Editor’s note: Every Sunday we publish a favorite story from our magazine archives. Summer concert season is in full swing, and the Rolling Stones just wrapped up their 50th anniversary tour. In 2002, Fortune’s Andy Serwer examined the business behind the rock legends.
Mick Jagger is wearing a cool pink shirt, slim black trousers, and bright red socks. His hair is–well, there’s a lot of it. But don’t let the look fool you. Mick is all business. That’s business with a capital “B,” as in the stuff we write about all the time in the pages of FORTUNE.
I’m up in Jagger’s suite in Boston’s Four Seasons hotel just before the Stones kick off their worldwide Licks tour. Mick turns down the volume on a boom box, packs off two of his young kids with their nannies, and then holds forth on product pricing, economics, and business models. Jagger is eloquent and informed, but he has a disclaimer: “I don’t really count myself as a very sophisticated businessperson,” he says as he leans back on the couch. “I’m a creative artist. All I know from business I’ve picked up along the way. I never really studied business in school. I kind of wish I had, kind of, but how boring is that?” he says with a grin.
Like the protagonist in one of his most devilish songs, Mick has been around for many a long year. He had plenty of smarts to begin with, and now he has 40 years of music industry experience under his belt. Jagger may be getting a trifle old to rock & roll–he’ll turn 60 next July–but from a business perspective he’s at the top of his game. Which makes sense in a way. After all, that’s a typical age for a CEO of a large, multinational organization. (Okay, so most of the CEOs we follow don’t have to swivel-hip their way through “Midnight Rambler,” but you get the point.)
There are, of course, plenty of detractors who say the Rolling Stones should pack in their guitars and drumsticks. “Way old,” they sniff, “and way irrelevant.” I have two responses, one subjective and one objective. Subjectively, the Rolling Stones sound pretty damn good, even after all these years. And objectively, if they’re such has-beens, then how do you explain the band’s phenomenal commercial success over the past decade? No, they aren’t writing groundbreaking songs anymore–in fact they haven’t really recorded any new material of note in 20 years–but we sure are listening to their old stuff. A lot. And buying concert tickets. Millions and millions of them. And that’s the wrinkle here. Even though the Stones have been in what you might call a creatively fallow period, we want to hear them more than ever. Couple that with the fact that they have perfected their business model, and it’s easy to understand why they are such an astounding moneymaking machine.
The bottom line is this: “The only rock & roll band that matters,” or “the greatest rock & roll band in the world,” or whatever you want to call Mick, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ronnie Wood, they are far and away the most successful act in rock today. Since 1989 alone–the beginning of the modern age of the RollingStones (more on that later)–the band has generated more than $1.5 billion in gross revenues. That total includes sales of records, song rights, merchandising, sponsorship money, and touring (see chart on following pages). The Stones have made more money than U2, or Springsteen, or Michael Jackson, or Britney Spears, or the Who–or whoever.
Unlike some other groups, the Stones carry no Woodstock-esque, antibusiness baggage. The group has tendrils deep in American business, cutting sponsorship and rights deals with stalwarts like Anheuser-Busch, Microsoft, and Sprint. Remember the old Boston Consulting Group matrix of the four types of businesses? Well, if the Stones were a traditional company, they would be the cash cow.
As with most thriving enterprises, the Rolling Stones Inc. runs on a combustible mix of talent and intense labor–the product of four decades of trial and error. The band downplays the effectiveness of the organization: “I’m sure that if you looked at it and analyzed it, you could say, ‘Well, that’s fucked up,'” says Jagger. “That shouldn’t be like that. No, of course it isn’t run well. No show business organization is run well. There’s always too much money paid out.” Keith, for his part, just shakes his head: “It’s a mom-and-pop operation,” he laughs. “Mick is the mom, and I’m the pop, and then we have these offspring that need feeding.” Well, kind of.
The Stones, or at least some members of the band, can still come across as wiggy rock stars. (“You’re talking to the business right now,” Richards tells me, holding up his two hands ceremoniously. “These are the business.”) But in many respects the Rolling Stones are like any other large business. They are global, they pay taxes (grudgingly), and they litigate. The band has a P&L and budgets, and accountants, and lawyers, and bankers, and investments, and software, and hardware. “They know what they’re doing,” says Barry Diller, a Jagger confidant. “That’s what separates them from any other band.”
