Archive for the ‘Live Music’ Category

Hey Hey, My My: Aging Rock Fans Still Hold Their Lighters High

April 9, 2017

By TAMMY La GORCE NYTimes.com 4/07/17

Pete Townshend of the Who struck a nerve with rock ’n’ roll rebels in 1965 with the line “I hope I die before I get old.”

But something has happened in the five decades since he wrote “My Generation”: The boomer generation got older, yet continued to love rock ’n’ roll. Now, as many of those early fans enter retirement, they are still boarding buses and trudging through muddy fields to see their favorite bands.

“It used to be that when you retired, you went to Leisure World or the old retirement complex,” said Mark Hover, a 65-year-old who lives in Moreno Valley, Calif., and retired in 2004 after 30 years working for the United Parcel Service. Now, he said, other options are more appealing to him.

“What you’re supposed to do in your golden years is more of what you love,” he said. “What I’ve loved all my life is going to see live music.” He attends more than 100 shows a year, spending thousands of dollars traveling to concerts and multiday rock festivals like Bonnaroo, in Manchester, Tenn., which he plans to attend in June. He finds that he is far from the only “old guy” — his term — rocking out.

Concerts aimed at old guys are big business. According to the music industry tracking firm Pollstar, the six-day music extravaganza Desert Trip, featuring the Who and fellow rock veterans like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Neil Young, took in $160 million last year. Held in Indio, Calif., the festival catered to “an older, more affluent crowd,” Pollstar said. Mr. Hover was there, and paid $399 for his ticket.

Tickets to other concerts and festivals likely to draw audiences old enough to remember Woodstock — among them the just-announced Classic East and Classic West, with the headliners Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles, scheduled for New York and Los Angeles this summer — are also selling robustly.
Photo
Yonder Mountain String Band. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

Mr. Hover said he likes younger acts, such as the Raveonettes, too. The online ticketing service Eventbrite found in a 2015 study conducted by the Harris Poll that 44 percent of those ages 51 to 70 are attending more live shows now than they did in 2005. Of those concertgoers, 40 percent say they want to stay abreast of current tastes.

“My generation had this thing about, don’t trust anyone over 30,” said Sheldon Donig, 70, a retired developer from San Anselmo, Calif. “But age doesn’t seem to be an issue at the festivals I go to. Younger people don’t seem to be ageist.” He said he plans to take his R.V. in June to the Kate Wolf Music Festival in Laytonville, Calif., and in August to the Oregon Eclipse in Crook County, Ore.

For many retirees, concertgoing is a lifestyle, and not a new one. “It’s not like we were playing golf and all of a sudden quit and started seeing shows,” Mr. Donig said. “We’ve been doing this since we were in our 20s.” The difference now, he said, is that they can do more of it.

Bob McAdam, 74, a retired CVS pharmacist from Bourne, Mass., also dived deep into live music after retiring in 2014. He says he attends roughly 150 concerts or festivals a year, twice as many as when he was working. “I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t play golf, and I don’t have a second home in Florida,” he said. “Music is my only hobby.”

Mr. McAdam has built a social network through his showgoing. “You get to know people, and you keep in touch with some of them,” he said. He has little time for peers of his who have given up on contemporary music.

“A lot of people not even my age, but a lot younger, have this idea that Led Zeppelin was the best thing you could listen to, and that there’s nothing worth listening to anymore,” Mr. McAdam said. “That’s just wrong. Also, hearing new music keeps you current.”

Occasionally, it can exhaust you. “Festivals are thought of as a younger person’s game because it can be challenging to be out in the summer sun from morning till dusk two or three days in a row,” said Jeffrey Schneider, 54, a lawyer from Dix Hills, N.Y., who plans to retire in the next year or two to focus on concertgoing. “You need stamina. But as Warren Zevon said, ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.’”

Festival logistics can be especially hard on retirees with health issues, like Timothy Sanford-Wachtel, 68, a presiding Workers’ Compensation judge in Riverside, Calif., who has survived cancer. Mr. Sanford-Wachtel is planning his impending retirement around concerts and festivals. “Sometimes it’s tough to navigate my walker around 100,000 people,” he said. “But I always tell people I’m not going to quit until the Rolling Stones do.”

Dan Berkowitz, chief executive of CID Entertainment, a Philadelphia company that offers concert travel packages, said retirees tend to expect a smooth operation. “People who are a bit older have the reputation of being demanding,” he said, because they know they should not have to wait in line 45 minutes to get past security, and should not be stuck behind a billboard so they can’t see the stage. Because of retirees’ influence, he said, festival organizers, especially at shows like Desert Trip, which he described as “generally luxurious, as far as festivals go,” operate more carefully.

While clients in their 50s and older represent about 15 percent of his business, they account for about half the attendance at shows that cater to them, like Desert Trip and Fare Thee Well, a 2015 series of concerts by the surviving members of the Grateful Dead. One client in this age group, who has been going to Bonnaroo for eight years, regularly arranges for five or six buses to travel to the festival through CID. “He’s done well for himself, and when it comes time for him to have a bit of fun, he likes to bring his family and friends along,” Mr. Berkowitz said.

Millennials are often said to value experience over material things, but Mr. Berkowitz says he associates that sensibility with his most senior clients. “They know they’re not going to remember that one year they bought a new TV, or got a car with an upgraded moon roof,” he said. “They’re going to remember seeing their favorite artists with family or friends.”

Jill Seagraves, 61, of Upper Montclair, N.J., couldn’t agree more. “My parents used to like to watch golf on TV with drinks on a Sunday afternoon,” she said. “That’s nothing that ever interested me.” Instead, traveling to see festivals like Desert Trip has kept her occupied, and happy, since her children left home; she is a retired homemaker.

“There’s going to be a day where people like Neil Young don’t play anymore, and I want to be at their last tour,” she said. “I want to die with a wristband around my wrist.”

Bruce Springsteen, Beyoncé post top-grossing tours of 2016

January 2, 2017

Randy Lewis, LATimes.com 12/29/16

Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band navigated “The River” 35th anniversary tour all the way to the bank in 2016, pulling in $268.3 million globally to score the top-grossing concert trek of the year worldwide, according to Pollstar, the concert industry-tracking publication.

Beyoncé nipped close at the E Streeters’ heels, grossing $256.4 million from her Formation world tour, followed by Coldplay ($241 million), Guns N’ Roses ($188.4 million) and Adele ($167.7 million) to round out Pollstar’s top five.

“In what has been a banner year for the concert business, the Top 10 Tours alone grossed a combined $1.67 billion,” Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni noted in a statement. “That is significantly better than the $1.5 billion in 2015.”

It is, in fact, an 11.3% increase.

Adele is one of just two performers to have emerged in the new millennium to make the Top 10, the other being Justin Bieber, whose tour grossed $163.3 million, placing him at No. 6 on the list.

That’s a bit of a come down from last year, when Taylor Swift had the top-grossing tour of 2015 worldwide and the Top 10 also include such relative newcomers as One Direction  and Ed Sheeran.

Following Bieber on the 2016 roster, Paul McCartney posted a worldwide gross of $110.6 million; Garth Brooks, $97 million; the Rolling Stones, $90.9 million; and Céline Dion, $85.5 million.

Coldplay, however, sold the most tickets, moving almost 2.7 million during the year, followed by Springsteen at 2.4 million and Beyoncé at 2.2 million.

Dion easily had the top average ticket price of $146.26, followed by McCartney at $127.43, the Stones at $122.33, Beyoncé at $114.59 and Springsteen at $111.48.

In terms of average gross per show, however, the Stones dwarfed the competition, taking in an staggering $9.1 million from just 14 performances in 10 cities. Beyoncé finished second with an average of nearly $5.6 million at 49 shows in 46 cities, then Coldplay at just under $5.5 million from 60 shows in 44 cities and Guns N’ Roses at almost $5.4 million from 44 shows in 35 cities.

Brooks can claim the most affordable tour among the Top 10 finishers, tickets averaging just $69.29 for the 102 performances he gave in 25 cities.

Pollstar is still finalizing figures for its annual ranking of the Top 200 tours globally and in North America; results will be posted in its Jan. 6 edition.

Bongiovanni noted that Beyoncé took top honors for the highest-grossing North American tour of 2016, but the figure for that portion of her world tour was not released.

Both Springsteen and Beyonce surpassed Swift’s field-leading gross of $250.1 million in 2015.

Fans still prefer music live to digital, Nielsen Music 360 report finds

September 17, 2016

By Randy Lewis LATimes.com 9/15/16

How do people most like to enjoy their music? Live, at least according to the Nielsen Music firm’s latest edition of its Music 360 report, which tracks how consumers take in music in today’s fractured, multi-platform world.

Of all the ways to experience music, Nielsen found, 36% of consumers’ money spent goes toward live events, far and away the most popular way of consuming music.

Of course, that no doubt partly reflects the fact that the cost of tickets for most live events far outpaces the cost of buying downloads, CDs or paying for a monthly streaming subscription.

But in an intriguing facet of the study into the changing habits of fans in an era in which music is increasingly defined by streaming services, 21% of overall music spending still goes toward physical CDs or downloaded digital singles and albums, compared to only 6% to streaming service subscriptions.

Among 13- to 17-year-old consumers, 38% of their money is spent on physical and digital albums and tracks, with a higher-than-average 9% for streaming services, and just 5% for satellite radio subscriptions.

Those are just a couple of highlights of the report, which Nielsen has excerpted for public consumption from the full paid study that goes out this week to its entertainment industry subscribers.

“Fans are interacting with music differently,” the report’s summary states, “but their passion for music remains strong. In fact, listeners are spending more time and more money on music-related expenses in 2016 than they did in 2015.”

On the streaming front, Nielsen reports that 80% of music listeners used such a service during the 12 months preceding the study. The report was conducted from July 14 to Aug. 5 of this year, among 3,554 consumers “reflective of the population of the United States.”

That figure is up five percentage points from a year earlier, when 75% of respondents said they had used a streaming service in the prior year.

In terms of the time spent listening to music, Nielsen reports that radio is still the most popular method, accounting for 27% of the time people spend listening by format. Digital music collections accounted for an additional 20%, followed by streaming of on-demand audio (12%), programmed audio (11%), and music video and physical music collections (tied at 10% each).

Demographically, Hispanic consumers (as defined by Nielsen) spent on average 90% more on music than the general population and also scored higher numbers than average for attending DJ events and smaller live music sessions.

Hispanics also posted higher numbers than teens or millennials (ages 18 to 34) for attending live concerts with one main headliner, small live music sessions, live concerts with multiple headliners, music festivals, club events with DJs and club events with a specific DJ.

The survey also explored music preferences broken down by political affiliation, with Democrats scoring higher than the general population in money spent on club events with DJs (124% more than average), small live music sessions (+54%), digital music (+43%) and video on demand or pay-per-view services (+38%).

Republicans, meanwhile, spent more on premium TV subscriptions (76% above the general population), comedy performances (+65%), sports events (+35%) and satellite radio services (+32%).

Entertainment options that appeal the most to independent voters were video games (+42%), live music concerts (+31%) and paid online streaming (+14%).

The study also digs extensively into how consumers respond to branding affiliations at concerts and festivals they attend, with nearly two-thirds of festivalgoers saying they viewed a brand more favorably if they offered product giveaways at live events and nearly as many (64.8%) saying the same if a brand sponsors an air-conditioned tent at a festival.

More than half (53.7%) said their estimation of a brand improves when that brand sponsors an existing festival, while 46.3% said they view the brand more favorably for producing its own music festival.

Billy Joel still lives on Long Island, still rules the Garden.

November 5, 2014

Nick Paumgarten NewYorker.com 10/29/14

Joel hasn’t released an album of new pop material since 1993. “I look back at the guy who was the recording artist, this Billy Joel guy, and I think, Who the fuck was that guy?” Joel hasn’t released an album of new pop material since 1993. “I look back at the guy who was the recording artist, this Billy Joel guy, and I think, Who the fuck was that guy”.

Billy Joel sat smoking a cigarillo on a patio overlooking Oyster Bay. He had chosen the seating area under a trellis in front of the house, his house, a brick Tudor colossus set on a rise on the southeastern tip of a peninsula called Centre Island, on Long Island’s North Shore. It was a brilliant cloudless September afternoon. Beethoven on Sonos, cicadas in the trees, pugs at his feet. Out on the water, an oyster dredge circled the seeding beds while baymen raked clams in the flats. Joel surveyed the rising tide. Sixty-five. Semi-retirement. Weeks of idleness, of puttering around his motorcycle shop and futzing with lobster boats, of books and dogs and meals, were about to give way to a microburst of work. His next concert, his first in more than a month, was scheduled to begin in five hours, at Madison Square Garden, and he appeared to be composing himself.

“Actually, I composed myself a long time ago,” he said. He told a joke that involved Mozart erasing something in a mausoleum; the punch line was “I’m decomposing.” He knocked off an ash. Whenever anyone asks him about his pre-show routine, he says, “I walk from the dressing room to the stage. That’s my routine.” Joel has a knack for delivering his own recycled quips and explanations as though they were fresh, a talent related, one would think, to that of singing well-worn hits with sincere-seeming gusto. He often says that the hardest part isn’t turning it on but turning it off: “One minute, I’m Mussolini, up onstage in front of twenty thousand screaming people. And then, a few minutes later, I’m just another schmuck stuck in traffic on the highway.” It’s true: the transition is abrupt, and it has bedevilled rock stars since the advent of the backbeat. But this schmuck is usually looking down on the highway from an altitude of a thousand feet. He commutes to and from his shows by helicopter.

