Rock on, ancient queen.
I recall the veteran British-American rock band Fleetwood Mac giving a performance at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena not long ago. After two hours and more of Dreams, Don’t Stop and other classics of the eight-track era, Stevie Nicks and the others carefully made their way off the stage swaddled in so many thick white towels and plush robes they could barely move.
One minute Nicks was a beshawled goddess shrieking Gold Dust Woman in lace, chiffon and velvet, the next minute she was a Holiday Inn laundry room.
But it is standard procedure – a chill must be avoided like the plague. Fleetwood Mac and others of their classic-rock generation are deep into their 70s, and they cannot be too careful. Their tours generate small fortunes.
Are the rock and pop elders fragile? Alarm bells sounded this summer when Madonna postponed her Celebration Tour because of a bacterial infection. In September, 74-year-old Bruce Springsteen postponed the remainder of his 2023 dates with the E Street Band until next year because of peptic ulcer disease. Later that same month, Aerosmith paused its farewell tour while its septuagenarian singer Steven Tyler recovered from a fractured larynx.
“I don’t think anybody wants to retire gracefully,” says veteran tour promoter Elliott Lefko, vice-president of AEG/Goldenvoice Concerts. “But, the thing about rock ‘n’ roll is, it really keeps you young. In their mind, they’re still 25.”
High-profile postponements and health issues notwithstanding, older artists typically take great care of themselves. Fitness regimens, dietitians and massage therapists are the norm. And as for the classic backstage photos of Jack Daniels consumption, the drinks are different today.
“When I walk into a green room today,” Lefko says, “it’s all about the carrot juice.”
Still, concerts are cancelled and tours are postponed. And the closer to showtime a performance is called off, the more complicated and expensive the fallout.
When a concert is scrapped at the last minute (as was the case with a Drake concert in Vancouver this summer) expenses are already committed. The venue has been rented; crews will still be paid. Security staff and ticket-takers were already on site. The money the promoter spent on advertising is not recuperable.
The venue owner, who loses revenue from bar sales and food concessions, is at the most risk. The promoter and the artist can reschedule, but the venue is at their mercy. “We can’t count on a postponed show coming back to us,” says Lisa Zbitnew, owner of the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto and the Bronson Centre Music Theatre in Ottawa. “Postponement is the new ‘maybe.’ ”
A year ago, Zbitnew had a concert called off when the headliner tested positive for COVID-19 after the opening act had already performed. More than 400 fans went home disappointed. “A situation like that definitely requires a lot more finesse than normal,” Zbitnew says. “People are angry. They’ve paid money to get to the show, and, in some cases, for hotels.”
Of course, they also paid money for the tickets to the concert. When a show is cancelled outright, the promoter not only loses ticket revenue but has to pay the ticket service company a fee to administer refunds. Which is why cancellations are avoided if at all possible. Instead, shows and tours are routinely postponed with rescheduled dates.
To protect themselves against cancelled shows, insurance can be taken out by venues and promoters, as well as the artists themselves, who often receive guaranteed money to appear. If they are sick and the event is cancelled, the artist loses their guarantee if it is not insured. And while it may seem logical that older artists would present more of a risk, it is not that black-and-white.
“Sometimes young artists party too much, whereas older artists are past that,” says Peter Williams, global product leader of entertainment for business insurance company Allianz Commercial. “An artist’s health and claims history is a factor, but young artists have issues as well.”
In 2022, Canadian pop star Shawn Mendes, 23 years old at the time, cancelled more than 70 performances of his Wonder world tour to care of his mental health. Justin Bieber recently cancelled significant parts of his Justice World Tour because of physical problems (Ramsay Hunt syndrome) and mental-health issues (exhaustion).
“Younger artists suffer more from burnout,” says Benjamin Rossington, Toronto-based entertainment and sports account manager at HUB International insurance brokerage. “They tend to try to do too much.”
According to Rossington, there are no catch-all insurance contracts to underwrite a tour because of the uniqueness of each artist. “Insurers will look at physical fitness, mental health and past history. They may even attend a rehearsal.”
In other words, a weathered 74-year-old Ozzy Osbourne, for example, is no well-maintained Paul McCartney at 81.
Typically, tours today have more scheduled off-days. “Insurers are appreciative of that,” says Rossington. “These artists are multimillion-dollar-generating machines, and there is more of conscious effort to protect them.”
Still, the machines do break down. Illnesses happen – a lot during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a momentary pause in a tour can be expensive. Sound people, lighting technicians, and trucks and tour vans have already been booked. Production crews might need to be lodged temporarily.
“It’s going to cost you money,” says veteran tour manager Andrew White. “It’s not like everybody is going to pick up again in a week or a month or a year like nothing happened.”
Though disruptions are logistically and financially a major concern, the recent spate of lost shows are not calamities. Contingencies are planned; playbooks are followed.
Riley O’Connor is chairman of concert promotion giant Live Nation Canada today, but he began in the production end of the business. He recalls a Frank Sinatra tour in Germany in the late 1970s, when Ol’ Blue Eyes fell ill. The crew was sent back to England and paid for 10 days while the crooner recovered.
“Frank spoke to us directly about the next steps and flew us back to Germany once everything was sorted out,” O’Connor says. “I’ve been at this for 40 years, and it’s just the nature of the business.”