As the Stones roll into town for their anniversary shindig, with accompanying media hullaballoo, it seems timely to take a look at their place in the modern music environment. Following Martin Cloonan’s autobiographical celebration of their history and its place in his own life, I want to do them the dubious honour – and let’s face it, ‘honour’ has always been dubious where the Stones are concerned – of making a case for their continuing relevance to developments in how popular music is consumed.
I’d like to re-address a couple of general points first. These are well rehearsed in some senses but also subject to hijack. On the one hand, there’s a celebratory marketing of the ‘greatest rock and roll band in the world’ perspective. On the other, shorthand ‘how dare these skeletal millionaires still call themselves rockers?’ jeremiads apply a similarly blinkered value judgement- just a mirror image.
As they rumble on into their dotage and the anniversaries come thick, fast and media saturated, the glut of footage of their younger selves from bygone eras points towards, and yet glosses over in its focus on the band itself, a key fact. It’s not just the Stones that have aged but rock n’ roll, overflowing its riverbanks to become ‘rock’, as well. Rock is a maturing or ageing, if you prefer, genre. It’s maybe not the first musical form to come of age in the era of international mass media dissemination and consumption – a case could be made, for instance, for jazz on that front. But it is probably the one whose growth and evolution is most tightly aligned to changes in how (popular) music is sold and heard. That goes for recordings- the burgeoning of the youth market, the rise of videos, MTV, the consolidation of the major labels, Napster, and so on. Perhaps even more so for the live experience – the developments in amplification technology and PA systems, the move into arenas and stadiums, the growth of the large scale international touring infrastructure.
The Stones’ own history is a window onto those broader developments, culturally (as Martin’s post illustrated) and economically. Intentionally or not, and probably a good-sized dollop of both, they’ve come to act as a marker, almost a bellwether, for the state of the industry. Musically, at least, they were possibly less innovators than adept at ‘perfecting’ a sound and style and making it their own – culminating in that seam of open-tuned crunch and groove they locked onto in the late 1960s and have been mining ever since. There’s a stronger case for them leading the way in the live field – their late 60s and early 70s tours being amongst those pushing the parameters of the rock show, developing ‘leapfrogging’ touring set-ups in the 80s and 90s with multiple stage set-ups criss-crossing continents to allow them to play more massive shows in more cities in the same touring schedule. But across the board, they always seemed to crystallise what was happening. To do things… well maybe ‘better’ isn’t quite the right word, but somehow more. Even if they weren’t the first to do something, they managed to stand for it in the public eye.
The most rebellious: ‘Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?’ headlines, expertly manipulated by Andrew Loog-Oldham to position them as the anti-Beatles in the marketplace and imbue them with an air of grubby authenticity.
The messiest internecine love triangle, as Anita Pallenberg moved from Brian Jones to Keith Richards, with Jagger also involved during the filming of Performance.
The biggest sex and drug stories: The raid on Keith Richards’ Redlands home that enthralled and enraged the prurient popular press, and put them at the centre of the debate about drug laws with William Rees-Mogg’s Times editorial asking ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel’; Richards’ Toronto bust for heroin on their 1977 tour that even threatened to impact on Canadian politics due to Ronnie Wood’s affair with the Prime Minister’s wife.
No mere drug overdose to cap the decline of a founder member – the drowning of Brian Jones is still shrouded in accusation and conspiracy theory, a mini publishing industry in itself.
Not for the Stones a minor scuffle at a badly organised gig. Altamont is still pressed into service as a symbol of the fading of 60s utopian rock culture. (Laing: 13)
And so on into their latter years. From ‘Street Fighting Man’ to Sir Mick Jagger, they seem emblematic of where rock is at a given moment.
This means that, for better or worse, they’re figureheads of a sort for a music that’s run the gamut from the back rooms of pubs to stadiums and corporate culture. So it’s probably a mistake to look at in terms of selling-out, or corrupting the dream, or playing on past a ‘sell-by’ date. As Keith Richards has pointed out (Bockris 422), there isn’t a precedent and the Stones and their surviving peers are in uncharted waters for what happens when a rock band gets old. It has also been pointed out before that even at the height of the counter-culture, rock was always about making money, never overthrowing capitalism or the organisation of the market but redeploying their terms of reference. (For instance, Frith 164; Keightley 127).
Recent qualms about the direction of dance music – is artistry suffering as it hits the US mainstream, is it no longer about ‘the people’? – echo arguments at least as old as punk. Rock ploughed a furrow of debate about commercialisation since trodden by hip-hop and electronic music and the Stones, as ever, serve as a prime example for both sides of it. Musicians giving audiences what they want for as long as they’re able; or businessmen milking a cash-cow for as long as they can.