Spend time with their senior entourage and you quickly realize how the Stones got so market-wise. Sure, Mick attended the London School of Economics (“I mostly studied economic history”), but his greatest talent, besides strutting and singing, is his ability to surround himself and the rest of the band with a group of very able (they probably hate to be called this) executives.
The Rolling Stones are a private and secretive organization. Most of the team, like Joe Rascoff, the band’s business manager, and tour director Michael Cohl, stay out of the public eye. So, too, does Prince Rupert Zu Loewenstein, a London-based banker who carries an old Bavarian title and who’s been the band’s chief business advisor for some 30 years–“and I hope for another 30 too,” he says. (Keith calls Loewenstein “the mastermind of our setup.”) But just because theStones’ financials aren’t public doesn’t mean there isn’t rigorous benchmarking. “Mick likes to run a pretty tight ship,” Keith says to me with a twinkle in his eye.
The business side of the Stones has several facets. As for any executive running a conglomerate, understanding and managing these diverse businesses are the key, says Jagger. “They all have income streams like any other company,” he says. “They have different business models; they have different delegated people that look after them. And they have to interlock. That’s my biggest problem.” And as we will see, his biggest opportunity.
The touring side of the business produces a torrent of revenue when the band is on the road, and then of course absolutely zilch when the tour is done. The record business also blows hot and cold–depending on if a new album is released or if old ones are promoted–though it’s not as erratic as touring. Music rights, on the other hand–money paid to a band when its songs are played on, say, the radio–are predictable enough that some artists (most famously David Bowie) have been able to securitize these rights and sell bonds backed by their revenue streams.
To harness these businesses, to make them “interlock,” the Stones and Prince Rupert have set up a unique business structure, which looks roughly like this: At the top, not unlike at a blue-chip law firm, is a partnership consisting of the four core members of the group: Jagger, Richards, Watts, and Wood. Do all four get equal shares of touring and new-record sales? No one in the Stones party will touch that one. “In the old days they all got equal splits,” says the Stones’ former manager, Allen Klein, “but I doubt it now.”
Connected to the Stones partnership and Prince Rupert is a group of companies that include Promotour, Promopub, Promotone, and Musidor, each dedicated to a particular aspect of the business. This family of companies is based in the Netherlands, which has tax advantages for foreign bands. When the group isn’t touring, these companies employ only a few dozen employees. At the high-water mark of a tour, on the night the band is playing, say, Giants Stadium, the Stones may employ more than 350. Backstage the enterprise resembles a flourishing startup, with dozens of fast-moving junior employees in black T-shirts running around to make sure the IPO, er, the show, gets off without a hitch. It looks crazy, but it works. Perhaps Keith sums it up best: “With our business, who really knows what’s what. You go and look at Lake Superior, and you say, ‘Look at all that water, and that’s just the top!'”
Today touring is professionalized, complete with immigration lawyers, traveling accountants, and real-time budgets. It is also the biggest moneymaking part of theStones’ operation. Since the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, the Stones have grossed over $1 billion on the road. Though exact profit margins are hard to come by, it’s safe to say that tens of millions of that total flowed to each of the band members. It wasn’t always this way. “When we first started out, there wasn’t really any money in rock & roll,” says Jagger. “There wasn’t a touring industry; it didn’t even exist. Obviously there was somebody maybe who made money, but it certainly wasn’t the act. Basically, even if you were very successful, you got paid nothing.”
Jagger recalls that in the beginning, “you’d just jump from gig to gig. There’d be no sound or lights or anything.” Gradually, beginning with the Stones’ 1969 American tour–which ended with the debacle at Altamont–the touring business would become modernized, with traveling lights, sound, and stage. Jagger himself had a major hand in this, sometimes negotiating directly with promoters in various regions and countries. But it wasn’t until the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, when Canadian rock promoter Michael Cohl took over managing the band’s shows, that the Stones would begin to fully exploit the economic potential of this business.
Generally speaking, prior to Steel Wheels, the band would hire a tour director–the late Bill Graham of Fillmore West fame once filled this role–who would call local promoters in each city to set up shows. Individual deals would have to be cut with each promoter, who took, say, 10% to 15% of ticket sales after the cost of the show. The tour director would then have to collect $250,000 here, $400,000 there, from promoters all over.