Joel was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black jeans, black Vans, and an Indian Motorcycle ball cap. The back of his head, where hair might be, was freshly shorn, and his features, which in dark or obscure moods can appear mottled and knotted, were at rest, projecting benevolent bemusement. To prepare for the flight, he’d put on a necklace of good-luck medallions—pendants of various saints. The atavism of Long Island is peculiar. Though Jewish, and an atheist, he had, as a boy in a predominantly Catholic part of Hicksville, attended Mass, and even tried confession. His mother took him and his sister to Protestant services at a local church; he was baptized there. Still, a girl across the street said he’d grow horns, and a neighborhood kid named Vinny told him, “Yo, Joel, you killed Jesus. I’m gonna beat your ass.” Vinny did, repeatedly. Joel took up boxing to defend himself. The nose still shows it.

There was a rumble in the distance. “That’s my guy,” Joel said. “He’s early.” A helicopter zipped in over the oystermen and landed down by the water, at the hem of a great sloping lawn, where Joel had converted the property’s tennis court to a helipad. He’d recently had to resurface it, after Hurricane Sandy. Joel often attempts to inoculate himself with self-mockery. “Oh, my helipad got flooded,” he says, with the lockjaw of Thurston Howell III.

He got up to go. He has the short, wide, halting gait of an old lineman—two fake hips. He called through the screen door leading to the kitchen: “A-Rod!” A-Rod was his girlfriend, Alexis Roderick, from Northport, a thirty-three-year-old former risk manager at Morgan Stanley. They met five years ago at a restaurant in Huntington, where they’d both gone with friends. He introduced himself, got her number, and, when he was done eating, called her on the phone from across the restaurant and asked if she would give him a ride home. “I always try to go out with North Shore girls,” he likes to say. “They usually have a car.” She drove him back to Centre Island. He asked her if she wanted to hear him play. She said no. He played anyway—Rachmaninoff, on the living-room grand, a move he got from “The Seven Year Itch.” She says, “It was like he couldn’t not be ‘Billy Joel’ at that moment.”

“I may have got a little fresh,” he recalls. She drove off that night, but months later they began seeing each other. She moved in with him, and he persuaded her to quit her job on Wall Street. Joel, who refers to his former wives as Ex 1, Ex 2, and Ex 3, says that he is in no hurry to be married again.

They got their stuff together in the kitchen. She had on a short light suède jacket and jeans. “Do you have your shots?” she asked. He retrieved a padded envelope with allergy medication and stuck it into a small black wheelie bag containing throat spray and some motorcycle magazines for his longtime lighting man and fellow-gearhead, Steve Cohen. Outside the kitchen, he tossed the bag in the back of a Polaris U.T.V. and drove down toward the helipad. “This doesn’t suck,” he said. Along the way, he passed Roderick, who was on foot. “Hey, chicky baby!” he called out, in his Vinny voice. The pilot, in uniform, took his bag and escorted them to the chopper, a sleek black Bell 430, twin engine. Within moments, it was soaring across the bay and over the wooded estates of Nassau County. Joel name-checked harbors, parkways, and golf courses, some of which he’d caddied at as a kid. To the south, Levittown, where he grew up. To the north, Kings Point and Sands Point, Fitzgerald’s models for West Egg and East Egg. “And now we’re over the great gray ash heaps,” Joel said, still on “Gatsby” and referring to the once blighted section of Queens. Cemeteries, row houses, projects: the copter tacked southwest over Brooklyn and aimed for Manhattan’s lower tip, towers sparkling in the late-afternoon sun. “This is the beginning of the psych-up for the show,” Joel said. “You see this and you tell yourself, ‘I gotta do a good one.’ ”

Since the beginning of the year, Joel had been playing the Garden once a month. This would be the ninth such show so far. All twelve had sold out well in advance, and the secondary market was tight. He intends to continue the residency, as they are calling it, for as long as both ticket demand and his level of performance remain strong. He’s not quite sure which he’d rather see fall off first.

The chopper turned up the Hudson, flying low, and eased down to the heliport, a few blocks west of the arena. “You know, if you type ‘Billy Joel’s house’ into Google maps, you get Madison Square Garden,” Joel said. The flight had taken sixteen minutes. An S.U.V. whisked him and Roderick and his tour director, Max Loubiere, crosstown and then up a ramp to the passageway behind the stage, where crew and band members were milling around. Sound check. “Back in the salt mines,” Joel said.
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Steve Cohen, who has been Joel’s lighting designer since 1974 and his creative director since the mid-eighties, handed Joel his suggested set list. It doesn’t vary much from show to show, but there are always a few wild cards, and this time Cohen had inserted “Just the Way You Are,” the 1977 ballad that became Joel’s first big hit, propelling sales of the album “The Stranger,” and of Joel’s earlier albums as well, which up until then had languished. (Among those was “Piano Man,” the title track of which became, to his increasing weariness, his signature song; that album, Joel was told, initially earned only seven thousand dollars.) Joel hadn’t played “Just the Way You Are” in five years.

“The set’s a little M.O.R.,” Joel complained, meaning “middle of the road,” the soft-rock category now called Adult Contemporary. He made his way onto the stage and sat down at the piano and knocked out a little Beethoven, before the band members, most of whom have been with him for more than ten years, worked out the backup vocal harmonies to “My Life.” They vamped for a while on “Sledgehammer,” by Peter Gabriel, and ran through the end of “Movin’ Out,” to get the right level for the horns. And then Joel was doing “Just the Way You Are.” He’d written it for his first wife and manager, Elizabeth. When he told her, “This song is for you,” Donna Summer, standing nearby, said, “Does that come with the publishing?”

Before long, at the sound check, he began substituting bawdy lyrics: “I just want someone . . . to have sex with” and “Now you know I’m . . . full of shi-it.” “I couldn’t have loved you any better, unless . . . you grew some bigger tits.” Cohen walked by, shaking his head.

After a while, Joel stopped. “Should we really do that one? Really?”

“There won’t be a dry eye in the house,” the saxophonist Mark Rivera said.

Joel continued to argue against playing it. (He’d wanted to leave it off the album, too, but Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, dropping by the studio one day, told him he was nuts.) He usually won these arguments. At other sound checks, I’d seen him scrap such mainstays as “Angry Young Man” (the tempo was lagging, and the sentiment felt false) and “Captain Jack.” (“Dreary, dreary, dreary,” he said. “It just goes on and on. I’m sick of the thing. It didn’t age well. It’s been busted down to ‘Private Jack.’ ”) But this time Cohen and Brian Ruggles, Joel’s sound engineer since the early seventies, prevailed.

A few hours later, the arena was full, and he was back onstage with the band, delivering the familiar hits in full voice. He was all in. The cynicism surfaced only between numbers, such as when, after playing “The Entertainer,” he repeated, in a quizzical tone, the line “I won’t be here in another year / If I don’t stay on the charts” and then exclaimed, “Bullshit!” A roar greeted the opening notes of “Just the Way You Are,” and up in Section 106 I could see some women of a certain age singing along and dabbing their eyes. When the song was done, Joel turned to the audience and said, “And then we got divorced.”

Joel’s show hasn’t changed much over the years. Songs cycle in and out, and he and the band play many of them in a different key, to accommodate his aging vocal cords (he says that he prefers his late-career baritone to the tenor of his prime), but for the most part the big hits are always there, presented in the same arrangements and sonic array. The saxophone is the radiocarbon. Close your eyes and it’s 1982, which in many ways is exactly what his fans want. The delivery was tight and strong. Long ago, Joel grew tired of having to look out at the fat cats in the two front rows, the guys who’d bought the best seats and then sat there projecting a look of impatience and boredom that Joel characterizes, using his Vinny voice, as “Entertain me, Piano Man.” So Joel’s people stopped selling the two front rows and instead send the crew into the cheap seats before the show to hand out tickets to people of their choosing. That this usually results in a foreground that is both young and female may or may not be an unintended consequence, but Joel believes that it helps buck up the band.

To close out the set, he sprayed his throat, donned a harmonica rig, and launched into “Piano Man” without betraying any exasperation, only wonder, as thousands of people, many of them about half the song’s age, sang along. You could stand behind the stage and look out at the throngs, lit up by Cohen, and begin to understand why a man might rouse himself from hibernation and go through the motions again. “Gotta feed the elephant,” he likes to say. He means all the stakeholders in Joel, Inc., but the phrase also suggests his own desire for validation or love.

He closed out his customary five-song encore with “Only the Good Die Young.” It’s one of those songs that get the Garden arena, which is built on springs, to start bouncing. The bouncing had hardly ceased by the time Joel’s S.U.V. was gunning down the ramp and west toward the helipad, where the chopper waited. Ruggles and Cohen got aboard with Joel and Roderick. Someone had rescued a gigantic bag of popcorn from the dressing room; Joel liked to have it at home. The helicopter lifted off, tracked north over Central Park, and then out over Queens and LaGuardia. The metropolis alight. Joel leaned over to Cohen and said, “This is a great fucking job.”

Over Long Island Sound, Joel pointed out a mass. “That’s J. P. Morgan’s old island,” he said. “I rented a house there for a while, after I sold the house in East Hampton.” The helicopter cut south along the eastern shore of Centre Island. The helipad’s lights flashed on. As the passengers disembarked, Roderick quietly urged Ruggles, who was going through a divorce and living for the time being in one of Joel’s guesthouses, to take the popcorn.

Joel drove Roderick up the hill in the U.T.V. Soon, the helicopter was gone and all was quiet, except for the whir of katydids and a Beethoven violin concerto on the Sonos. Joel was back out under the trellis with a cigarillo. He’d given up cigarettes—he’d gone to see a hypnotist in Boston. Dock light from across the bay wobbled on the surface of the Sound. Less than a half hour before, he’d stood at the lip of a stage, sweaty and beaming, absorbing an arena’s adulation: Mussolini. Now just a schmuck. The commute had earned him more than a million bucks. He projected contentment and ease, and seemed in control of his appetites, as though he’d learned how to bank the endorphins and draw on the account as needed—rock stardom on time release. Roderick brought out a tray of cheese.

“Did you tell Brian to take my popcorn away?” he asked her. “Did you say, ‘Don’t give him the popcorn?’ ”

“I would never—”

“He’s been with me for fifty years,” Joel said.

“I didn’t tell him to take it away,” she said. “What I said was I didn’t want it to exist in the first place. It was really gross.”

“It’s not really gross,” Joel said. “I like the popcorn.”

They sat outside until almost 2 A.M. and then headed for bed.

People tend to assume, given the recent burst of reputational favor and vigor in performance, that Joel must be sober, that the narrative of redemption must rest on abstinence. But not everyone can be George Jones. Joel steers clear of spirits, he says, and just drinks wine, in moderation. “I think of it as a food group,” he told me. At one lunch, we each had a glass of Chianti. At another, we had a little sake. He ordered sashimi; he was hitting a steak house later with some friends. He likes to eat. “I’m with the Jack Nicholson school, that it’s this flat-belly shit that’s ruining America,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything more pathetic than a man on a diet.”
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He is sensitive about the alcohol thing. He cops to having had lots of problems in the past, drinking to excess, behaving like an ass. He chalks it up to Long Island, the culture of day’s end at the local pub. In the old touring days, the whole band boozed it up, and often they were the last ones standing in the hotel bar, Billy at the piano, crew gathered around with a few stragglers and girls, singing Sinatra and the Beatles: not exactly “Hammer of the Gods.” He claims not to have ever really got into drugs, though they certainly tried things, including heroin, on a 1981 swing through Amsterdam; in videos of concerts from the mid-eighties the clothes and the hair styles alone seem to scream “Cocaine!” You’ll hear Long Islanders tell old stories about the time they saw Joel at this or that Huntington bar, the man not looking his best. There were, in the past decade, a couple of interventions and a couple of stints in rehab, in 2002 and 2005. Still, he rejects the A.A. approach and favors the kind of self-moderation that A.A.’s devotees cluck at.

Elton John, who did a number of tours with Joel, told Rolling Stone in 2011, “Billy’s a conundrum. We’ve had so many cancelled tours because of illnesses and various other things, alcoholism . . . He’s going to hate me for this, but every time he goes to rehab they’ve been light . . . When I went to rehab, I had to clean the floors. He goes to rehab where they have TVs. I love you, Billy, and this is tough love.”

“Elton is just being Elton,” Joel responded to Rolling Stone. But he was pissed. According to a biography of Joel by the Rolling Stone writer Fred Schruers—the book was originally intended as an as-told-to autobiography, but at the last minute Joel, increasingly uneasy about revealing so much of himself, pulled out and sent back his advance—Joel wrote Elton John an angry note: “What gives you the omnipotent moral certainty and authority to justify the public humiliation of anyone—especially of someone to whom you should, at the very least, consider according a modicum of honor?” He signed off, “We are done.”

