Before the internet, a band could break up, its members retire, and still be a profitable venture.
The Beastie Boys, for example, sold so many records that they could count on albums like Licensed to Ill and Ill Communication to each sell a million or two copies a year. The Doors’ catalogue went gold again and again. Same with Led Zeppelin and scores of other heritage acts. All the members had to do was cash fat the royalty cheques that showed up in the mailbox like clockwork. It was like having an annuity or an RRSP that paid handsomely and reliably.
Those days are gone. Physical sales are a tiny fraction of what they used to be and that lovely mailbox money has dried up. Meanwhile, streaming doesn’t pay like physical sales. If you’re an artist of a certain vintage, what do you do?
Two options: (1) Sell your catalogue to a company like Hipgnosis Song Fund, Primary Wave, or the dozens of other entities buying up the publishing rights of successful composers. And (2), get the band back together, go on tour, and top up the retirement fund for everyone involved.
There’s a lot of money to be made in taking nostalgia on the road. Anytime Bruce Springsteen regroups with the E Street Band, that’s good for another couple hundred million. Even though only 60 per cent of the classic lineup is participating, Guns N’ Roses continue to rake in cash that started with the Not in This Lifetime tour in 2016. By the time the current global road trip ends later this year, the band will have raked in a gross somewhere around US$1 billion since that reunion. And The Rolling Stones have grossed over US$1.2 billion this century alone. Even the death of founding member Charlie Watts hasn’t slowed them down.
Amphitheatres and arenas need to be filled. Boomers and Zoomers have shown that they’re prepared to part with their money to relive their youth. Younger people consumed with FOMO want to see these great acts before too many of them die off. Promoters are willing to offer heritage bands sweet guarantees if they will get back together.
These groups are on so many wish lists. What are the chances of them putting aside any past differences or reservations for one more go-round?
Oasis broke up and reconciled half a dozen times between 1994 and 2009 before Noel Gallagher walked out for good just before the band went onstage for the Rock En Seine festival in Paris on Aug. 28, 2009. The last straw came when Liam threw a plum at his brother backstage (he missed). Since that splat, Liam and Noel have been chirping at each other, much to the chagrin of their mother, Peggy, who really wants her boys to make up while she’s still alive.
Every six months or so, stories surface — usually from a less-than-reputable U.K. tabloid — about a possible reunion. We’re in the midst of such a silly season right now. But to some, this round of rumours feels different. Peggy Gallagher is getting old. Noel continues to see plenty of songwriting royalties but his marriage to Sara MacDonald has ended after 22 years. That’s going to cost him. Liam doesn’t see much in the way of royalties from Oasis (at least compared to Noel) and while his current solo career pays fine, it’s not Oasis money.
While Liam has been periodically up for a reunion, Noel has remained against it. Then again, in 2021, he publicly stated that he’d reform the band for £100 million. Then again, he dropped that price last week to £8 million “delivered in an Adidas bag.” And lately, I get the feeling that he might be leaning towards … something. These latest rounds of rumours say that dates are already being organized for four nights at Knebworth in June 2025 (yes, two years from now). There are also rumours about a hometown gig being planned for Etihad Stadium in Manchester. So is this for real?
Odds of a reunion: 25-75 at best. I’ll believe it when I see both brother step onstage and start playing.
2. The Sex Pistols
Back in 1995, they did it for the money with the aptly-named Filthy Lucre Tour, reconciling (barely) for the first time since January 1978. Since then, Johnny Lydon has maintained a great distance from Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and Glen Matlock, occasionally battling them in court over one thing or another.
Then again, Johnny says he’s now “seriously in a state of financial ruin.” Touring has been tough for him because he was a constant caregiver to his wife Nora who suffered from dementia. But now that she’s gone — she died on April 6 — maybe Johnny will want to leave the house. Then again, Nora was the heiress to a German publishing fortune, so…
Odds: 10 per cent at best. The animosity runs pretty deep.
3. The Jam
The Jam was one of the most successful English singles bands of the 1980s and singlehandedly made being a Mod a thing again. But in 1982, Paul Weller bailed and has since worked mostly as a solo artist. Meanwhile, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler have stuck together, performing Jam songs but remained estranged from Weller, apparently not even speaking for 20 years. There was a thaw between 2006 and 2009 which resulted in Foxton appearing with Weller on his albums and even onstage at least once.
Odds: Zero. If it hasn’t happened by now, it’s not going to happen.
4. Talking Heads
Talking Heads never really formally broke up. They just kind of faded away after their 1988 album, Naked. There was no announcement, no farewell. David Byrne went off on a world music jag before getting into stage productions and writing books. Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth had the Tom Tom Club and their producing gigs. Jerry Harrison has been busy producing records for other people.
Few bands achieved such artistic quirkiness. Would they be interested in revisiting that? I don’t get the sense that Byrne does. Franz suffered a heart attack in 2020 and now has three stents. Then both he and Tina were in a bad car crash with a drunk driver in 2022. Harrison is happy with his wife in Mill Valley, Calif.
Odds: Zero. There was a buzz about something in the spring of 2016, but nothing came of it. As much fun as a Talking Heads reunion would be, it all hinges on Byrne. He’s never been a guy who looks back.
Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, and Peter Buck kept the lights on after original drummer Bill Berry retired in 1997 to become a hay farmer outside of Athens, Ga. But in 2011, they realized that it was time to hang things up. Stipe got deeper into photography and activism. Both Mills and Buck continue making music on their own with friends. Berry continues to farm but in 2022 dug out his drums to play in a band called The Bad Ends.
I’m not sure how well R.E.M.’s back catalogue is doing in terms of generating income. Where, for example, are all the big expansive box sets like we’ve seen from some of their contemporaries? A reunion tour is probably their best route to topping up the bank accounts.
Odds: Close to zero. I quote Michael Stipe: “We decided when we split up that that would just be really tacky and probably money-grabbing, which might be the impetus for a lot of bands to get back together.”
6. The White Stripes
Jack White’s solo career is doing well. Money keeps rolling in from the use of Seven Nation Army all over the world. And as an entrepreneur, he’s also just fine. Meg White, however, was always a shy and very reluctant rock star. Nothing much has been heard from her since the band’s breakup in 2011.
Odds: Zero. In fact, less than zero. Jack is fine (“Absolutely no chance,” he told The NME in 2012) and Meg is the introvert’s introvert. As far as anyone knows, the two haven’t been in regular contact for years. And despite serious attempts to track her down for an interview, she’s refused all requests with Elle magazine being recently disappointed.
7. The Smiths
The band’s famous Morrissey-Marr nexus fractured spectacularly in the fall of 1987. Since then, many, many efforts have been made to put the pieces of the Smiths together again, including a rumoured offer US$75 million to play Coachella. No one took that bait.
Odds: So much less than zero that you’d have a better chance of calculating the square root of -2. Given Morrissey’s mercurial disagreeableness, who would underwrite such a thing?
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.