We are in the midst of a unique time in music history. The songwriters, musicians, performers and icons that we grew up with are still performing and relevant 50 years later. This has never occurred before. We have had the ability to see our heroes age right before our eyes, for better or for worse.
Last week I went to see Graham Nash perform at the City Winery in New York City. A terrific, small venue that has the ability to present legendary artists in an intimate setting. Graham Nash is just one of the legends to grace their stage.
Nash, who is 71, was in great voice and played over 30 songs, many of which were huge hits. His first song, “Bus Stop” was a hit for his first group The Hollies in 1966. I was happy and surprised to hear him perform this song. It has always been one of my favorite tracks from that era, but he didn’t write it. It was written by Graham Goulding. Nash then took the audience through his career both as a solo artist and as a collaborator with David Crosby, Neil Young and Stephen Stills. He sprinkled in a number of new songs that appear on his new album. Nash said he had to do that in order to separate them from The Eagles.
The great thing is that Graham Nash is only one of a number of artists in or approaching their 70’s that still tour regularly. Mick Jagger is 70. Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters and Paul Simon are in their early 70’s. Leonard Cohen, who is probably touring more now than he has in the last 30 years is 79. Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana, James Taylor and Elton John are just a few icons that are in their mid to late 60’s and still hitting the stage with regularity.
In the 1960’s how many musicians from 1910 were still performing. In the 80’s how many artists from the 1930s were still relevant and performing. Sinatra’s last tour was at the age of 75. He died in 1998 at the age of 83. Three years earlier he last graced the stage at a ceremony honoring him. He was only able to sing a few words of “New York, New York”. Tony Bennett last toured in 2011 at the age of 85. Last year he sang “I Left My Heart” in San Francisco’s City Hall at the celebration of the San Francisco Giants World Championship on October 31st. But these two gentlemen are certainly exceptions. Their peers have either long since retired or died. Those that are left are certainly not relevant outside of a nostalgic audience.
The stars of our youth are still recording and touring. Is that good or bad? From an entertainment standpoint, we are blessed. Anyone who saw one of the recent McCartney shows will tell you he is still very vital. Roger Waters just concluded a three year tour of “The Wall”. Dylan plays over 100 shows a year and has been doing so for decades. His audience continues to grow as he attracts younger and younger fans to his concerts. James Taylor and Carole King’s Troubadour Tour, was ridiculously successful.
The problem is that the newer artists of our time can’t compete. Very few acts can play arenas anymore, let alone stadiums, which is where many of the heritage artists play. The older fan demos have the money to spend on these tickets, which can get very costly (front row Rolling Stone tickets were selling for $10,000 apiece on the last tour). Also, many of the people that go to these shows have never seen these artists before. Really what the hell were they doing when they were teenagers, or in their 20’s?
The artists of today will not have the staying power. Can you imagine Maroon 5 performing at 60 years old? Justin Bieber at 30, strutting across the stage? We couldn’t imagine the Stones playing live in their 40’s…Mick Jagger couldn’t even imagine yet. Yet the Stones and others couldn’t pass up the huge amounts of money they were being offered. They have a lifestyle to maintain.
The promoters desperately need artists that can fill big venues, because so few of the younger acts can do it, they turn to the old reliable stars of yesteryear. Sure there have been nostalgia artists and tours before. What we are experiencing is not that.
At this time we are creating Pop Stars, not artists that will have any longevity. The older acts that still tour are artists who established themselves at rock stars in their earlier days. They were not dependent on hit singles to drive their career. Only about half of these artists had what you would consider big hit Top 40 records. Today, a young artist can’t really get enough traction to play big venues without having a big Top 40 track. Sure there are a few exceptions, but for the most part you either have massive Pop or Urban hits or you are playing clubs or small theaters. This is what holds them back.
There are dozens of contemporary artists that could have much more success if the doors to Top 40 radio were open to them. Andrew McMahon (Jack’s Mannequin”) would be a huge pop star if he could get on Top 40 radio. He is the Billy Joel for the under 30 set of today. His problem is that he is white. Until very recently white pop artists have had a hard time getting played at Top 40 radio. It has for the most part been the domain of Urban Pop artists. This is largely due to the fact that the most powerful Top 40 stations are in urban centers. Andrew is approaching an age where he won’t be able to capture that audience that he has missed. The glass ceiling has recently been broken with the success of Ed Sheeran and Mumford and Sons. Sheeran is on an incredible role, while the Mumfords have decided they are sick of each other and need a break. Understandable, but potentially deadly if they plan to have a career ten years from now. The question is how long will these artists get the opportunity to reach the larger audience who listen to pop music.
Technology will have a big hand in what happens in the decades that lie ahead. Will people even be going out to concerts? Perhaps they will stay home, roll a “fat one” and sit in front of their viewing screen to watch a 60 year old Bruno Mars perform his hits from 2015? Wow…just imagine that!!