Whether it’s denial or a hard-earned aversion to the intrusions of the celebrity-media complex and its twelve-step pieties, Joel greets most booze-related reports or questions with a flash of annoyance. He has protested that a trio of car accidents, in the early aughts, weren’t actually booze-related. It was dark, it was icy, he’d had eye surgery, the Citroën 2CV is a tricky little car. But it is true that these incidents coincided with a rough patch in his life—one of many over the years, the catalyst usually a breakup or a divorce. He takes it hard. His friends and collaborators give these periods a wide euphemistic berth. Schruers, in the biography, tells the story of an intervention led by friends in the summer of 2009, at the house on Centre Island. The friends brought along a trained counsellor, and Joel turned on him: “Now, who the fuck are you? Who the fuck do you think you are?”

We don’t often side with the intervenee, but there’s something to be said for defiance. As one of his biggest hits has it, “I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life. Go ahead with your own life and leave me alone.” The song’s peppy electric piano—and its presence on the old cross-dressing sitcom “Bosom Buddies”—disguises a sentiment that is at the core of Joel’s outlook on his place in the world. When he plays “My Life” in concert, it can seem rote, but the anger at the heart of it, misplaced or not, gives it a pulse.

Joel has not released an album of new pop material since 1993. Since then, he has written and recorded just one song, “All My Life,” an ill-advised Sinatra-ish tribute to his then wife Katie Lee, which was released on People’s Web site on Valentine’s Day in 2007. He has been almost meticulously unproductive. He has rebuffed offers from various producers and executives (“the Resurrectionists,” Joel calls them) to record standards or old pop cuts, or even to rearrange his own stuff and present it anew. By all accounts, there is no shoebox full of lyrics or hard drive of latent hits. Instead, during that time, he gave the public a blur of concert tours, as well as a trove of appearances, at colleges and in concert halls, where, in a master-class setting, he talked with charm and intelligence about his life and work until it all hardened into shtick.

In those years, meanwhile, he has also occasionally been presented as a caricature of a has-been, a Dean Martin figurine, his frailties chronicled closely in the tabloids, with an uncertain combination of malice and love. Joel has an idea for a musical called “Good Career Move,” in which the record companies realize they can increase the value of their back catalogues by knocking off their artists, one by one. He hasn’t benefitted from a spectacular flameout (to say nothing of death), and instead has had to settle for muddling forward, as the world bends both away from and toward him.

Joel has often said he’s calling it quits. In 2010, two years after he closed down Shea Stadium with two sold-out shows, and a year after another fitful world tour with Elton John, he sent a letter to David Rosenthal, his band’s musical director and keyboardist, to share with the band. He likened himself to a professional ballplayer who couldn’t hack it anymore; he was taking himself off the field. The pain in his hips—he was born with dysplasia, and spent decades jumping off his piano every time he played “Only the Good Die Young”—had got to the point where he could hardly walk. “Turning sixty, the end of his marriage to Katie Lee, the hip pain: it was a combo platter of shit,” Cohen said. “It got really dark.” Cohen was accustomed to a certain ebb and flow in Joel’s enthusiasm for the game. Still, he said, “At the beginning of that break, I told everyone, ‘I think this is it.’ ”

But it wasn’t. At the Hurricane Sandy relief concert at the Garden, in December, 2012, he and the band went out, rusty, and delivered a muscular mini-set. Watching on TV, I realized that I hadn’t really thought much about Joel in years, yet here he was on a bill with the Stones, the Who, Bruce Springsteen, and Paul McCartney, and, on this occasion, anyway, and with respect, he was better than all of them.

Afterward, Joel felt that he might not be done after all. It was time to rouse the elephant. As it happens, in the cyclical nature of things, he, or perhaps his reputation, was entering a waxing phase, and suddenly he began to enjoy a popular revival and an upgrade from punch line to national treasure. So there he was last year at the Kennedy Center with a gaudy ribbon around his neck and, on his face, a stunned expression of embarrassment and pride (and his fellow-honoree Herbie Hancock, the piano man’s piano man, at his elbow) as a series of singers performed incongruous renditions of some of his hits. This summer, Joel sold out Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Citizens Bank Park, in Philadelphia, and Nationals Park, in D.C., and, despite the sparse schedule (three shows a month), was the fourth-highest-grossing pop act of the season, behind One Direction, Jay Z and Beyoncé, and Justin Timberlake. Next month, he’ll be at the White House, as the winner of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The honors accrue. In July, he nabbed Newsday’s “That’s So Long Island” tournament, beating out bagels, Jones Beach, and Billy Crystal. All the while, he’s doing the Garden gigs, grossing two million-plus per and basking in the glow of nostalgic outings, date nights, and dads turning daughters on to the radio fodder of their youth—no one quite ready to wave Brenda and Eddie goodbye. In a way, Joel has become what Sinatra once was—in Cohen’s words, “the hood ornament for the greatest city on earth.”

“He won,” Cohen said. “He’s one of those guys who won.”
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Billy Joel has never really been hip. He is widely loved but also, in many quarters, coldly dismissed. The critics got on him early. “Self-dramatizing kitsch” (Dave Marsh); “A force of nature and bad taste” (Robert Christgau). The contempt embedded in the lyrics of “Piano Man,” toward the patrons at the bar and the whole enterprise of entertaining people with music, soured many on him from the start. Joel wasn’t what the critics were looking for in the mid-seventies, when punk was knocking on the door. Their notions of authenticity, however flimsy, didn’t allow for his kind of poppy piano tristesse. One slam on him used to be that he was derivative, aping other voices or styles, or else mercenary, a soulless craftsman exploiting his technical and melodic agility to churn out insidious confections for the purpose of making money. These charges he has answered over and over. In the old days, he’d tear up reviews onstage. He used to call critics on the phone and scold them. (“You can’t know what I was thinking when I was writing that song.”) In his mind, he wasn’t trying to write hits. He just wrote songs that he hoped would sound good together on an album. The record company picked out the singles.

And it did a good job: he had thirty-three Top Forty hits. That’s an awful lot—about twice as many as Springsteen, the Eagles, or Fleetwood Mac. Some were schmalz, others were novelties, but a crate of them are songs that have embedded themselves in the great American jukebox and aren’t going away anytime soon. If you hate them, fine. A lot of people, even some rock snobs, love them still. I’m tired of “Piano Man,” too, but “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” gets me every time. “Summer, Highland Falls” is for real. As for derivative, Joel won’t deny it; he loved the Beatles, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, and Smokey Robinson, so why not try to sound like them? At his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, in 1999, he was introduced by Ray Charles. Joel said, “I know I’ve been referred to as derivative. Well, I’m damn guilty. I’m derivative as hell.” He said that if the Hall of Fame disqualified candidates on the basis of being derivative, “there wouldn’t be any white people here.”

In a Slate tirade a few years ago, “The Worst Pop Singer Ever,” Ron Rosenbaum wrote, “No career re-evaluations please! No false contrarian rehabilitations! He was terrible, he is terrible, he always will be terrible. Anodyne, sappy, superficial, derivative, fraudulently rebellious. . . . Billy Joel’s music elevates self-aggrandizing self-pity and contempt for others into its own new and awful genre: ‘Mock-Rock.’ ” He called Joel “the Andrew Wyeth of contemporary pop music.”

When I mentioned this to Joel, he said, “What’s wrong with Andrew Wyeth?”

Joel and his camp have the view that they have outlasted the haters. Pressed, he theorizes that maybe they didn’t like his voice. But he doesn’t like his own voice, either. He also doesn’t think he’s much of a piano player. Mediocre left hand.

Jon Landau was one of those critics, prior to becoming Springsteen’s manager, in 1977. “People, including myself, generally found him too glib and slick,” Landau told me. There was also a bias against hits. “As time has gone by, we’ve been proved wrong,” Landau said. “He’s one of the most musically astute composers of that era.” He said that when Springsteen joined Joel onstage for an Obama fund-raising concert, in 2008, and played a bunch of Joel’s songs with Joel’s band, he came off and told Landau, “Those songs—they’re built like the Rock of Gibraltar. Until you play them, you don’t realize how well they play.”

Springsteen had the band, the stage act, Clarence Clemons, a Svengali (Landau), and sex appeal. Joel was cute in his way, back in the day, but, as he said, “I look like the guy who makes pizza.” His default expression was a kind of petulant scowl. Onstage he could be enthralling, but he had the disadvantage of sitting at a piano. He often wore a jacket and tie—in earth tones. As for managers, Joel had some real doozies in the early days—including his first wife’s brother, who left him nearly broke—but in many respects he is one of rock’s great loners. He has gone most of his career without a reliable sounding board. He writes alone. What he has (now, at least) is a handful of loyal business associates, band members, and crew. Cohen told me, “Bruce had Landau, the guy saying, ‘Come see Kong.’ Billy never had a guy.”

Joel projected a kind of niggling self-consciousness. His rock-star gestures always came with a note of self-ridicule. He was and remains a great mimic, in homage or parody. He has at times been bombastic, but he’s as adept as any big rock star at taking the piss out of himself.

Springsteen, at least notionally, taps into the deep well of American blues, folk, and gospel, the dark muddy river, and came to prominence trafficking in the lyrical pose of Dylan. There were obscure images, sly references, misdirections. Joel is not that kind of artist. He states things very plainly, in the Tin Pan Alley tradition. The lyrics aren’t difficult.

Anyway, he is chiefly a melodist, in the McCartney vein (even though he sees himself as a Lennonite). Unlike most composers, he always starts with a tune and adds words later. Joel melodies make for tenacious earworms. Once you get “Movin’ Out” or “Zanzibar” on the brain, it can be hard to shake. This is not to assert that they are bad or good, only that they are catchy, which seems to be the characteristic most essential to making pop music popular.

Joel himself is a bit that way, as a pop-culture presence. He wormed his way in and won’t go away. One day, driving back with him to his house from lunch in Bayville, we were listening to the Deep Tracks station on Sirius. When we reached the house, he got out, and “Get It Right the First Time,” from “The Stranger,” came on. He’d only just told me that he considered the song the album’s weakest link and a reason for his ranking “The Stranger” below later albums. (His favorites: “The Nylon Curtain,” “River of Dreams.” Most fun to record: “Glass Houses.”) Still, it was poignant to hear the song’s jaunty, syncopated drum-and-flute intro as an accompaniment to the sight of Joel toddling along the lane to his mansion’s front door. Hours later, the song was still looping in my mind’s ear. When I mentioned it to Joel a few days later, he, too, got it stuck in his head.

For better or worse, my childhood had a lot of Billy Joel in it. When I was in fifth grade—late seventies, Manhattan—a friend who had five older brothers played “Captain Jack” for me, and it was the first time I’d heard about such things as junkies, closet queens, and masturbation. It was probably the allure of such wickedness that caused me, not long afterward, to choose, as my first-ever LP purchase, Joel’s new album, “52nd Street.” From this one, I learned about some other things, such as Halston, Elaine’s, Dom Pérignon, and the fact that one may snort cocaine from a spoon. All this came from “Big Shot”; I memorized, and can probably still recite, the lyrics. Fortunately, I’m old enough to have escaped the junior-high experience of being assigned “We Didn’t Start the Fire” in history class. (The record company sent the song to schools, along with a taped message from Joel titled “History Is a Living Thing.”)

Every summer, my parents rented a place on Lloyd Neck, on Long Island, facing Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay. Across the water from the house was a hump of land called Cooper’s Bluff, a high point on the bay. At the top of it was a modern glass house, and I learned that it belonged to Billy Joel. Big shot was right. In 1980, he released the album “Glass Houses,” with a photograph of him on the porch of that house, in the act of throwing a stone. The songs on that record, which got heavy airplay that summer, still evoke the first feverish interactions of early adolescence.
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The following summer, Joel moved to our side of the bay. He bought a brick waterfront house that had been the gatehouse to a Gilded Age mansion up the hill. (Our rental was the estate’s former boathouse: launch downstairs, captain’s quarters upstairs. The mansion itself was empty.) So now Joel was just a couple of hundred yards down the shore. We left him alone but did catch the occasional glimpse, as we puttered past in a Boston Whaler, of a short tan dude by the pool. His wife—soon-to-be Ex 1—stalked the shallow end in a black bikini. We envied his poolhouse jukebox and the Harley out front.

Joel got a divorce in 1982. That year, he came out with “The Nylon Curtain,” his bid for seriousness, which had a few cuts with a heavy presence on MTV, but I’d moved on, resolutely, to other music. Then Joel moved on, to “Uptown Girl” and Christie Brinkley.

Brinkley, having spent the seventies living in Paris, had known nothing of that decade’s Joel. She used to listen to the radio while waiting for her first husband, who was in the French military, to come home on weekend leave, and on her favorite station the traffic report had a whistled intro that she came to think of as the sound of Paris at night. She was floored, years later, to learn that the station had lifted his intro from “The Stranger.” “One day, I heard Billy do it, and I said, ‘Oh! You know that song from Paris?’ Joe—I call him Joe—he’s like, ‘Whaddaya mean, I wrote that song.’ ” (She called him Joe because he looked like a Joe to her. His friends call him Bill or B.J.) She also knew “New York State of Mind,” but assumed it was a Ray Charles song.

