Coldplay: A $500 million success that also may be the last big 'rock' band in history

  • Coldplay's last tour supporting its "A Head Full of Dreams" album grossed $523 million on concert ticket sales.
  • Only two bands have ever grossed more: U2 and The Rolling Stones.
  • Coldplay's success shows how it successfully navigated an era that its own leader Chris Martin has described as the end of rock.

Coldplay frontman Chris Martin was known in the band's earlier days for his melancholic melodies about painful experiences. As the band has evolved, so has its music, but one sad note remains: Rock music is "done," according to Martin.

Coldplay, on the other hand, is raking in the money.

Coldplay's "A Head Full of Dreams" tour grossed $523 million in ticket sales, the third-highest grossing tour ever behind only The Rolling Stones' "A Bigger Bang Tour" ($558.2 million) and U2's "360 Tour" ($736.4 million). On Friday, Coldplay released the "Butterfly Package" which features the band's Amazon Prime documentary "A Head Full of Dreams" along with a live version of the band's 2015 album of the same name, and a concert film.

Source: Sam Neill

Speaking to the The Telegraph a few years ago about Coldplay's evolution, Martin said, "We felt like rock music has been done. The future of music is in new sounds and new ways of treating vocals. We wanted to add those colours to our palette."

It is that shift in tone — some critics would argue appropriation of more current musical forms — that has kept the band at a level of success that no other contemporary rock band other than U2 has come close to matching, during an era when sales of physical CDs, and downloads of albums, have plummeted, and rock music has been supplanted by other genres, led by hip-hop.

CD sales for the first half of 2018 dropped 41.5 percent compared to the first half of 2017, according to the Recording Industry of America's mid-year report, a pace of decline steeper than in previous years. The RIAA pointed out the continued growth of streaming, which had 28 percent year-over-year growth.

For the most recent full-year period, 2017, revenue from recorded music in the U.S. increased 16.5 percent to $8.7 billion, primarily due to paid music subscriptions to services like Spotify, Amazon, Tidal, Apple Music and Sirius XM's Pandora, which each grew by more than 50 percent, according to the RIAA. It was the first time since 1999 that U.S. music revenue grew materially for two years in a row, but it is still 40 percent below peak levels in the physical CD and digital download eras.

As the industry came out of a weak period for sales, the rebound didn't benefited most musicians. Musicians only received 12 percent of the $43 billion the music industry generated in total in 2017, according to a Citigroup report published in August, most of that from touring. In all, consumers spent $20 billion on live music and streaming in what was the industry's most profitable year since 2006, according to Citigroup's analysis. Though even getting to the numbers that truly reflect the state of the industry are a source of tension: the Citigroup report received a sharply worded response from the Recording Industry Association of America, which called some of the methods used by the Citigroup "incorrect or incomplete."

Coldplay's collaborative approach to remaining relevant

"Coldplay has grasped, perhaps more than any other major rock band, the importance of collaboration in the contemporary pop music landscape," said Theo Cateforis, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Fine Arts and Associate Music Professor for Syracuse University's College of Arts & Sciences.

For many non-fans, this fact may have first become clear during the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show, when Coldplay was joined by Beyoncé and Bruno Mars. Critics of the band said the move was made because Coldplay didn't have what it takes to hold the stage all on its own, but in fact, it reflects the band's savvy.

"Whereas the classic model of the rock band in previous generations was that of a self-sustaining unit that wrote and performed its own music (think Led Zeppelin, Nirvana or countless others), Coldplay has adopted the collaborative approach of EDM and hip-hop, where producers and singers partner up in various combinations and arrangements," Cateforis said. "Those rock bands who have successfully navigated this changing landscape have welcomed these new digital rhythms, textures and arrangements into their sound, while still retaining enough elements of their familiar sound (such as Chris Martin's piano playing) to maintain their identity. Bands like Coldplay have essentially become hybrid entities."

Coldplay scored the third-most downloaded digital track in 2017 in a collaboration with the EDM/pop group The Chainsmokers, "Something Just Like This."

