internet, hit albums were like annuities. Because they were constant sellers, a fat cheque would arrive in the mail every few months. Things were really, really good in the 80s and 90s during the CD boom as people repurchased their music libraries on the new format. For example, every Doors album reliably sold a million copies a year. The Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill enjoyed a run when it went double platinum ever twelve months. The Eagles first greatest hits record generated millions and millions in revenue.
Then along came the digital era and it all stopped.
Two things to consider. The first blow came with Napster and its ilk and the resulting in rampant music piracy, something from which music sales never recovered. The second was delivered by Steve Jobs when he opened up the iTunes music store after convincing the music industry to sell individual tracks for 99 cents. That sealed the death warrant for the album as the dominant form of music distribution. Suddenly, those hit albums from back catalogues weren’t selling so well. Digital sales sucked. Streaming didn’t pay. Income streams starting drying up.
So what’s an aging rock star to do to make up for this lost money? Go on the road.
Quartz looks at the case of Steely Dan who are back touring because frankly, they need the cash.
For musicians, it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. Streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify are booming, helping the long-suffering music industry grow for the first time in decades.
But these new services make very little money for artists, with ephemeral streams paying out only a fraction of the revenue of actual album sales and downloads. Beyoncé, the highest-paid artist of last year, made the bulk of her money from a world tour. So did Guns N’ Roses, the second name on that list, and that band hasn’t even released a new album in a decade.
Another sign of the times is Donald Fagen, the 69-year-old cofounder of rock band Steely Dan, who has just announced a new tour in the US and Japan with an entirely new backup band called the Nightflyers. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal (paywall), Fagen’s explanation for the new tour was decisively blunt:
When the bottom fell out of the record business a bunch of years ago, it deprived me of the luxury of earning a living from records. I don’t sell enough albums to cover the cost of recording them the way I like to. For me, touring is the only way to make a living.