They’d met in a hotel bar on the island of St. Bart’s. He was fooling around on the piano, and Brinkley, along with the model Elle Macpherson and a nineteen-year-old Whitney Houston, gravitated to the little sunburned dynamo on the keys who was hamming it up for the girls. Brinkley sang the Portuguese lyrics of “The Girl from Ipanema.” Macpherson draped herself over the piano. Joel quietly thanked his mother for forcing him to take piano lessons. Houston said, “I’d like to sing,” but Joel, focussed on the supermodels, didn’t pay her much mind. Eventually, she persuaded him to play “Respect.” “She knocked it out of the park,” Brinkley recalled. Joel wound up dating Macpherson for a while, before he got together with Brinkley.

Eventually, Brinkley moved in with Joel at the gatehouse. We’d see her on the causeway in an open-air Jeep, blond hair blowing around. This was the summer of “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” of Brinkley luring Chevy Chase into the pool. One night, my brother and I, with a neighborhood friend, walked down the shore and knocked on Joel’s back entrance. He came to the door in a white bathrobe, hair tousled. We peered around him, but all we saw was a corridor lined with framed gold and platinum records. He was friendly. We told him we’d lost our dog. This wasn’t true. We described the dog, he promised to keep an eye out for it, and we left, feeling like idiots.

Joel and Brinkley were soon overrun with such invasions. Brinkley recalls that boaters regularly pulled up to the house, at the water’s edge. “Every morning, it was ‘Yo, Biiiiil-ly!’ ” she recalls. At high tide, cabin cruisers and fishing boats that had a tower helm were flush with their bedroom window. Joel and Brinkley sometimes had to tumble off the side of the bed and crawl beneath the window to get dressed. One day, they returned home to find a stranger in their kitchen, drinking a beer. He’d just tied up at the dock and walked in.

They began to look for a new place. They travelled the coast from Maine to the Chesapeake. The rock promoter Ron Delsener took them to see a property on Further Lane, in East Hampton, that had belonged to a real-life Judge Smails type who, Joel was told, had stipulated in his will that his estate not be sold to a Jew or an entertainer. “It was a win-win for me,” Joel said. It became their home; they raised their daughter, Alexa, there. In 2000, Joel sold the property to Jerry Seinfeld for thirty-two million dollars (a “win-win-win,” Joel said). He has a knack for blockbuster real-estate deals. He sold a duplex on Central Park West to Sting for five million dollars, in 1988 (“I was praying for a rock star to buy it,” Joel told me. “Someone who would ignore his accountant”), and a house on Martha’s Vineyard to Mickey Drexler. Earlier this month, he sold another house in the Hamptons, which he’d bought from Roy Scheider, for nineteen million. His people like to say he lives fairly lean, relative, anyway, to the likes of Elton John and Sting. He now has a house near Palm Beach, and another in the village of Sag Harbor, where Billy Joel sightings are as commonplace as Lyme disease. (A favorite is one I heard of him pulled over on a back road, lost, with Bono in the sidecar of Joel’s Vespa.)

He bought the house on Centre Island in 2002, from a former Goldman Sachs partner, who’d torn down the old mansion and replaced it with a near-replica. Joel has in turn spent several years more or less replacing that one, brick by brick. He liked the fact that Alan Jay Lerner once lived nearby. The only neighbor he got to know was John Barry, the composer who’d written the James Bond theme.

As it happens, my parents had moved from the boathouse to Centre Island fifteen years earlier. The joke became that Joel was stalking us. The guy wouldn’t go away: his songs still on the radio, his motorcycle on the road, pipes roaring as my parents tried to get the grandkids to nap. I say “his motorcycle,” but we soon discovered that he has about a hundred of them. In the village of Oyster Bay he set up a storefront garage (open to the public on weekends), where he exhibits dozens of his customized vintage bikes, which he designed and had his mechanics build out. None are for sale. On Tuesday nights in summer, hot-rod and vintage-car enthusiasts from all over Long Island converge on Oyster Bay and park their rigs on the streets outside. Joel used to enjoy milling around, but people wouldn’t leave him alone, so now he sticks to the back.

Joel’s other great indulgence is boats. As a kid in school, he used to sketch hulls in his notebooks. He now designs and sells recreational versions of lobster boats, deriding modern powerboats as “penis extensions” and a neighbor’s shiny yacht as a “Clorox bottle.” In 2007, he designed and had built a fifty-seven-foot powerboat called the Vendetta, based on the old Gold Coast commuter boats of the twenties and thirties. It can go about fifty knots. It gets him to the Garden almost as quickly as the helicopter. He bought a kind of dwarf lobster boat for Roderick and called it Oyster Babe. He likes drawings, schemes, landscaping projects. “I’m in my Thomas Jefferson phase,” he told me.

When I first went to visit Joel at his Centre Island house, I found him in an immaculate motorcycle garage, attending to a new Moto Guzzi. I never saw him use the music room downstairs, a vast marble pavilion with pianos, organs, and horns. There’d been an indoor pool there, but he’d had it boarded over. He said, “Sometimes I walk around the house and make believe I don’t live here. ‘Wow, this must be a cool place to live.’ ”

The house had once been home to a woman named Rosalind Walter, a society dame who, during the Second World War, had elected to work in a factory making fighter planes. She’d been a model for Rosie the Riveter. When I relayed this information to Joel, who is a history nut and a Second World War buff, he replied, “I never imagined a blue-collar girl like Rosie would have lived in a place like this. Then again I never imagined me living in a place like this, either.”
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When Joel was eighteen, he worked on an oyster dredge for a local shellfish company. To protect his hands, he wore gloves. “The guys, all these tough Portuguese and Italian fishermen, they really gave it to me,” he said. “ ‘Oh, the piano player’s gotta wear gloves. Little sissy.’ ” The dredge, then as now, often worked the plots just off Centre Island, and he remembers looking up at the mansion on the hill. “I used to curse the owner: ‘Fucking rich bastard, probably never worked a day in his life.’ ”

Though Joel was born in the Bronx, he was reared in Levittown, the postwar planned (and originally racially segregated) community, near Hicksville, on Long Island. His parents met while performing in a City College production of “The Pirates of Penzance.” His father, Howard (né Helmut) Joel, was from a prominent textile family in Nuremberg; they fled Germany in 1938, after their factory was confiscated by the Nazis. His mother’s family had immigrated from England in 1914 so that Joel’s grandfather, Philip Nyman, a pacifist, could avoid serving in the First World War. (He did later fight with the Republicans in Spain.) Nyman, a Brooklyn lefty and avowed atheist, was Joel’s intellectual hero.

When Joel was eight, Howard Joel left the family and returned to Europe, leaving his wife, Rosalind, to raise Billy and his older sister alone. (His father eventually started another family. Joel has a half brother, Alex, who is a well-known classical conductor in Vienna.) Rosalind managed to keep paying for Joel’s piano lessons. When she’d ask him to show her what he’d been learning, Joel, a shirker with skills, would improvise pieces that sounded like Beethoven and Mozart—his compositional beginnings, you might say. But it was the Beatles, on Ed Sullivan, that really ignited his curiosity about rock and roll—that and the older girls’ enthusiastic response to his Elvis-inspired hip-swivelling atop a cafeteria table. The way seemed clear. As a teen, he was busy enough working late nights as an organist, in bands and bars—and then sleeping those nights off—that he was denied a diploma from Hicksville High.

By 1967, he was in a band called the Hassles, which recorded a couple of albums and achieved some mid-Island renown. Two years later, he and one of his bandmates, Jon Small, went out on their own to form a heavy-metal duo called Attila. That was a dud (the album cover says it all: the two of them in chain mail, with long spaniel curls, posing in a meat locker), but Joel did eventually make off with Small’s wife, Elizabeth. In the interim, Joel was at loose ends. There was anguish, a halfhearted suicide attempt (furniture polish), a brief stay in a mental institution—all fodder for original songs. Joel had decided that he wanted to be a songwriter, with an eye on getting others to sing his stuff, but first he had to present the material himself, on vinyl and on the road. He signed a record deal with a producer named Artie Ripp, who recorded Joel’s first solo album, “Cold Spring Harbor,” which for some reason was mastered at too high a speed and therefore was a humiliation to Joel. Of greater and longer-lasting concern was the deal he’d signed, which basically gave Ripp the rights to everything, forevermore. To bide time and to get out from under that deal, Joel and Elizabeth moved to Los Angeles for a few years. That’s when he worked in a piano bar on Wilshire as Bill Martin (his middle name) and came up with “Piano Man.”

His lottery ticket, though, was “Captain Jack,” about a mope who escapes the drudgery of his life by shooting heroin. It was based on the junkies he’d seen while living in an apartment complex in the village of Oyster Bay, after he left the Hassles. In 1972, before recording it, Joel performed it live on WMMR, in Philadelphia, and the “jack-off song” soon became the station’s most requested cut. The local A. & R. guys from Columbia Records caught wind of this and alerted headquarters in New York. Clive Davis, the head of CBS Records, came to see Joel perform a couple of times and signed him to Columbia, which issued his second album, “Piano Man.”

The executives at Columbia eventually got him out of the deal with Ripp. Walter Yetnikoff, the volatile head of the company during the seventies and eighties, threatened Ripp with industry banishment and bodily harm. Yetnikoff bought back Joel’s publishing rights and gave them to him for his twenty-ninth birthday. Columbia stuck with Joel, though his next couple of albums failed to catch on. It was only when Joel and Elizabeth, by this time his manager, brought in Phil Ramone to produce “The Stranger” that they were able to capture in the studio what Joel and his live band, a bunch of Long Island guys he’d poached from a band called Topper, had been able to rev up on the road. And that’s when the money started rolling in—at least, in theory.

A couple of years before Joel’s divorce from Elizabeth, her brother Frank Weber took over as his manager. Brinkley claims that she was the one who first started questioning Joel about Weber. She wondered why Weber flew private while she and Joel flew commercial, and noted that he seemed to own a lot of houses and horses. Brinkley started investigating, she told me. “Everywhere we went, it seemed, someone would say, ‘Billy, we hear you just bought the house down the street.’ ” But Joel didn’t want to believe it. “He said, ‘I’ve known Frank longer than I’ve known you.’ Frank was a father figure he trusted.”

Joel and John Eastman, the entertainment lawyer, recall it differently. Eastman, whose suit on behalf of his brother-in-law Paul McCartney dissolved the Beatles partnership, was Phil Ramone’s attorney, and once, while reviewing Ramone’s accounts, he noticed that Weber seemed to be getting a greater share of the royalties than Joel. Eastman, who knew Joel socially from East Hampton, pointed this out to Joel, who decided to sue. Eastman took on Joel as a client. The defendants in the subsequent raft of lawsuits were Weber, Joel’s accountants, and his former lawyer, Allen Grubman, whose firm happened also to have represented some executives at the record company (at this point, Columbia was owned by Sony). Like most litigation, it got nasty and complicated. Eastman remembers renting an office in East Hampton and having Joel in every day, all day, for a month, to prepare for his deposition, to familiarize him with every document and fact. Betrayal, by the page. In the end, he nailed it. “They never laid a glove on him,” Eastman recalls. It may have been the performance of his career, in that it set him up to make his money back and become a rock-and-roll tycoon. Eventually, when Joel’s lawyers threatened a protracted battle, the suit was resolved out of court. (Grubman maintains that he paid nothing in the settlement.) Though most of the money was never recovered, Joel ultimately received settlements that amounted to roughly ten million dollars, and over time disentangled himself from onerous contracts and various investments, tax shelters, and partnerships that Weber had put him into.

Basically, Joel had to start over. The mandate was clear: Go forth and earn. He made two more albums, “Storm Front” (1989) and “River of Dreams” (1993), each a big commercial, if not quite critical, success: about eight million copies sold apiece. And then the river went dry. He hasn’t made another pop album since. (In 2001, there was an album of his classical piano pieces, performed by a professional pianist.) His marriage to Brinkley was falling apart. (“I’ve always adored him,” she told me. “I just couldn’t live with him anymore.”)

“I became a road warrior, basically,” Joel said. Tulsa, Phoenix, Perth. Sometimes with Elton John, sometimes without—that was another doomed marriage, of a sort. (Joel always refers to himself as “the junior partner.”) Girlfriends, another bride, another divorce. Accolades, car accidents, real-estate deals. He became more celebrity than artist, a goat for the tabloid maenads. When you don’t offer them anything new, you have nothing to hide behind.
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His subsequent reconciliation with many of these people—he gave Weber free tickets to a show in Florida, is once again cordial with Allen Grubman, and told me that Ex 1, Elizabeth, has been managing the musical careers of his half brother’s two closest friends in Vienna—seems to arise out of a huge capacity for forgiveness as well as a vestigial guilelessness. “It’s mind-boggling to me,” Brinkley said. “It’s a credit to him, I guess.”

There have been two Billy Joels: the angry young man-cum-irrepressible tunesmith from the hitmaking days and the moody middle-aged millionaire Everyman of these later years. One created the songbook so that the other might live.

“We were sitting around talking about this the other night,” Cohen said. “When did he become that guy? One day, he’s the curly-haired dark-eyed brooding artist—although really he wasn’t ever that guy—and then suddenly he became my uncle. The transition was sort of a blur.”

Hours spent on YouTube, watching videos of concerts, interviews, and town-hall Q. & A.s with fans, suggest that it happened around the time Joel stopped writing and recording. He seems to have emerged from a period of divorce, prolonged litigation, record-company mishegoss, band discord, cloying celebrity, and studio fatigue to find himself, in his mid-forties, with nothing left to say and no desire to say it—an entertainer’s strain of shellshock.