Cohl, who started out as a self-described “drugged-out, late-teens strip-club owner from Ottawa,” had been one of those local promoters. After a run-in with the volatile Graham in 1988, Cohl came up with an idea that he thought would tantalize the Stones, who at the time weren’t on speaking terms with each other, never mind touring. “I knew the guys from Pink Floyd, who knew Prince Rupert, and I asked them if they would call Rupert for me,” he tells me as the sounds of theStones rehearsing “Street Fighting Man” echo backstage. “Ten minutes later Rupert was on my phone saying, ‘Excuse me, young man’– he talks in this very nice, formal British accent–‘excuse me, I understand you have something to say to me.’ And I said $40 million for 40 shows. He said, ‘Very interesting.'”
The way Cohl’s plan worked is that he would book the entire tour himself, dealing with the venues directly and cutting out the local promoters. He would also produce new streams of revenue by selling skyboxes, bus tours, and TV deals, and by taking merchandising to a new level. He would bring in corporate sponsors like Volkswagen and Tommy Hilfiger. And most important, he would help stitch these operations together, through cross-promotion and the like, to maximize their earning power.
After months of negotiations and a desperate, failed bid by Graham to retain the Stones, the band accepted Cohl’s offer. Cohl even ended up signing on as the band’s tour director. There was one small problem: “I didn’t have $40 million,” recalls Cohl with a grin. “I had sold half of my company to Labatts [the Canadian beer company], and the truth of the matter is when I offered Rupert the $40 million, I didn’t have their permission to offer it either.” Ultimately Cohl was able to come up with the money, and he and the Stones put together the tour. (Another wrinkle: Steel Wheels had to be insured–Lloyd’s covered Stones tours–and before the insurer would issue a policy, the band had to take physicals. Keith passed, legend has it, to his own astonishment.)
“First and foremost, the show itself was the seminal, watershed point,” says Cohl. “When you look at what a stadium show was pre-Steel Wheels, it was a bit of a scrim, and a big, wide, flat piece of lumber, and that was it. The band turned a stadium into a theater. It all started with Mick. He simply said, ‘We have to fill the end space.’ It was complicated to the third power and expensive to the fifth. But it worked.”
It was also incredibly hairy. “I think Michael would admit that it was a huge learning curve for him doing Steel Wheels,” says Jagger. “Michael had never done it before really, so it was a bit of a gamble.” The tour began in August, and by October Cohl looked at the numbers and realized they were losing money. Gobs of it. The band and the organization had to cut costs quickly. “It was a deal where I said they could make a whole lot of money, and I would guarantee it ‘subject to,’ and the ‘subject to’s’ made us partners at the end of the day. So we all had to learn how to do it,” says Cohl. And they did.
In the end, the Steel Wheels tour–tickets, merchandising, sponsorship money from Anheuser-Busch–made over $260 million worldwide, then a record for a rock tour. The venues, Cohl, the band, and Labatts all made out bigtime. Steel Wheels became the template, and Cohl has been doing Stones tours ever since, refining the operation each time around.
On the new, E*Trade-sponsored Licks tour, the band, which includes keyboard whiz Chuck Leavell and bassist Darryl Jones, is playing three types of venues: stadiums, arenas, and small clubs, each with a unique set of songs (the band has rehearsed more than 130 for this tour), staging, and lights. “It is an amazing challenge,” says Patrick Woodroffe, the lighting designer on the tour, who’s jumped in a cab with me after the Boston show, “but it’s great for the audiences and it keeps the band fresh.” The props and set are downplayed a bit. The giant, multimillion-dollar videoscreen, the staging, and the lights that change for every song don’t overwhelm but complement.
Because they are doing smaller venues, the Stones and Cohl know revenue from Licks won’t approach the monster Voodoo Lounge Tour in 1994-95, which brought in close to $370 million worldwide. Nor will it eclipse 1997-99’s Bridges to Babylon/No Security tour, which did over $390 million. But merchandising (Jagger’s and Charlie Watts’s domain) will be more sophisticated than ever. Jagger tells me that there will be some 50 products–such as underwear by Britain’s Agent Provocateur and new, expensive items like shirts, jackets, and, yes, dresses. And it will be “our most efficient tour ever,” promises Rascoff, though he refuses to divulge any of the band’s financials. “Doing fewer stadiums this time cuts costs because in previous tours we had to have three stages and three crews. This tour we have one stadium stage with one crew.” In other words, when sales in your core business aren’t maximized, you look to cut costs and boost tertiary revenues.