Alan Williams, Professor of Music and Music Business Coordinator for the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said one thing Coldplay has absorbed more fully than the bands that influenced them is the importance of hip-hop as foundational musical language. "Samples and beats are not something to experiment with (as U2 did throughout the 90s), but something to assume as a given, a process that can be supplemented by guitars and drums, but not exactly replaced by them."

The 2017 Niesen's Music year-end report found that R&B/hip hop was the most dominant genre of music and had a 72 percent increase in on-demand audio streaming, with seven of the top 10 most-consumed albums coming from that genre. It was the first time ever that R&B/hip hop surpassed rock.

"The market shift away from rock to other styles such as hip hop and EDM, is, on the one hand the type of generational change that we have seen throughout the history of popular music — not unlike when rock itself displaced jazz as America's top popular music over the course of the 1960s," Cateforis said. Or, when early rock acts, from Elvis to The Stones, made black American music, most notably the blues form, popular among white audiences.

"They may be the last generation of 'rock' bands that can appeal to large enough audiences to warrant the size of these visuals, and the revenue to pay for them." -Alan Williams, Professor of Music and Music Business Coordinator for the University of Massachusetts Lowell

Concert revenue is by far the most important source of money for bands, and that is a game still dominated by aging white men. The five highest-grossing tours of all time were accomplished by white male rock artists, according to Billboard data going back to 1990. And among the top 10 tours of all time, only Madonna and Michael Jackson broke through that barrier.

"The scale of audience that large venues require is something that is often built over long periods of time. This is why McCartney or the Rolling Stones can count on selling out stadiums every time out. They now have multi-generational fanbases, and an aura of historical importance surrounding them," Williams said.

"These groups have a deep back catalogue, which has accrued a sizeable audience over the years; they appeal to adult, middle-aged and middle class audiences and their families, who are the demographic with the financial means to afford tickets that can cost hundreds of dollars for top-tier seating; these concerts also offer elements of both nostalgia and spectacle, not that dissimilar from the reasons that audiences flock to see Star Wars and Marvel film franchises," Cateforis said.

The recent Queen/Freddie Mercury movie, "Bohemian Rhapsody," already has set a box office record for a music biopic, with $550 million worldwide in ticket sales, and $166 million in the U.S., according to Box Office Mojo.

It is be-on-the-road or bust for most bands

"As far as Spotify and its effect on the music industry: fewer album sales hurt artists and bands because they simply can't earn a living unless a) their music is broadly appealing enough to sell to a huge number of people or b) they tour constantly," said musician, composer and music critic Jordan Anderson, who writes for a nonprofit publication, Music & Literature, which is devoted to highlighting the work of underrepresented artists. "It has essentially made it so that if you aren't a band like Coldplay, or you aren't essentially willing to tour consistently each year for the rest of your life, you cannot in most cases earn a living from your music."

Atlantic Records, which represents Coldplay, did not respond to requests for comment.

Anderson gave Coldplay a classic left-handed compliment, saying the band's music has what he calls the "Paul McCartney effect."

"Chris Martin's songs are melodically and harmonically interesting enough to be compelling to skilled musicians but approachable enough for a general audience to admire — what you might call the 'Paul McCartney effect,' for better or worse," Anderson said. "There's no reason for people to stop listening, in other words, because there is no novelty to the music and thus no period for the sense of novelty to wear off, in the way it might for a 'hyped up' act."

How long the success model lasts — given its costs — remains an open question.

UMass professor Williams said Coldplay's live music is inseparable from the concert visual presentation and a key to its touring. "Coldplay is carrying on a concert tradition established by older generation rock artists, but incorporating an emphasis on computer generated/controlled visuals that are now central to more electronic dance music presentation. They may be the last generation of 'rock' bands that can appeal to large enough audiences to warrant the size of these visuals, and the revenue to pay for them."

Coldplay's members might take offense at this prediction, but not out of pride. They don't rank themselves very highly when it comes to being thought of as a great "rock" act.

Martin told The Telegraph back in 2015: "No one would ever put us in a list of the top 10 rock bands. We've maybe rocked out once, for 10 minutes."

By Donovan Russo, special to CNBC.com

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