“I’m not crazy about going into a recording studio and doing that kind of life again,” he told me one day. “Or taking on another project where there’s other people involved—arrangers and orchestrators and conductors and producers. I don’t want to deal with it. It’s a megillah. You have to have a certain amount of ambition to want to do all that. And I look back at the guy who was the recording artist, this Billy Joel guy, and I think, Who the fuck was that guy? He was very ambitious, very driven, and I don’t feel like that anymore.”

Joel maintains that there’s discipline in it. “Over the years, Elton would say, ‘Why don’t you make more albums?’ And I’d say, ‘Why don’t you make less?’ ”

He went on, “Some people think it’s because I’m lazy or I’m just being contrary. But, no, I think it’s just—I’ve had my say. If I put out an album now, it would probably sell pretty well, because of who I am, but that’s no reason to do it. I’d want it to be good. And I’ve seen artists on that treadmill, putting out albums year after year, and the albums get worse and worse, less and less interesting, and it’s, like, maybe you should stop.”

Brinkley joked to me that the divorce was the primary cause. “Let’s face it—I was a good muse.” In seriousness, she said, “He wanted to make sure he retained his dignity.”

I asked him if he was afraid of losing it—if he was afraid of what people might say. “There’s no fear,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove anymore. What I do have at this point is a horror of celebrity.” For one thing, he said, “it’s easier to write more personal stuff when you’re not as well known.” Once he became famous, people read too much into his work. “You can’t create something that’s an independent entity, made out of whole cloth. They know who you’re in a relationship with, what your past is. They tend to draw their own conclusions. Your image becomes more powerful than the things you create.” He went on, “I was seeing it begin to happen when I was doing ‘River of Dreams.’ I had gone through this celebrity craziness with Christie, and the divorce. I felt like there was a proctoscope up my butt. Everybody interrogating, analyzing—everything I wrote was fraught with meanings—and I said, Wait a minute, I don’t want to rip myself open and let everyone see everything. It was no longer comfortable. Enough! I gave you enough!”

After his most recent Garden show, earlier this month, Joel postponed the helicopter trip home and headed with Roderick to a small birthday party for Sting. They’d been friends since the late seventies. They make a funny clique, these barons of rock’s second—or, really, third—wave, the ones who figured out how to make a living at it and hold on to the loot. These weren’t the progenitors—the British Invasion guys, to say nothing of their American forebears—but, rather, the first generation to have come of age in the album-format era. It seemed that most of them, at one time or another, lived within a span of twenty blocks on Central Park West—a long way from Memphis.

Leaving the Garden, Joel’s S.U.V. got caught behind a garbage truck (“So ‘Spinal Tap,’ ” he remarked), and a couple of young women waiting by the exit ramp clued in to the fact that he was aboard. They screamed his name, and Joel asked his girlfriend to roll the window down. One of the women, on seeing him, yelled, “Shut up!” (in the sense of “No way!”), and they rushed the car. Now others in the area noticed, and the S.U.V., still stuck, was soon besieged by dozens of fans brandishing smartphones and shouting congratulations. The S.U.V. inched forward, Black Hawk down, more and more people swarming. After a while, traffic began to break up and fans ran alongside, taking pictures, Joel bantering with them, and then suddenly they were gone, and he was another schmuck on Eighth Avenue. He and Roderick agreed that the fans had seemed really nice.

The party was at Marea, a restaurant on Central Park South: about two dozen people in a back room. The actor Paul Reiser, an old friend, met him outside and followed him in. Reiser had just finished a set of standup at a comedy club; Sting had come from the previews for his new musical. This was happy hour. After a while, a cake came out. The refrain “Happy birthday, dear . . . Sting” sounded faintly ridiculous; Reiser gave it extra emphasis.

Unmoved, Sting demanded that everyone sing it again, better this time, and in a higher key, and he led: “Happy birthday, dear . . . me!” Then Joel broke into “He Is an Englishman,” from “H.M.S. Pinafore.” The other guests went quiet and listened.

Late on a recent afternoon, I walked down the road to Joel’s place on Centre Island, bottle of red in hand. The gate to his driveway swung open, and I made my way along the blacktop. A storm had cleared, and the harbor gleamed. Autumn. Joel was in the kitchen, in a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants, TV tuned to some History Channel program on the Second World War. Roderick was making treats for her horses. It was Yom Kippur, but Joel doesn’t observe. A friend, an Italian chef named Francesco, who had had two restaurants that recently closed, was coming soon to cook dinner for the two of them and Ruggles, Joel’s sound guy, who was staying down in the guesthouse again. Ruggles, from Syosset, met Joel in 1968 and has been with him longer than anyone.

Joel had done nothing all day and was mildly displeased to see the rain gone, as it had suited an idling mood. He had performed at the Garden again two nights before and was still recovering: the throat, the body, the energy drain. The day after the day after. Onstage, he uses a drummer’s stool, rather than a piano bench, so that he is more upright, to give his lungs room to expand, but this compromises his posture over the keys. He’d also whacked himself in the face with the microphone stand.
February 8, 2010“We lose a little dexterity, but we gain a lot of confidence.”Buy or license »

We went to talk in the library: McIntosh amps, bookshelves from floor to ceiling, a model of the Queen Mary, lit from within, on the mantel. We sat in big leather chairs. I pressed him again on the question of his old critics. But you could tell he was tired of talking about himself. Introspection’s not his bag, and after a half century of being poked and prodded he’d hit a wall. He’d tried to read the new biography, but could hardly go a page without putting it down. Who wants to hear it all again? “Lion in winter,” he said. We went outside so he could smoke a cigarillo. The sun was setting beyond the trees.

After a while, he led me into the living room, at the west end of the house. On the wall facing the fireplace was a giant triptych of the Last Supper (“It’s a roast!” Joel said) and beneath it a table spread with silver grails. Another table was cluttered with silver jugs and bowls, like trophies. Joel had decorated the place himself. The aesthetic, he said, was “Catholic martyrs and saints, grotesqueries.” There was a bust of Beethoven near the piano, and Joel put his baseball cap on its head and sat down on the bench. He was listing favorite songwriters of his generation but grasping for names. Now and then, one came to him. “Warren Zevon”—he played snippets of “Werewolves of London” and “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” I threw a few names out, dead guys (Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt) and newer bands, too (Radiohead? Wilco?), and he really had no idea what I was talking about. He listened only to classical music these days. Dennis Arfa, Joel’s longtime booking agent, likes to say of a performer who is big enough to sell out an arena, “He’s in the box.” Joel’s box might be bigger that Arfa’s, but inclusion still requires hits of a certain calibre and vintage. “I love Gordon Lightfoot,” he said.

And then Joel began to play his own stuff, a collection of instrumental pieces he’d been working on for more than ten years, without notating or recording so much as a chord. “It’s all here,” he said, pointing to his head. He’d played these things for just a handful of friends: his half brother Alex, his old teacher Chuck Arnold, who’d recently come to visit. He’d told me on a few occasions that he wasn’t sure, or even concerned, about what they might amount to: “Some could be songs, some could be ideas for a soundtrack or something, some are more like hymns.”

He started in on what really did sound like a hymn, Anglican maybe. All that was missing was Isaac Watts. Like a middle-school chorister, Joel rushed through the rests, but the music, set to the dying of the light, still had heft. There was something incongruous about these progressions issuing from the thick fingers of a man in sweats. He played something else—“a Richard Rodgers kind of thing,” he said—and I found myself imagining a gruff vocal, along the lines of Tom Waits, but afterward he said he had in mind a touch of Nat King Cole. “But then it’d need words, and I don’t wanna.” He said he was not necessarily averse to the idea of someone else adding lyrics, but he seemed skeptical, after a lifetime of fruitless collaborations. “I need to get to know more poets,” he said. He mentioned Cream and Procol Harum, and recited the opening verses of “White Room” and “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

As he moved from one song to the next, he referred a couple of times to something called “The Scrimshaw Pieces,” and it emerged that he had already imagined all of these as a cycle of songs—“tone poems,” he called them. The playing, now and then halting as he tried to remember certain passages, was mostly prodigious and lush, evocative of familiar things. In between pieces, he began to explain that these were variations on a motif and that they were telling the story of the history of Long Island, from its pastoral beginnings to the arrival of the Europeans—“I’m imagining the prow of a ship, and a Puritan hymn”—and then the bustle of the nineteenth century. Farming, fishing, the railroad. “Getting busy on Long Island,” he said. “This one’s almost Coplandesque, with big open fifths.” We were a long way from Brenda and Eddie. He played intently as the room went dark.

Later, in the kitchen, over a glass of wine, Joel mentioned to Ruggles that he was starting to forget some of the stuff he’d been working on and that they had better get it down on tape. Ruggles was going in for back surgery in two days, but said that in a few weeks, when he was back on his feet, he could reconnect the recording rig in the music room, and they could get it down. “It’ll give me something to do,” Ruggles said. Francesco set out a plate of sautéed artichokes. ♦

Phone-crazed audiences and fed-up musicians? Yondr is on the case

November 4, 2014

The startup has developed a novel way to help audiences give musicians their undivided attention: a locking smartphone case that must be used while at a show.
Nick Statt CNET.com 11/02/14

The two bouncers at the Stork Club, a dive bar in Oakland, Calif., stopped me in front of a bin of smartphone cases. That night’s show was a phone-free affair, they told me. I had to place my iPhone 5S in one of the sleeves, which would lock as soon as I entered the club’s phone-free zone and stay locked until I left.

Made by spanking-new startup Yondr, the cases operate on the fundamental premise that smartphones can be “a distraction and a crutch” that distance us from our immediate surroundings. Yondr’s mission, according to its website, is “to show people how powerful a moment can be when we aren’t focused on documenting or broadcasting it.”

Yondr is among the first companies to cater to the “unplugging” movement. If you haven’t already been asked to stow away your gadgets, you soon could be.

A cafe in Vermont made headlines in September when it said sales jumped after it banned laptops and cut the cord on public Wi-Fi. The Motion Picture Association of American, along with movie theater owners, announced Thursday a “zero tolerance” policy for any “recording device being used while movies are shown.” And famed guitarist Peter Frampton hit the news in August after grabbing a fan’s phone and throwing it away. “It’s very distracting for not only me, but for the people behind the people taking photos,” Frampton told USA Today when asked about the incident.

Clearly, there’s a time and a place for technology, and San Francisco-based Yondr intends to help people know when and where that is.

“Yondr is not antitechnology. It’s about establishing these places that allow people to achieve a balance,” said Yondr founder and CEO Graham Dugoni. “I have people calling me from Germany telling me that they’ve been trying to do phone-free shows for years.”

Dugoni expects interest to pick up as even more concert-goers and venue owners get used to the idea. Yondr currently leases its gear to places wanting to set up phone-free zones, but it plans to start selling kits instead. The kits will let venues control the service themselves.
Updating the ‘social protocol’

While Yondr’s primary targets are music shows and other live events, other businesses in the unplugging movement focus on the broader issues of our digital obsessions.

Digital Detox, based in Oakland, hosts phone-free get-togethers at conferences and festivals. Its most prominent event, though, is a multiday adult summer camp called Camp Grounded. The camp is hosted in the redwoods of Navarro, Calif., where attendees pay $350 to go off the grid.

That kind of retreat serves those who believe nonstop digital connectivity leads to personal isolation. Put another way, technology allows us to “hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other.” That’s according to MIT professor Sherry Turkle’s book “Alone Together,” which adds, “We’d rather text than talk.”

Even some of tech’s elite acknowledge the need to unplug from time to time. “If you’re with another person and it’s important that you be with that person, then [it’s] devices down or off or on mute or whatever so it’s not pulled out every three seconds,” venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said in an interview with CNET. “Frankly…it will all just be part of the social protocol.”

But unplugging could eventually become more than simply a social nicety for concertgoers, if some musicians have their way. The indie rock trio the Yeah Yeah Yeahs posted a directive to show-goers in April to “put that sh*t away,” meaning their smartphones. A month later, the British alternative group Savages did the same, in a more polite fashion, with a sign that read, “Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experience music. Let’s make this evening special. Turn off your phones.”

It will definitely take some getting used to, as I learned in the brief time I used Yondr’s phone-locking cases. At the Stork Club, I couldn’t stop holding my phone, toying with the flap covering the upper fourth of the screen — and everyone else at the table seemed to be having the same problem.

I watched as some people got up and walked over to the unlocking station. The cases are light enough so that you can feel the buzz of a text or a call through the case, making it difficult not to wonder which of the dozens of apps installed on your device is trying to grab your attention.

I finally put my Yondr-encased phone in my pocket. Throughout the night, I felt it vibrating, even when it wasn’t.

Why the Summer Music Festival Bubble is About to Burst

August 8, 2014

By Grayson Haver Currin wonderingsound.com 08/05/14

Ali Hedrick seems surprised by the extent of the festival database she keeps. An agent for nearly two decades at Billions, one of the country’s highest-profile booking agencies for what might very broadly be termed independent music, Hedrick helps compile an annual, ever-evolving list of North American fests. The events are tiered, she explains, based on the potential capacity of each and the Billions acts they might be able to afford.

And right now, she’s simply trying to reach the bottom of the list.