Stones tabloid coverage these days tends to be more about the standard celebrity fodder of domestic upsets and raking over the old ground of intra-band disputes, a few outlandish rumours about Keith Richards snorting his late father’s ashes notwithstanding. (Richards’ skill at playing a mythologised version of himself in public is one of his more esoteric survival tactics, and one that subsequent ‘hard living’ rockers have tripped over in trying to emulate him). It’s certainly been a while since they’ve troubled the moral fibre of the nation. There was a late flare-up in 1991 over their song ‘Highwire’ about the arms trade, which saw Tory MP Sir John Stokes joining in with tabloid criticism and muttering jingoistically about their lack of patriotism, all of which was really more about a wider mobilisation of media support for the military excursion into the Gulf than the Stones themselves. (See Cloonan 2002: 125 and 1996: 279)
If anything, the complaint has long been that they’re too much a part of the establishment, Jagger (knighthood to the fore) in particular. Again, these gripes go back a long way. Their jet-set lifestyle and grand expensive shows were cited in punk’s case for the prosecution against what rock had become by the mid 70s. Caroline Coon’s complaint at the time is a case in point.
“Mick Jagger, once the arch-deacon of iconoclasm, now couldn’t be further removed from his fans. It’s no longer possible to imagine him as a man of the people…” (Caroline Coon, in Brackett, ed. 2005: 315-317)
But they were swanning around in Rolls Royce’s and hob-nobbing with the upper classes even at the height of their phase as an Establishment bête noire. A keen sense of a groove and a sharp financial eye were never mutually exclusive. It’s worth remembering that one of their ‘rebellions’, and the consequential international life-style, was a response to the tax laws of the early 70s – but also that some of their iconic recordings came out in this time. Amid all the furore over Jimmy Carr and other celebrities’ tax avoidance earlier this year, it occurred to me that at least when the Stones took a hike to minimise their tax liabilities we got Exile on Main Street out of it.
And in the last few weeks, they’ve managed yet again to sum up one of the significant debates around live music and perhaps rock, given its venerable status in the popular music marketplace, in particular. Barely a mention of their anniversary gigs has slipped by without a mention of the price of the tickets – at both face value and the cartoonishly grotesque inflations of the secondary market.
The cheapest face value tickets for the Stones at the 02 was just over £100 (including booking fee), and were presumably far enough away from the stage that the Ticketmaster site had to include a warning that, “Seats located on Level 4 (Upper Tier/Upper Bowl) not recommended for those with a fear of heights.”
A hospitality package came in at £950 plus VAT. This included a champagne reception, three course dinner ‘designed’ by a Michelin starred chef and a complimentary bar. In terms of anything to do with the actual concert, it also gave access to the front of stage ‘tongue pit’, sounding like a cross between a veterinary ailment and an ancient Roman gladiatorial contest which, to be fair, Stones stage shows are increasingly coming to resemble.
The secondary market prices drifted off into a realm way beyond what any reasonable non-millionaire could hope to pay, even before a four-figure booking fee.
So the story became less about the music, and more about the money. Obviously, rarity accrues value so the limited number of shows would have pushed the price up. It also limits economies of scale in terms of putting on the show. Members of the band made this point themselves. A Stones show is expensive to put on, money that would normally be recouped over a relatively lengthy tour, rather than setting up the infrastructure for a handful of shows which have to be rehearsed in a massive hanger whether they’re for four or forty gigs.
Ronnie Wood was unrepentant, “We’ve already spent a million on rehearsing in Paris. And the stage is going to be another few million. And the lights… We feel no bad thing about ticket prices. We’ve got to make something.”
“Something” being the £16million about which Keith Richards was typically insouciant.
“I’m a bit out of the loop with showbiz. Numbers can get greatly exaggerated … [but] £16m sounds about right to us.”
Jagger, for his part, also referred to economies of scale, but based his defence on deflecting the question onto the secondary market.
“I don’t think there should be a secondary ticket market. I don’t think it should be legal. To my mind, there has to be a better way of doing it, but we’re living, really, with the way the system functions. We can’t, in four shows, change the whole ticketing system. You might say, “The tickets are too expensive”-well, it’s a very expensive show to put on, just to do four shows, because normally you do a hundred shows and you’d have the same expenses. [laughs] So, yes, it’s expensive. But most of the tickets go for a higher price than we’ve sold them for, so you can see the market is there. We don’t participate in the profit. If a ticket costs 250 quid, let’s imagine, and goes for 1,000 quid I just want to point out that we don’t get that difference.”
In some ways this is all a bit disingenuous. Part of the ‘anniversary’ tour phenomenon involves gathering up former members to add to the ‘aura’ – and scarcity value – of the show. The Beach Boys recent tour led to their habitual falling out as the different factions went their separate ways after a few joint shows. Status Quo are reforming their classic line-up for anniversary dates. And so the Stones duly announced that surviving alumni Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor would be making guest appearances.
