How The Rolling Stones' ‘No Filter Tour’ Became 2021’s Highest Grossing Tour And An Industry Beacon
By: Andy Gensler
It didn’t seem remotely possible that The Rolling Stones, the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band, could outdo themselves nearly 60 years into their storied career. But what the Stones achieved in 2021 with the restart of their “No Filter Tour” stands out as among one of the legendary group’s greatest accomplishments. Not only was it the highest grossing tour of Pollstar’s 2021 chart year, bringing in $115.5 million and more than 516,000 tickets over the course of just two months, but, more importantly, it served as a beacon for the entire industry and hundreds of millions of music fans across the world, showing that in this supremely challenging year, concerts at the highest echelon of the live business could be pulled off safely and successfully.
“It's a testament to all of the people who were out on the road and on our team,” says John Meglen, president and co-CEO of Concerts West, the Stones’ promoter. “You have to give every single person out there credit for a ton of buckling down and saying, ‘Let's go out and get this thing done,’ because we all wanted to get it done. We didn't want to lose a show. And we're watching all the others out there and going, ‘Man, they're not taking it serious enough.’”
With an average revenue of a mind-boggling $10 million per show for the full run, there was a lot at stake and the Stones’ team had to do everything in their power to ensure the tour’s safety. To Meglen, his co-CEO partner Paul Gongaware and their team’s credit, the tour’s strict adherence to COVID protocols was crucial to the success of “No Filter.”
“We had a very, very strict bubble, both for the entourage and the same with Opie (veteran tour production director Dale “Opie” Skjerseth) on the production crew,” Meglen says. “When we moved into St. Louis for the first show (the run debuted on Sept. 26 at The Dome), we really got into all of the daily or every-other-day testing.”
Not only was the entire crew vaccinated and regularly tested, but the tour traveled with N95 masks, doctors and even its own PCR machines. No outsiders were allowed backstage, dressing rooms were sanitized and zones were set up to only allow certain people access. “We had to be very, very strict,” Meglen continues. “At the show in L.A., my wife was up in the suite, but I couldn't go up and see her.”
Also, this year there was an array of other challenges beyond the global pandemic, including labor shortages, supply chain issues, rising inflation, consumer fear, varying city and state regulations and, most horribly, the one thing no group should ever have to endure, especially weeks before a major tour commences.
“Charlie’s passing was a surprise,” says Gongaware of the immense loss of Charlie Watts, one of the all-time great drummers and an original Rolling Stones member. His passing at age 80 on Aug. 24, 2021, just a month out from the “No Filter” kickoff, was a body blow for The Stones, their team and music fans across the globe who for decades reveled in Watts’ steady, swinging grooves. “We knew he was in the hospital,” Gongaware continues, “but we thought he was doing okay. He had insisted we do the tour without him if he wasn't going to be able. We were hoping that he would come back somewhere in the middle of the tour, but he insisted we do it, and so we did.”
Thank goodness. What the band accomplished in 2021 with 14 stadium shows in total (two of the shows fell outside of Pollstar’s chart year) in just under two months, with a whopping 577,303 tickets and a $226.75 average ticket price for a total gross of $130,906,734, is proof positive that the live industry can and will return.
Within the context of the Stones’ storied concert history, a $130.9 million gross might seem a pittance – but it isn’t and it augurs exceedingly well for 2022. Over the course of six decades, the Rolling Stones have continually been on the forefront of the live business, pushing the bar ever higher while helping create the modern touring industry as we know it today. When Michael Cohl outbid Bill Graham for 1989’s “Steel Wheels Tour,” it was an historic paradigm shift that displaced the regional tour promoter system for the single promoter model that has ruled the day ever since. It also included groundbreaking sponsorship deals and saw revenues in excess of $140 million, which for then was all but unheard of.
And that’s just the beginning. The Stones’ 1994-1995 “Voodoo Lounge” run hauled $320 million and sold 6.4 million tickets, while their “Bigger Bang Tour” exceeded that benchmark with $558 million grossed from 2005-2007 and 4.7 million tickets. The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band were among the top earners for three decades, pulling in $870 million in the aughts, $929 million in the teens (just behind U2) and an estimated $800 million in the '90s – a whopping $2.6 billion over those decades.
Perhaps more mind-blowing is that if the Stones decided to continue touring apace of 2021’s leg of the “No Filter Tour,” which passed $130 million grossed in just one quarter, their haul for a full year would be a massive $523.6 million– significantly more than the top tours of the recent record-setting years of 2018 (Ed Sheeran at $432 million) and 2019 (Pink at $215 million), and more than any of their past tours earned in a single calendar year.
Part of their success is ticket pricing, which by today’s inflationary standards at $223.50 is relatively reasonable for one of the most legendary artists on the planet. “It is an event, not just another concert,” says Gongaware of the Stones’ ticket pricing. “We want to make sure that when they come to town, it’s an event. We work very hard on that from tease campaigns at the very beginning with people like Amy Morrison, who runs our marketing department, who’s been doing this since their 50th anniversary tour and far more.”
In addition to Morrison and Skjerseth, Gongaware and Meglen stress the importance of their team, which includes COO Kelly DiStefano, tour accountant Gord Berg, Marc Feinberg, who runs premium ticketing, and Mike Wozniak for security. In addition, the duo shout out the Stones’ indispensable manager Joyce Smyth, who Meglen calls “absolutely amazing, she makes everything happen.”
When asked what they learned that others in the industry should know for when they get out there, Meglen cuts to the chase. “You better take it seriously,” he says. “We ain’t done. This whole thing about the ‘Roaring ’20s’ and all of that, we said a long time ago, the comeback’s going to be one hell of a bumpy road, and it’s going to continue being a bumpy road for a while. So all these Pollyannish ones who think that, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like it was before,’ that ain’t the case. It’s tough out there. You’ve got to be smart. If you lose shows, that’s a lot of money.”
And the million- if not billion- dollar question for 2022, with the band’s incredible 60th year approaching, is will they or won’t they go back out?
“We can’t talk about it,” Gongaware says firmly. That’s a far better answer than no.