“Hold on, I’m scrolling through it,” she says. She pauses for five seconds and slows her words, as though reading from a broken teleprompter.

“For just North America…I’m still scrolling.” She stops, pausing longer this time. “Let me see here. For just North America, we have a list of 847 different festivals.”

The index is so exhaustive and exhausting that a team of interns works to build it each year, updating festival dates and adding each new event that a presenter can conjure.
‘During the last dozen years, music festivals in North America have undergone a total transformation that’s not only overhauled the concert business but also altered philosophies on record releases, promotional strategies and advertising-and-branding approaches at large.’

After stints as an upstart band manager, club talent buyer and record label intern, Hedrick arrived at Billions in 1995, only six years after the company began in Chicago. Billions now has six offices across North America and a sister company in Australia. With a roster of more than 200 acts, Billions books some of the most notable bands in indie rock — Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend and St. Vincent, to name a few. Hedrick personally handles more than three dozen of those, including the New Pornographers and Neko Case, Sufjan Stevens and Shearwater. For each of those acts, she says, what’s inside that festival database is paramount to how they structure their years. Bands build tours around the high paydays of festivals, and they schedule album releases around the most conspicuous appearances.

When Hedrick first became a Billions agent, she says, she would have never predicted this festival phenomenon. But now, the trend constitutes a major part of her business.

“When I started booking bands, the Internet wasn’t even invented yet,” she says, laughing at her own hyperbole. “I didn’t have an email address or an internet connection. Everything was done by the phone, fax and pagers. Zero of my bands played festivals.”

And now, of course, they all depend on it.

During the last dozen years, music festivals in North America have undergone a total transformation that’s not only overhauled the concert business but also altered philosophies on record releases, promotional strategies and advertising-and-branding approaches at large. These events have metastasized from enormous gatherings of tens of thousands of people near major markets — the giants of the festival world — into a battalion of smaller, no-less-ambitious events in cities across the country — the new Meltasia between Atlanta and Nashville, the small-but-intriguing Basilica Sound Scape in upstate New York, or Hopscotch, a Raleigh festival that I helped to build and co-directed for four years until resigning earlier this year. But there are signs that the exponential curve of festival growth is a path to an unsustainable scenario, where too many festivals overshoot talent costs and overrun the ability of fans to buy tickets at all.

Just how much can the American festival circuit continue to swell before that bubble bursts, if it does at all?

“It’s an economics question. Especially in the United States, when anyone has any success, a million people come in and copy it and do it again,” says Todd Cote, a longtime booking agent in San Francisco who handles bands such as Swans and the Dodos. “How many energy drinks do we need? Once there’s an established new way to make a profit, people mimic it. And then they overload the system.”
‘In 2013, six of the top 10 grossing festivals in the world were American events, all established in the last 15 years.’

For decades, the American image of rock festivals was limited to the naked, stoned and dangerous events of a very brief period in the late ’60s. Fantasy Fair and Monterey International Pop in 1967, Newport Pop in 1968 and Newport Jazz in 1969, Woodstock and Altamont at the edge of the ’70s: Those gatherings of hundreds of thousands of Baby Boomers were considered the crest of Americans going outside for music. Especially through the ’90s, amphitheaters ruled the outdoor concert market, with bands on tour commanding crowds of 20,000 or so every summer.

Festivals were considered passé at worst, something that simply happened in Europe at best. Across the Atlantic, entire regions compensated for a lack of venue infrastructure by loading fields with bands and fans and having a party. In America, though, festivals remained a function of the niche communities of jam bands and their ilk, high-profile promotional stunts for large companies, large-scale industry gatherings such as South by Southwest, or quick ways to lose a lot of money. The stars of roving national festivals like Lollapalooza and H.O.R.D.E. rose and, in a matter of just a few years, fell. One-off spectacles like Woodstock ’94 and the Tibetan Freedom Concert remain memorable in part because they were largely unparalleled during their own time.

More or less, recurring rock festivals in America just didn’t exist. “When we first did Bonnaroo, the conventional wisdom was that this was not a good idea. We were met with some combination of horror, amusement and disbelief,” explains Ashley Capps, a cofounder of Bonnaroo and the president of Knoxville, Tennessee, company AC Entertainment.

Capps had been booking clubs, theaters, arenas and small outdoor events in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina for more than two decades before the idea of Bonnaroo seemed feasible. At first, it didn’t

“The overwhelming success of the first Bonnaroo took us all by surprise,” he says.

Indeed, around the turn of the millennium, a spree of massive stateside festivals — Austin City Limits, Bonnaroo, Coachella, Sasquatch, Ultra — proved that the idea of thousands of fans gathering for several days to sample hundreds of bands could turn major profits. Those spectacles have continued to generate increased momentum. In 2013, six of the top 10 grossing festivals in the world were American events, all established in the last 15 years. At No. 10, Sasquatch earned more than $9 million; at the top of the list, Coachella broke $67 million.

A month after Coachella 2011, producers actually announced that, beginning in 2012, their three days in the desert would expand to two identical, consecutive weekends. This year, according to Billboard, the strategy smashed their previous gross profit records, generating more than $78 million from nearly 600,000 attendees.
‘Though sales of recorded music have slumped during the last dozen years, there’s been a sort of festival gold rush during that same period.’

The reasons for this growth are both speculative and myriad: Thanks to easy online distribution and promotion of music, an upstart act can find an international audience with as little as one song to their credit. Festivals aggregate such acts, one booking agent told me, to create a sampler that reflects digital patterns of consumption. Capps himself says that music fans seem a bit bored with plug-and-play concerts in clubs; they want a social experience. Meanwhile, sponsor dollars have shifted toward already-engaged audiences, the kinds that arrive at weekend-long festivals, money in hand.

Whatever the causes, the symptom is clear.

“The festival business has continued to grow in importance,” explains Gary Bongiovanni, the founder of Pollstar, a concert-industry-data aggregator and analyzer. “And it probably continues to represent the best value for music fans.”

Though sales of recorded music have slumped during the last dozen years, there’s been a sort of festival gold rush during that same period. Last year, Billboard reported that, in 2013, promoters had launched the most new festivals ever. They proclaimed that many of them would fail in a tide of Darwinian selection. This year’s Global Festival Events Calendar, an annual Pollstar publication, offered listings for more than 1,200 events in 70 countries. It’s an overwhelming register, a list so long that you’re prone to find an event you didn’t know existed in a region you’ve called home your entire life. Still, the guide is incomplete, admits Bongiovanni, a testimonial to the sheer volume and steady growth of the industry.

“It comes out in December,” says Bongiovanni, “but even at that early date, if you look at the stuff that’s scheduled for the July or August weekends, you’d be hard-pressed to find a weekend where there aren’t 10 major festivals.”

That decade-plus of festival growth suggests this might be America’s new musical manifest destiny, where 3 million-plus square miles serve as an incubator for throngs of weekend listeners. But there’s more resource competition than simply finding an open public square or club network on some sunny weekend.

“Everyone is pulling from the same talent,” Bongiovanni continues. “And that is the problem: Everyone is chasing the same pool of talent, not just in the United States but globally. If they’re playing Yugoslavia, they’re not available in Arizona.”
‘For a festival to land a good lineup and make a grand public statement, they have to get in early, even if doing so gets expensive. Booking music festivals can become a sort of silent bidding war, where interested parties enter early and increase often.’

That’s where the trouble starts. With so many festivals pressing to book similar bands within a finite timeframe, many acts are able to command a higher price than they’d generally get for playing the same market. That is, they cost more than they’re worth. These higher numbers are a primary reason festivals have become such a boon for touring bands: They can use the high payout of one massive outdoor event — bolstered by sponsors and dozens of other bands that help move more tickets — to offset the costs of a larger tour. Or they’ll simply fly in for a few dates and a relatively large payoff.

Large festivals, Hedrick explains, begin booking their acts for the next year the weekend after the event concludes. Those festivals must compete with free municipal events — parties in public squares, concert series in parks and the like — for the same talent. Agents tend to give such festivals price quotes that presume a band’s appearance will be a one-off, a factor that multiplies the cost several times. For a festival to land a good lineup and make a grand public statement, they have to get in early, even if doing so gets expensive. Booking music festivals can become a sort of silent bidding war, where interested parties enter early and increase often.

“I have to quote money based on everything being a fly-in. If you have 12 people touring with a band, you have to say that’s three full days of salary for 12 people to come into your city,” Hedrick says. “You’re going to have maybe $25,000 extra just because it’s a one-off. But for the festival, it’s an investment in selling tickets.”

And talent is only the most obvious line item of festival expense sheets that can grow incredibly long. Festivals pay for venues and grounds, amplifiers and transportation, lighting and sound, security and sanitation.

There are fewer ways to make the ends meet, though, as most music festivals depend only on two major revenue streams: ticket and sponsorship sales. People pay to see bands or, many experts agree, experience the “festival atmosphere,” while companies pay to associate their brand with (and expose their brand to) cool kids with disposable income and cultural cachet.

Most events have found ancillary streams of income to bolster their budgets, whether that means incorporating options for cosmopolitan camping, or “glamping,” at rural festivals, well-appointed VIP tents or, more simply, festival merchandise and beer sales. Some festivals benefit from municipal or arts grants, too. After a four-year break, for instance, Knoxville’s Big Ears festival returned in March with the help of a long-term grant from the Aslan Foundation, a group with assets of nearly $100 million that is “focused on preserving and enhancing the natural beauty, assets and history of the Knoxville area.” Their $300,000 contribution to Big Ears this year helped to not only revive the festival but boost it into the black for the first time.
‘Still, as the festival numbers grow, they begin vying for those limited income sources. The overwhelming-and-still-climbing festival ranks suggest a bubble swelling to ominous proportions.’

Still, as the festival numbers grow, they begin vying for those limited income sources. The overwhelming-and-still-climbing festival ranks suggest a bubble swelling to ominous proportions.

In Cincinnati, Ohio, the MidPoint Music Festival has drawn largely major local sponsors — this year, a regional pizza chain and Bioré, a Japanese-owned cosmetics company with a significant Ohio manufacturing presence. But executive producer Dan McCabe says that this is a luxury for his festival that most others don’t have. Other events must build the backbone of their budget by pleading with out-of-town companies, arguing that their festival experience offers the best boost for the brand — in exchange for lots of money, of course.

Finding those funds, McCabe says, is largely possible because of shifts in marketing. Companies from Scion and Mountain Dew to Tylenol and Nike now pay to be positioned with bands; they become smart curators commissioning edgy art (in the instances when they book their own festivals or run their own labels, like Mountain Dew’s Green Label Sound) or cash-flush corporations helping to pay for as much (like when they sponsor entire stages at most every festival you can name).

Music festivals — essentially, a mass of young people who have paid to be in a certain place — offer hotbeds for putting that strategy to work. It’s called experiential marketing, which takes a brand’s logo off of festival posters and banners and puts the product in front of a captive crowd. Representatives rove festival grounds, passing out samples. Companies spend money on infrastructure, production, drinks, talent and more to create miniature villages, filled with their goods. At festivals across the world, attendees take photos in front of company-branded backdrops and tag them on social media for the chance to win some low-investment contest. According to AdAge, budgets for such experiential marketing rose as much as 10 percent in the last year alone.

“Festivals are able to pop up everywhere because brands are becoming more integrated with music. It is a way to carry the brand,” says McCabe. “And they’re becoming more savvy in activating experiential marketing. As opposed to when I started knocking on doors in 2008, they have budgets specifically for that [now]. It makes it easier to start.”

But those dollars aren’t endless. “Competing for those sponsor dollars is either first or second in what you’re going for,” McCabe continues. “There’s talent to go around, but getting your foot in the door with their sponsors and trying to get them to spend their money with you is a competition.”
‘The supply of festivals is at an all-time high, but no one knows if that’s necessarily true of demand. If demand hasn’t actually increased, higher ticket prices violate one of the most elementary rules of economics.’

That’s not the only competition that an increase in festival density entails. For these events to succeed, attendees must be able to afford the tickets. An increase in the number of festivals doesn’t necessarily equate to an increase in the amount the average person can allocate to attend those festivals, many of whose prices continue to climb as bookings agents fight for a critical mass of bands. Pushing for more impressive and expensive lineups means charging consumers more.

Doing so represents the potential breaking point for the entire festival model. The supply of festivals is at an all-time high, but no one knows if that’s necessarily true of demand. If demand hasn’t actually increased, higher ticket prices violate one of the most elementary rules of economics.

Andrew Morgan, who books artists such as Angel Olsen and Sleep from Billions’ Chicago office, is not sure how soon we’ll locate the festival bubble, or if it even exists. But there’s no quicker way to find out, he insists, than to perpetuate a cycle of one-upmanship that attaches ticket prices to a rocket.

“There will eventually be too many festivals for any given market to sustain, because there aren’t that many people with that much disposable income. There are only so many $300 festivals that people can go to, if any at all,” Morgan says. “That might be the thing that eventually breaks the camel’s back — not too many festivals, but too many festivals that are too expensive for a demographic. As soon as it starts happening, it sours ticket buyers, and it sours artists. That’s it.”

