MIAMI — They say rock ‘n’ roll will never die. Neither, apparently, will the careers of many rockers, at least to judge by the concert scene.
“I never thought I’d be around this long, much less playing these kind of shows,” says Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry, 58, amazed that he’s still rocking stadiums more than 30 years after hits like “Dream On” and “Walk This Way.”
Acts like Fleetwood Mac and AC/DC filled local arenas last winter, while Bruce Springsteen heads here on Sept. 13 and Leonard Cohen kicks off the next leg of his U.S. tour here on Oct. 17.
Billy Joel sold out six nights at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood, Fla., a haven for musical nostalgia where upcoming shows include Crosby, Stills and Nash and the Allman Brothers Band.
This month, West Palm Beach’s enormous Cruzan Amphitheater will rock to ‘80s idols Def Leppard, Poison and Cheap Trick and Motley Crue. And across the country, acts like Elton John, Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt continue to thrill audiences decades after they first made their mark.
How long can they rock on and on?
“For as long as people want to come and hear me play,” says Perry, whose legendary hard-rock band has been touring this summer with blues-rockers ZZ Top.
In an era in which pop music seems geared toward tech-savvy, Internet-splintered young audiences, older acts remain a powerful onstage presence. According to Pollstar, which tracks the concert business, seven of the 10 best-selling U.S. tours last year were by acts that first hit in the ‘80s or earlier: Madonna, the Eagles, Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Diamond, The Police and Tina Turner. So were all the top-grossing tours of the past 15 years.
Acts such as the Stones, Turner and Elton John may no longer get airplay except on oldies stations, but they came up in a less-crowded musical landscape that made universal hits easier to achieve and gave artists more opportunities to hone their musicianship and stage skills before hitting stardom.
“It’s hard for good bands to become great bands when they can’t really play for an audience,” Perry says. “We grew up in an era when ‘live’ was what it was all about. And we’re still there. We’re transformed when we hit the stage. We’re back in 1976.
“How do we keep it fresh? It’s never gotten stale.”
Younger groups such as Coldplay and No Doubt and Green Day still fill major venues, but they emerge less frequently and disappear more quickly. Coldplay, Radiohead and the Dave Matthews Band are among the few contemporary bands music-industry professionals describe as having onstage staying power.
“Younger kids still love live music,” says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni. “It’s just the acts they’re going to see don’t seem to last anywhere near as long ... These older acts have honed their live performance skills. If you go see Springsteen, you’re seeing a real professional. Today it’s possible for a young live act to explode to almost world status, but they haven’t had the experience to reproduce that live.”
The earning power that comes with age plays a role in the popularity of older acts. People who were teens in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s are more likely to have the income to spend on tickets, which have doubled in price in the past decade and can cost several hundred dollars for acts like Madonna or the Stones.
But it’s not just a matter of money. Today’s groups struggle to connect with kids who sift through thousands of songs on their iPods, while artists from previous generations built relationships with fans undistracted by texting and the infinite allure of the Internet.
“Music is still very important, but I don’t think the attention span is what it was,” says Neil Jacobsen, 53, president of Live Nation Florida.
“When I was a kid, it was going home, playing that record. Today kids shuffle songs on their iPod. They don’t have the same relationship with the artist. It’s about listening to the song.”
Classic rock and pop acts also get a boost from mature fans who introduce their kids to the music they love. Jacobsen says his teenage children are as enthused about AC/DC’s “Back in Black” as he is, while his daughter loves Joni Mitchell.
Young audiences also have discovered the likes of Van Halen and Lynyrd Skynyrd via Guitar Hero, the popular video game which, in various versions, has sold 35 million units since 2005, as well as its rival, Rock Star. Thirty-three of the 86 songs on Guitar Hero World Tour date from 1988 or earlier.
Featured artists like Pat Benatar and Blue Oyster Cult have seen their sales grow, says Tim Riley, vice president of music affairs for Guitar Hero publisher Activision.
“We’ve seen bands that were pretty docile on Soundscan or iTunes until the game came out, and then we watched this tremendous spike in sales,” Riley says.
“We hear stories all the time about how someone comes home, and their son or daughter is listening to Van Halen or Aerosmith — music they grew up listening to — and they don’t know how else their kids would have heard about it.”
The connection is so close that the company is promoting the Aerosmith tour with a contest in which players of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith can win a chance to be the group’s opening act.
But at the end of the day — or decade — an artist’s ability to electrify thousands with a live performance is what keeps audiences coming.
“That old cliche of rock ‘n’ roll keeping you young happens to work,” Aerosmith’s Perry says.
“It’s tribal, primal, sexual. We’re the fire people dance around. Music has become such a big business, but it still boils down to the live acts and the bands that can play the big places where the show becomes this huge communal experience.”