As usual, ticket prices ($50 to $350) have been the subject of much grousing in the press. But Jagger is happy to delve into the topic. “This is one element of the business thing that I try to really control as much as I can,” he says. “Pricing a concert ticket is very different from pricing a Lexus or toothpaste. It’s more like a sports event. And you are prepared to pay the market price. So if U2 or Madonna costs $100 (I’m making these up), you don’t want to be charging $200. I try to keep ticket prices within the market price range. It’s America. We’re not living in a socialist society where we’re all paid so low and no one can afford it.”
The ticket-pricing controversy burns Cohl up. Athletes like Derek Jeter and Marshall Faulk are free to make whatever they can, “but people complain that Mick and Keith can’t. I think that is the biggest load of crap. We are only charging $50 a night for club shows, which we lose money on. I read on eBay one of the tickets to Roseland Ballroom [in New York] went for $10,000. That makes us schmucks! When we charge $300 for some seats, somebody’s out there selling them for $500. If we were to charge $500, somebody would sell them for more. Come on, what are they complaining about?” It’s true that ticket prices to Stones shows have outpaced inflation (along with health care and college tuition), but you kind of get the feeling that the same people who are complaining about high ticket prices also rue the fact that Blind Boy Fuller died poor.
The Stones are famously tax-averse. I broach the subject with Keith in Camp X-Ray, as he calls his backstage lair. There is incense in the air and Ronnie Wood drifts in and out–it is, in other words, a perfect venue for such a discussion. “The whole business thing is predicated a lot on the tax laws,” says Keith, Marlboro in one hand, vodka and juice in the other. “It’s why we rehearse in Canada and not in the U.S. A lot of our astute moves have been basically keeping up with tax laws, where to go, where not to put it. Whether to sit on it or not. We left England because we’d be paying 98 cents on the dollar. We left, and they lost out. No taxes at all. I don’t want to screw anybody out of anything, least of all the governments that I work with. We put 30% in holding until we sort it out.” No wonder Keith chooses to live not in London, or even New York City, but in Weston, Conn.
Of course, it wasn’t just the taxman’s pinch that forced the Rolling Stones to focus on the bottom line. They also got screwed by record labels. “In the early days you got paid absolutely nothing,” recalls Jagger. “The only people who earned money were the Beatles because they sold so many records.” By the mid-’60s the Stones had reportedly sold ten million singles, including “Satisfaction,” and five million albums, but the band was still living hand to mouth. “I’ll never forget the deals I did in the ’60s, which were just terrible,” says Jagger. “You say, ‘Oh, I’m a creative person, I won’t worry about this.’ But that just doesn’t work. Because everyone would just steal every penny you’ve got.”
In 1965 the band began to work with Allen Klein, a New York manager, who would help it negotiate a new contract. Klein, now 70, recalls his big day with the band some 37 years later: “I told the guys, ‘I want you to come down with me to Decca. Wear dark sunglasses and look angry but don’t say anything. Leave the talking to me.'” By intimidating the British record execs, Klein helped land the Stones their first million-dollar payday. Klein (whose company, ABKCO, still owns rights to theStones’ songs from the earliest days through 1971) and the band would have a falling-out and part ways in the early 1970s. With vintage photographs of theStones covering his office walls, Klein leafs through the old contracts in his office and shakes his head: “The others didn’t look at them that much, but I remember Mick would read every single page.”
Interestingly, the Stones have never had a blockbuster album, like Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But what they have done is make 42 albums. And they’ve sold tens of millions of those records and CDs, and singles and EPs too. Since 1989 alone, for instance, the band has sold more than 38 million albums at roughly $12 each, for gross proceeds of over $460 million. The new Stones albums haven’t been as hot as the oldies, obviously, but the band has high hopes for the Forty Licks album, due out this fall. The album has 36 of the band’s biggest hits, plus four new songs. Also, Allen Klein’s ABKCO has just re-released 22 of the band’s earlier albums on SACD hybrid, a new CD format (compatible with traditional CD players), including all of the band’s great records from the 1960s. In a way, the Stones’ older music is like Coke Classic. The band tries to introduce new varieties, some of which do okay, but it’s the original stuff we still love the best.
SERWER: Your income must vary all over the place, year by year, because the tours give you this huge bump and then there’s nothing.
RICHARDS: But there’s always an awful lot of PRS coming in.