One way forward might be to lower or localize expectations, or to realize that every new event will not be the next Coachella or even the next Fun Fun Fest. Seth Fein, for instance, launched the Pygmalion Music Festival in the student-heavy, central Illinois region of Champaign-Urbana a decade ago. He had attended AthFest — a locally focused nonprofit event in Athens, Georgia — to see one of his clients, the surly post-rock group Maserati. He’d grown up in Champaign-Urbana, idolizing both its past and present music scenes, from Braid and Irving Azoff to Hum and Headlights. A small-scale festival, he reckoned, was a logical extension.

He hadn’t actually been to a major music festival since Lollapalooza a decade earlier, but how hard could it be?

“My goal was to do something that Champaign-Urbana as a community would be excited about,” he explains. “I worked with eight different venues in town putting on shows, and I thought I could put shows in each of those venues and curate it the best I could. Hopefully, the people in Champaign-Urbana would be happy about that.”

In the decade since, that simple approach has worked. Pygmalion has proven to be humbly sustainable, with a small but strong lineup that points to Fein’s personality without aggrandizing it. On both the map and the calendar, much larger festivals surround Pygmalion. Forecastle is only four hours to the southeast, while Midpoint occurs the same weekend as Pygmalion, just three hours due east. Two hours to the north, in Chicago, there’s Pitchfork and Lollapalooza, Riot Fest and the Hide Out Block Party. But Fein tries not to worry about the moves they’re making — the million-dollar headliners, the Outkast reunions, the Ferris wheels.

“I do my best to remind myself that my only real goal is to put on the best possible festival for Champaign-Urbana within the structure of what I can afford. It’s in the discussion of festivals, but it’s also in Champaign, Illinois,” he says. “For better or worse, I’m in a position where I don’t have to work to have a better lineup than Pitchfork or Riot Fest. I’m not going to get a Ferris wheel. I don’t even know where I’d go to get a fucking Ferris wheel.”

Fein has learned to feed off of the swell of other festivals, too. He could afford Chvrches, who headline this year’s Pygmalion, only because they were already going to be on tour in America, performing as one of the top-billed bands at Austin City Limits a week later.
‘In some cases, festival organizers are either overextending their audience or overburdening their market. In March, Sasquatch announced that it had canceled its plans to expand into a biannual festival by adding a Fourth of July event to its traditional Memorial Day fest.’

Routing acts from festival to festival is an important component of the business of Sam Hunt, a booking agent at the Windish Agency in Chicago. Hunt’s firm boasts an au courant roster that can be described as summer festival bait, from the xx and tUnE-yArDs to Cut Copy and Flying Lotus. Each year, Hunt submits an assortment of bands to festivals across the country based upon what’s realistic for that market, the amount of money a festival might be able to spend, and how many fans one event can accommodate. He books 45 bands of widely varying style and popularity — poster-toppers like Animal Collective and Major Lazer, middle-of-the-lineup meat such as Killer Mike or Deerhunter, bottom-row rookies like Blessed Feathers and Lido. Recognizing those strata and how they relate to the festival landscape is important for him in getting his bands gigs; it’s important for festivals, because it reflects their status and what they can afford to survive and advance.

“Sometimes you don’t need to be the absolute cream of the crop [to succeed],” Hunt explains. “Not every car is a Rolls Royce. Some people have to drive shitty cars, too, and that’s fine. They’re cheaper, and the people making them make less money. But they still get you from Point A to Point B.”

But it appears that a growing number of festival organizers might not have taken that analogy to heart: In some cases, they are either overextending their audience or overburdening their market. In March, Sasquatch announced that it had canceled its plans to expand into a biannual festival by adding a Fourth of July event to its traditional Memorial Day fest.

“The Sasquatch! community has spoken. They continue to support the traditional Memorial Day Weekend event with great enthusiasm,” the president of Seattle’s Live Nation branch wrote. “Unfortunately, the second weekend was not embraced.”
Lollapalooza crowd

And in Asheville, North Carolina, a mid-sized mountain city and tourist destination, two large upstart events have found that an annual music festival wasn’t sustainable, at least as they’d planned. In 2010, AC Entertainment — the Knoxville company that co-founded Bonnaroo and helms Big Ears and Forecastle — launched Moogfest, an electronics-heavy long weekend that took hold of the city’s venues around Halloween. They’d partnered with Moog Music, the Asheville manufacturer famous for its synthesizers, to offer a series of compelling daytime panels, in addition to the nighttime concerts. The first year surpassed sales expectations and made money, but they lost a substantial amount of cash in year two. They managed to break even in year three.

And that’s when the woes began: AC Entertainment and Moog Music parted ways, with each organization subsequently announcing that they’d launch separate events in a city whose population doesn’t even rank among the top 10 in the state. AC Entertainment would keep the same October weekend and rebrand itself Mountain Oasis Electronic Music Summit, a phrase lifted from one of the company’s pre-Bonnaroo forays into festivals. Moogfest would return the next April with the help of several new partners and a redirected focus as a “festival of ideas,” featuring more panels and lectures.

Mountain Oasis canceled its 2014 event by the time Moogfest could happen. And Moogfest, which lost $1.5 million and was unanimously denied an increase in public funding, announced that it would be shifting to a biennial format beginning in 2016.

Emmy Parker, the senior marketing and brand manager at Moog Music, insists that the company did not plan on making money during the festival’s first few years. Moogfest is a promotional event — one designed to share Robert Moog’s story and standards and sounds, not to become Coachella in the mountains. The move away from every April, she explains, has more to do with the company’s limited personnel and how taxing running an event of that magnitude can be.

“We knew going into it that this is definitely not the way to make money, and we had to decide if that is something we were comfortable with. We wouldn’t have moved forward if it wasn’t,” she says. “With Moogfest moving forward, how do we maintain the spiritual, emotional and physical health of the company and also have Moogfest on the landscape?”

And Capps contends that he never detected one-upmanship between the two organizations as they staged separate events in the same town. They didn’t try to spend more and book the bigger lineup to run the turf. He’d been working to book Trent Reznor long before the split occurred, and an appearance by Neutral Milk Hotel, their first announced show in more than 15 years, was a happy accident. Rather, as hotel room prices skyrocketed and ticket sales nosedived, he simply thinks Mountain Oasis ran into the limits of what Asheville could support.

“The fan reaction was fantastic. There was love and appreciation there, and that makes you want to keep trying,” he says. “But the challenges of staging an event in that market and the perceived competitiveness — at some point, you use the ‘Pause’ button and don’t continue to beat your head against the thing.”

In the end, whether or not they were engaged in a faceoff hardly matters. Both Moogfest and Mountain Oasis were rather new events clamoring to quickly break into the top tier of Ali Hedrick’s festival database back at Billions — that all-important, sacrosanct “Top 75 Festivals in North America” category. Many of the tickets cost more than $200, and some of the headliners suggested those of established events in major markets.

And now the future of both is, at best, a string of question marks.

“We have Forecastle this weekend in Louisville, and then we’re not doing anything else in 2014,” says Capps, sighing with relief after a three-festival year. “In the meantime, we’re busy on several new projects — all in other cities

A Robust Year for Concert Sales, but With Graying Headliners

January 7, 2013

BEN SISARIO 01/06/13 NY Times

Sales of concert tickets, a vital measurement of the health of the music industry, returned to their former strength in 2012 after two slow years, with Madonna and Bruce Springsteen leading the most popular tours.

The results, however, point to two trends that have long worried critics of the business: rising prices and the predominance of aging superstars whose fans care little about their new material.

The top 100 tours in North America had $2.5 billion in gross ticket sales last year, nearly equal to their peak three years ago, according to Pollstar, a trade publication. Madonna was the biggest attraction, with $134 million in sales, followed by Cirque du Soleil’s tribute to Michael Jackson, “The Immortal,” which had $113 million; Mr. Springsteen was No. 3 with $105 million.

Madonna also topped Pollstar’s worldwide chart, with $296 million in gross sales, followed by Mr. Springsteen with $210 million.

These numbers are welcome for the concert business, which faltered in 2010 after more than a decade of swift growth, for reasons variously attributed to the recession, weak lineups and overpriced tickets. It had only a slight rebound in 2011.

Yet fewer tickets were being sold at higher prices. Fans bought 36.7 million tickets for the Top 100 tours in North America last year, still down from 40.5 million in 2009. Last year, the cost of an average ticket rose to a record $68.76. The Rolling Stones’ handful of 50th anniversary shows was the most expensive, at an average of $519.

And while fans flocked to see Madonna and Mr. Springsteen in concert, they largely avoided their new albums. Madonna’s “MDNA,” released last year, sold 527,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan; as many as a third of those were given away with the purchase of a ticket, according to estimates. Mr. Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball,” also released last year, sold 490,000 copies.

“The well-established acts don’t need new records to help them sell concert tickets,” said Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar’s editor. “Fans are coming for the hits, and at today’s ticket prices, the acts had better deliver. Play a new song and that’s an audience cue for a bathroom break.”

Eight out of the top 10 North American tours featured older performers in 2012; in addition to Madonna and Mr. Springsteen, they included Roger Waters, Van Halen, Barbra Streisand and Elton John. The biggest acts under 40 last year were Coldplay (at No. 6 with $55 million), whose members are in their mid-30s, and the 18-year-old Justin Bieber (No. 11, $40 million).

Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, two major young concert draws, were mostly absent from the North American market last year, but will return in 2013. (Lady Gaga’s shows in Asia, Europe and elsewhere last year sold $161 million, putting her at No. 5 on Pollstar’s worldwide chart.)

Pollstar’s numbers count only the face value of a ticket, not the service fees and other surcharges that can add as much as 40 percent to a customer’s final cost.

The Unapologetic King Of The Rave: How Pasquale Rotella & Insomniac Changed Concerts

July 13, 2012

Kia Makarechi Huffington Post 07/11/12

Pasquale Rotella Insomniac
Raves put on by Pasquale Rotella are among the world’s biggest music festivals.

Over three nights in June, some 320,000 revelers endured bottleneck traffic to make a pilgrimage to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The crowds were as diverse as they were massive — ravers in neon tutus and furry boots, glasses-wearing college freshmen, bona fide adults — all headed to an electronic dance music festival which featured over 200 performers across stages that varied in size and genre.

It’s perfectly possible that you haven’t heard of Electric Daisy Carnival or Insomniac, the company that puts it on, but know this: EDC, as it’s known, is the biggest, most-pyrotechnically trigger-happy music festival in North America. Last year, the weekend pumped $136 million into the notoriously depressed Vegas economy. This year, a couple was married at the event as fireworks cracked through the hot desert sky above them. And the world has Pasquale Rotella to thank — or demonize — for it.

Rotella, 37, is Insomniac’s CEO, responsible not just for overseeing EDC but also the company’s other mega-popular dance party-cum-Coachella experiences (Nocturnal, Electric Forest, Beyond Wonderland, Escape From Wonderland and White Wonderland). He’s been doing it since 1993.

“We’ve been at the forefront of a lot of challenges that dance music has faced as a whole,” Rotella told Huffington. “Just like jazz and rock and roll and hip-hop had their struggles, dance music has its challenges. And we’ve been right there at the front line — investing a lot of time and money to try to get things to a point where it’s easier for people who are jumping in.”

Along the way, he’s made quite a few friends and become a sometimes enemy of the state — at least in Los Angeles. Rotella, who is currently dating Holly Madison, a former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner, regularly books the Armin van Buurens, Steve Angellos, Tiestos and Aviciis of the world for his stages. (Madison recently said she was ready to have a child.) His events are often lauded as the most ambitious and enjoyable dance music events on the continent, but putting on EDC-scale parties does not come without its challenges.

Media reports have long associated dance music with drug use and other risky behaviors, but Rotella says that’s not a relationship borne out in the facts. It’s true that EDC’s flagship event (there are others, including a stop that draws more than 100,000 people in New York and another in Puerto Rico) moved from Los Angeles to Las Vegas after a 15-year-old girl died after taking ecstasy at the 2010 installation of the event, and that a 19-year-old died after attending EDC Dallas in 2011. But Rotella — and nearly everyone in the dance music community — maintains that these tragedies are not indicative of flaws within Insomniac or the scene.

“We feel as though we are the safest festivals out there,” Rotella said. “Whenever anything tragic happens, whether it’s at the festival or even hours after the festival and the attendee just came to the show, it’s always suddenly about the genre of the music and about the style of the event.”

After this year’s event in Vegas, one man died after being struck by a car and another died when she fell from her hotel room. But neither of these incidents occurred at the festival, as Insomniac reps were quick to point out.

It would be easy to dismiss Rotella’s defenses if they didn’t ring with certain truths. After all, when a stage collapsed in advance of a Toronto Radiohead show — killing a 33-year-old drum technician — no one decried alt-rock as a dangerous stain on society. Nor, it bears mentioning, did such protests emerge last year when Bonnaroo reported its ninth death in 10 years. (Bonnaroo’s 2011 attendance? A mere 80,000.)

Rotella actually pulled the plug on one of this year’s nights. Saturday, the most popular of EDC’s three nights, was marred by gusting winds that Rotella’s team deemed unsafe. “It’s pretty black and white, that was not a call that was made by fire or police — they were actually looking to us and our team,” he said.

As a fan of old-school techno, break beat, drum-and-bass and early Moby, Rotella is sometimes reminded that he’s from a different generation than many who attend his events. “I was a little sad when I first started seeing a bunch of kids standing there with their phones out,” he confessed before adding that at least young fans don’t know what the scene used to be like, and thus can’t really be missing out. “I do think they’re being deprived, though,” he said. “It’s more fun to dance like no one is watching than to watch someone push buttons on a stage.”