Classical sociology talks about the difference between the ‘gemeinschaft’ – groups organised around personal ties and a collective ethos – and ‘gesellschaft’ – individual self-interest organised around functional roles. The rock band has always operated in an overlap between these, its appeal residing in a projection of the community group, its survival on how its members arrange their working practices, musical and otherwise. The Stones are an archetype of this. Jagger gets to be the Knight of the Realm, Richards the buccaneer. As long as they can work together, everyone gets a show, and a share of the spoils. Nowhere was this more obvious than in their release of more tickets just before the show, predicated on the appeal of bringing Wyman and Taylor temporarily back into the fold.
Pre-meditation was clearly a factor here. Just as the suggestions that there may be more shows later on probably belie behind the scenes negotiations long underway.
That rock shows involve big money is nothing new. Neither is utilising an appeal to history and nostalgia to make that money, nor accusations of underhand dealing at the expense of fans, and industry pundit Bob Lefsetz certainly seems to think there was complicity with the touts. But even assuming that the Stones aren’t making anything from the secondary market, those high prices still increase the rarity value of the live event. (I’ve often wondered who it is that pays thousands of pounds for a gig ticket, and was unsurprised to see that many remained unsold). So they might not get a share of the £10,000 mark up on tickets, but they’ll undoubtedly benefit from the pay-per-view live broadcasts (£14.95) of the New Jersey show.
At the end of the day, they’re charging what they think the market will bear and finding ways to monetise their brand. They’ve certainly been adept enough at that to make the £200,000 fine they received for overrunning the curfew at their O2 show on Sunday seem like pocket change, even as it might burnish any rock rebel credentials they have left. But it was interesting to see a Rolling Stone weighing in on the legality of a section of the market, even if only in self-defence. Even if we include the ‘Highwire’ incident, it’s been at least twenty-years since the Stones’ brand of rock has generated a controversy about national culture or politics. It’s access to live entertainment, or culture, depending on your point of view, that’s at stake now. This isn’t trivial either. Access to live music is an important part of our cultural lives, and ticket prices make a difference. An inflated secondary market that shuts fans out of getting face value tickets closes off that access. I’m not making a case here for Jagger as some sort of peoples’ champion. Even high face-value tickets could have a knock on effect at the other end of the live music ecology. (If you’re paying £300 to see the Stones, how many fewer gigs will you be able to attend to save for that?).
But such is the Stones’ status as the marker of where rock is at, that their 50th Anniversary shows have become an emblem of the overpriced and the runaway tendencies of an unchecked secondary market. Whether the Stones represent the way forward for future generations of acts in the mature popular music market, or the sclerotic endgame of arena rock as an accessible form of live entertainment remains to be seen. They are at least generating a discussion about it. With other acts like Bon Jovi talking about ‘fan friendly’ ticket prices, promoters like AEG investigating dynamic pricing systems and legal rulings challenging the secondary market in sporting events, ticketing is a live topic in every sense of the word and the Stones find themselves in the eye of a storm only partly of their making. Once more, they may not be the only act in the circus, but they end up as the poster boys for it (if ‘boys’ isn’t too much of a misnomer in this case).
MP Sharon Hodgson’s private member’s bill to regulate the secondary market was filibustered at its reading in 2011 and dropped from the agenda for 2012. But interest in the subject was reactivated after Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary in February and if the publicity surrounding the price of Stones tickets can serve to keep the discussion going then, somewhat counterintuitively, it seems that their knack of exemplifying the excesses of any particular point in popular music history may yet serve a purpose beyond making us dance. For what it’s worth, and the answer isn’t £10,000 of anyone’s money, I’d still like to see them again. This time around I’ll have to settle for the mediated version and the knowledge that they somehow always create an entertaining sideshow. As the man sang, you can’t always get what you want but…
Bockris, Victor. 1993. Keith Richards: The Biography. Harmandsworth: Penguin.
Brackett, David (ed.) 2005. The Rock Pop and Soul Reader. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cloonan, Martin.1996. Banned! Censorship of popular music in Britain: 1967-1992. Aldershot: Arena.
Cloonan, Martin. 2002. ‘Exclusive! The British Press and Popular Music: The Story So Far…’. In Pop Music and the Press, ed. Steve Jones, 114-133. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Frith, Simon. 1978. The Sociology of Rock. London: Constable.
Keightley, Keir. 2001. Reconsidering rock. In The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, ed. Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street, 109-142. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Laing, Dave. 2004. ‘The Three Woodstocks and the Live Music Scene’ in Remembering Woodstock, ed. Andy Bennett. Aldershot: Ashgate
Lysaght, Alan. 2003. The Rolling Stones: An Oral History. Toronto: McArthur and Company.
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