SERWER: What the hell is that?
RICHARDS: Performing rights. Every time it’s played on the radio. I go to sleep and make money–let’s put it that way.
Now this is the Microsoft part of the Stones’ business empire. Profitable. Steady. And stretching out to the horizon. “Music publishing is more profitable to the artist than recording. It’s just tradition,” says Jagger. “There’s no rhyme or reason. The people who wrote songs were probably better businesspeople than the people who sang them were. You go back to George Gershwin and his contemporaries–they probably negotiated better deals, and they became the norm of the business. So if you wrote a song, you got half of it, and the other half went to your publisher. That’s the model for writing.”
And Jagger/Richards have written more than 200 songs. The pair has had a few monster hits like “Honky Tonk Woman,” but more significantly they have dozens of songs that are played on FM radio, which is still a vibrant category. And it’s not just the radio. Every time “Shattered” or “Jumping Jack Flash” is played anywhere around the globe when commerce is involved–at an ice-skating rink, on a jukebox, or at a club–the Jagger/Richards cash register goes ka-ching.
Again, Jagger is intimately involved in this business. Perhaps the most famous product rollout of all time used a Stones song–Windows 95 and “Start Me Up.” Microsoft reportedly paid $4 million for those rights. (“Yeah, we met Bill Gates,” says Jagger. “And [Paul] Allen is always around.”) Not to be outdone, Apple used “She’s a Rainbow” to launch the colored iMacs. But, says Jagger, “we don’t really do a lot of commercials. I mean, I’m not against them per se, but we don’t do them that much. We do a lot of film licensing. We get lots of requests, and I usually say yes. It’s a great business. You have a sort of price that you like to keep to, unless it’s a low-budget film and it’s a really interesting film–then you can make a deal maybe.” Though the cost of buying rights to use a Stones song in a film varies, on average it runs a filmmaker in the low six figures.
Over the past decade FORTUNE estimates that the songwriting team of Jagger/Richards has garnered $56 million from songs being played on radio and in public venues, as well as being used in advertising and movies. A significant chunk of change. “The thing that we all had to learn is what to do when the passion starts to generate money,” says Richards. “You don’t start to play your guitar thinking you’re going to be running an organization that will maybe generate millions.”
The tours, the records, the rights: They’ve all made the Stones the wealthiest rock & roll band on the planet. None more so than Jagger and Richards, who unlike the others enjoy the full fruits of all that licensing. Their portfolios are mostly in the hands of the trusty and tight-lipped Prince Rupert. Though Jagger follows the financial news in the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times, he isn’t doing much with stocks these days. “I used to play the market, but I’m not that interested at the moment because I don’t think it’s a very interesting time,” he says.
Keith is more philosophical: “I watch the [Dow] go up and down and wonder. It’s like watching the horses really. How much is that an indication of anything? Oh, the Dow’s up…. And you go, okay, who’s running in the 3:30 at Belmont? I have a small portfolio. I find things I love, like houses–bricks and mortar. Nothing wrong with a bit of land. I’ve invested in my friends’ projects. And there’s Rupert. He is a great financial mind for the market. He plays that like I play guitar. He does things like a little oilwell. And currency–you know, Swiss francs in the morning, switch to marks in the afternoon, move to the yen, and by the end of the day, how many dollars? That’s his financial genius, his wisdom. Little pieces of paper. As long as there’s a smile on Rupert’s face, I’m cool.”
So what keeps the Stones going? Money, yes. But the band could make big bucks simply by doing commercials instead of touring. Going on the road is about ego gratification. “This whole thing runs on passion,” says Richards. “Even though we don’t talk about it much ourselves, it’s almost a sort of quest or mission.”
The Stones and their estates will continue licensing songs and selling records for years. But sooner rather than later, the touring will cease. Jagger’s stage antics are remarkable when you consider his age. But how much longer? Charlie Watts, the oldest Stone, is already 61. The band hasn’t said this is the last tour, though it could be–and of course that kind of speculation is great for ticket sales, particularly in second-tier cities, where this really could be the Stones’ last show.
“How long can we go on?” asks Keith. “Forever. We’ll let you know when we keel over.” And when that day comes, it will mean not only the end of the world’s greatest rock band but also a winding-down of one of the most successful enterprises this crazy business has ever known.
Reporter Associates: Julia Boorstin and Ann Harrington