It’s comments like these — about the replaceable nature of DJs — that sometimes get the Insomniac top boss in trouble. Rotella ruffled some feathers at this year’s first annual EDMBiz conference (hosted by Insomniac, naturally) when he said he was less interested in booking dance music superstars than in creating a new experience. But Steve Goodgold, a top agent at the Windish agency, which represents a large share of dance music’s heavy hitters, from A-Trak and Steve Angello to Joakim and Mr. Oizo, understood what Rotella was getting at.

“He said he doesn’t want to be a concert promoter,” Goodgold told Huffington. “He’s building the biggest stages in the world, and he’s booking the biggest artists in the world, and you put those things together and you got kids that sort of just sit and stare at what’s happening because the production and talent is so high.”

When offered time to clarify his earlier remarks, Rotella is a little more direct. “A DJ’s job is to play a good set, and there’s a lot of DJs who can do that. We’re going to want big names and all that jazz, but its not what is going to define us, we don’t want to be defined by our lineup. Fans are going to trust that we’ll have a good soundtrack. We’re not a rock show, we’re something different.”

He may not be in the business of rock and roll, but Rotella’s relationship with authorities recalls that of early Sunset Strip rock clubs. Rotella and Reza Gerami, another (seemingly much dodgier) promoter, have been charged in connection with a massive corruption case. If convicted of diverting $2.2 million to a Los Angeles Coliseum official, Rotella could face up to 13 years and 8 months behind bars.

“Obviously everyone has got a bit of concern, because we’d hate to see it go badly,” Goodgold said when asked if Rotella’s legal troubles have affected Windish’s relationship with Insomniac. “But until it does, we got to give him the benefit of the doubt and let the courts take care of it.”

Though he seems completely genuine when he says he takes the charges seriously, Rotella has assured his staff and colleagues that it’s “business as usual” for Insomniac. “I worked [in Los Angeles] and did business down there like I did anywhere else,” he said. “I would be more stressed if I had something to hide.”

NY Times Reporters discuss Music Festivals 2012

June 26, 2012

Festivals

The Rise of the Opening Act

June 1, 2012

Now it’s often the headlining artists—not the promoters or the labels—who choose the bands playing first. Show up early.

By JOHN JURGENSEN 05/31/12 Wall Street Journal

As you debate skipping the band with the 8 p.m. set time in favor of more tailgating, consider that it’s more likely than ever that the opener was handpicked by the act you paid to see. John Jurgensen has details on Lunch Break. Photo: Getty Images.

Last Friday night in St. Louis, Little Dragon prepared to perform for nearly 14,000 fans who weren’t theirs. It was the Swedish electro-pop band’s first night on tour with the veteran Red Hot Chili Peppers. With the audience still trickling into the sold-out arena, Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis rolled up on a scooter behind the stage to thank Little Dragon for joining the tour.

Sensing some nerves, he said, “Don’t be daunted,” then relayed advice that his own band got “when we were kids” from funk legend George Clinton. Pointing to the rear of the darkened arena, Mr. Kiedis said, “Play to the last row. Everyone else in between will get it.” Then he high-fived the band and scooted off stage left, where he nodded along to the beat as Little Dragon launched into its first song, “Looking Glass.”

It is one of music’s most enduring rites of passage: warming up an indifferent (and potentially hostile) audience for the headline act. The pay is generally modest and the promotional benefits are unpredictable. But in recent years “support acts,” as they’re called in the industry, are enjoying new status.
Supporting Acts, or the Next Big Thing?

Paired by headline | opener)

Red Hot Chili Peppers | Little Dragon

Bonnie Raitt | Mavis Staples

Dave Mathews Band | Gary Clark Jr

Coldplay | Robyn

Wilco | Lee Fields

Jack White | Alabama Shakes

Old Crow Medicine Show | The Lumineers

The Milk Carton Kids | Zac Brown Band

Sonia Leigh | Little Dragon

This summer, as you debate skipping the band with the 8 p.m. set time in favor of more tailgating, consider that it’s more likely than ever that the opener was handpicked by the act you paid to see. Against the backdrop of weak music sales and vanished tour funding from record labels, artists and their managers are taking control of every aspect of their concert business. Promoters, booking agents and labels are still involved in the search for strong support acts, but there are fewer arranged marriages. That’s especially true when the headliner is a strong draw that doesn’t need to pick a hot opener to goose ticket sales. Plus, it almost always makes for a better show.

“Artists are making decisions more on their own terms than ever before,” says booking agent Tom Windish, whose client Metronomy, a British electronic act, was recently tapped as an opener by Coldplay.

What will never change, however, is the awkward existence of an opening band, a role that can either squelch a group’s confidence or send it soaring—sometimes both in the same night.

Starting next month, Wilco will pepper its U.S. tour with a half-dozen openers, from the seasoned singer-songwriter Kelly Hogan to a soul belter who got his start in 1969, Lee Fields. They were all picked from a rotating list that band members submit to their manager. Frontman Jeff Tweedy says his band is just “returning the favor” of groups like R.E.M., which once took Wilco out and was known for telegraphing its own tastes through its support acts.

“I definitely feel a responsibility to put together a show that reflects some other part of who we are—what we listen to as opposed to what we play,” Mr. Tweedy said. Sometimes that means expecting fans to eat their spinach. For example, choices such as Deerhoof and White Denim, indie rockers with a sometimes abrasive sound, “pushed the boundaries of some of our audience’s musical world,” he said.

On the coming North American leg of its tour, Coldplay is taking out five openers, including Swedish cult favorite Robyn, who got a similar seal of approval from pop star Katy Perry and Madonna before that. Following a tour in South America with Eric Clapton, emerging blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. was recruited for coming dates with Dave Matthews.

An Austin, Texas, guitarist preparing to release a debut album this fall, Mr. Clark follows some simple rules when playing second fiddle: “Show respect, and get off the stage on time.” Opening for Mr. Clapton, one of his influences, posed a unique challenge. “I had to be conscious not to play any of his licks, which I’m guilty of doing sometimes in my set. People didn’t come out to hear me play Eric Clapton,” he said.

Bonnie Raitt has soul singer Mavis Staples as a guest on some 30 coming concerts. The women have been friends for years, but have only sat in with each other on occasion. “I decided long ago not to open for—or have open for me—anyone I wouldn’t want to pay to see myself,” Ms. Raitt said. “I pick my openers as carefully as I pick my songs.”

Instead of opting for openers with proven track records, country singer Zac Brown is featuring artists on his own record label, Nic Cowan, Blackberry Smoke and Sonia Leigh. Other stars with a financial stake in their support acts include Justin Bieber, who recently announced a tour with Carly Rae Jepsen, a fellow Canadian singer eight years his senior whom he signed after her song “Call Me Maybe” went viral.

Being a support act is usually a break-even job at best. Warming up a 500-person club could pay less than $250, and a big arena tour might dangle a nightly fee of $5,000. Now, instead of locking themselves into a monthslong tour for subsistence wages, more bands are targeting music festivals, which have proliferated across the U.S. Festivals generally offer bigger fees and similar prospects for exposure.

At the same time, more young acts are jumping to headline tours early in their careers, in part by tapping into a far-flung audience online. After releasing its debut album in April, the young rock and soul band Alabama Shakes signed on to some prestige gigs: six shows last month with Jack White, and two concerts with Neil Young in August. But in recent months the band’s team has turned down about 20 offers to join other tours, says manager Kevin Morris.”It’s a calculated decision, because if you do it too much, you get pigeonholed as a support band. A band like the Shakes, they’re a headlining band.”

Big artists are now expected to make their music tastes public. For example, Jay-Z, Metallica and the folk band Mumford & Sons are among acts “curating” their own stand-alone music festivals this summer. The upshot for support acts: headliners can now do better than an obligatory shout-out from the stage. When Katy Perry had Robyn on her tour, she routinely promoted her presence with tweets such as “It’s gonna be hard getting ready for my show while dancing my a— off to yours!” Such offstage praise may have resonated with Ms. Perry’s young fans. During the tour, Robyn says her YouTube viewership shifted to a core of females ages 10 to 20 from one of males ages 20 to 40.

Coldplay’s booking agent, Marty Diamond, says that all of the band’s supporting acts are handpicked by the band members. Robyn briefly hesitated to accept their offer. She had intended to spend the time writing new music. But she couldn’t pass up an opportunity for broader exposure, especially in the U.S. where her profile is smaller than abroad. She said she doesn’t know exactly how she got on the group’s radar, but it probably didn’t hurt that she performed one of the band’s songs, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” on a BBC radio show. It’s a rendition that she plans to do for Coldplay’s fans, a gambit that she acknowledges is “a little risky.”

The relationships linking headliner and opener might not be obvious to the audience. For years, New York singer-songwriter Regina Spektor has been best friends with Tom Petty’s daughter, Adria Petty, who has directed most of Ms. Spektor’s music videos. But the invitation to open for the Heartbreakers only came after she played rough cuts from her new album, “What We Saw From the Cheap Seats,” for the Petty family in the rocker’s L.A. home studio.

At five sold-out arena concerts where she played as Mr. Petty’s guest, Ms. Spektor got a warm reception from his fans, she says. It was the opposite of what she met a decade ago on her first tour, opening for her friends the Strokes. The New York rockers had broken big—and accumulated some fans who didn’t share their love of Ms. Spektor’s idiosyncratic, piano-driven songs. “There were these, like, frat boys in the front row chanting, ‘Go f— home.’ On the first night, I literally bolted to my dressing room, mascara running,” she recalls. The Strokes “gave me pep talks. I had to toughen up. It was an invaluable experience.”

Concert history is filled with such bedfellows, going back to the days of barnstorming package tours such as the Motown Review, which in the early 1960s helped launch stars such as Stevie Wonder. Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show of 1958 featured Buddy Holly and Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers, as well as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, who battled over the honor of closing the show. Later, promoters such as Bill Graham helped legitimize rock ‘n’ roll with eclectic combinations of old and new, such as pairing Big Mama Thornton with the Grateful Dead.

Veteran promoter Harvey Goldsmith says it’s often the incongruous pairings that are most memorable. He fondly recalls an Eric Clapton tour that featured the juggler Chris Bliss. (He later toured with Michael Jackson.) “The audiences loved him!” Mr. Goldsmith said. As a rule, the promoter avoids pairing client Jeff Beck with other guitar heroes. “I’m constantly being offered shows with Derek Trucks. An audience can’t stomach three hours of great guitarists.” While the Rolling Stones and Bon Jovi are hands-on about choosing support acts, he said, other stars barely know who else is on the bill.

Every elder statesman has his own stories from the front lines. Neil Young recalls a gig in 1969, when his hard rock band Crazy Horse was the first of four acts on a bill at Madison Square Garden’s theater, then known as the Felt Forum. In those days, each band would play twice, first in a matinee concert, then an evening show. When the star attraction, Deep Purple, completed its matinee performance, Crazy Horse rushed out on stage to seize the audience’s attention before they departed the theater. “We got out there and kicked a— less than five minutes after Deep Purple left. So it was like we were closing the show. Those are the kind of things you do when you’re trying to make it,” Mr. Young said.

To be sure, some concert bills are still deliberately packaged, like mainstream country music: “Every headliner in our format needs a support act that’s going to help them sell tickets,” says Nashville booking agent Marc Dennis of Creative Artists Agency. Hunter Hayes, a 20-year-old multi-instrumentalist, was courted by several headliners before he signed on with Carrie Underwood this summer. (Both are CAA clients.) “That 15-to-25-year-old fan is a highly sought-after demographic, and Hunter’s absolutely got that,” Mr. Dennis said.

Other genres are more loose with their lineups. The string band Old Crow Medicine Show picks support acts based on whom they can play around with, both on stage and off. The groups going out with Old Crow this summer, the Lumineers and the Milk Carton Kids, are expected to trade licks and harmonize during the headliner’s encore, a tradition Old Crow adopted from the Americana duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Fiddle player Ketch Secor envisions “a crazy musical mash-up in the end. That’s what I want as a ticketholder,” he said, adding, “You’re not going to see a big hootenanny at the end of a Bob Dylan show.”

There were no singalongs for Little Dragon. Instead, the band was proclaimed “cool as s—” by Red Hot Chili Peppers bass player Flea, who’d spent a half-hour hanging out in Little Dragon’s dressing room before the show. It was the live equivalent of the endorsement he’d issued a couple of months before the band got invited to tour, tweeting, “im really digging the new little dragon record ‘ritual union.’ ”

Exposure wasn’t Little Dragon’s only motive for signing up for 11 concerts with the Chili Peppers. They wanted to observe how a band with two decades of sustained success operated. And playing for big, unfamiliar audiences would help them get in shape for approaching festival dates.

While most of the crowd remained fixed in their seats during Little Dragon’s 45-minute set, more than a dozen people in the front rows were dancing by the end. The flamboyant moves of a couple of dancers made lead singer Yukimi Nagano wary. “I didn’t know if they were making fun of us or if they were actually enjoying it,” she said after the show.

Then she shrugged: “If even a hundred people in there were loving it, then I’m really happy.”