The Case Against Reunion Tours

"I'm getting tickets tomorrow," wrote a friend, somewhat mysteriously. "Who wants?" For a moment, I was confused. Pavement, perhaps the best indie-rock band of the Nineties, broke up in 2000.

Luckily, a clarification landed in my inbox five seconds later: "Oh, right, details: Reunion show. Tue, Sep 21, 2010 07:00 PM. Not sure how much tickets cost."

That was all I needed. "Count me in," I typed. "Even though I’ll probably be getting married the weekend after."

The fact that my friend pitched the tickets without providing any information on price, location or, at first, timing--and that I agreed to purchase them almost a year in advance, despite what many people might consider a rather "important" conflict—should come as no surprise to fans of Pavement, whose members confirmed plans last Thursday to reunite in 2010 for a concert in New York's Central Park and a series of unspecified "dates around the world." Nor should it shock them that the Central Park show sold out instantly, forcing the band to schedule a second gig the following day—and then, when that sold out, too, to tack on an additional show the day after. As one headline put it, "Holy S**t!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" People—especially 27-year-old yupsters like me—like Pavement. A lot.

But now that the dust has settled—and my fiancée is no longer forcing me to sleep on the sofa—I’m starting to wonder: Should music fans really be so eager to subsidize yet another reunion tour? Over the past two years, we’ve shelled out for little else in terms of live concerts: the Police and Genesis topped the 2007 box-office charts with joint receipts of $341 million, more than doubling 2000’s two highest grossers, Tina Turner and N’SYNC; Sting and Co. combined with the Eagles and Spice Girls for a $276 million take in 2008. The rest of the recent bestseller list—Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Rod Stewart, Roger Waters—isn’t much fresher. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that about 95 percent of all downloaded music is stolen, and album sales are almost half what they were at the start of the decade. We’re witnessing a massive shift in revenue from new recordings to live music—and in large part it’s live music that was originally released more than 20 years ago. (See also: Led Zeppelin, New Kids on the Block, Van Halen.) The record industry is no longer a record industry. It’s a touring industry.

Don’t get me wrong: nostalgia has its value. One of the greatest experiences of my life was seeing Paul McCartney play “All My Loving” in Philadelphia on April 16, 2002; thanks to the old black-and-white footage of screaming girls projected over the stage, I could imagine, for a sweet, fleeting moment, that I had time-traveled to one of the Beatles’ first American concerts. Downloading isn’t so bad either; thanks to the Internet, more people are hearing more new music, more quickly, than ever before, and artists who would’ve made no money in, say, the 1980s are now making some. That said, it’s clear that by transferring our wealth from bands who might produce good music in the future (via piracy) to bands whose best work is behind them (via pricier and pricier ticket purchases) we’re disincentivizing actual creativity. Why bother writing and recording new songs—or, if you do, of making them any good—if you know your fans would rather fork over for “Brown Sugar” year after year? And why bother investing in a promising young band when you can just release another Eagles hits compilation and sponsor another round of reunion shows? I‘m glad, for example, that Joey Santiago, guitarist for Eighties alt-rock legends the Pixies, could put his kid through school with proceeds from the band’s recent reunion tour. But even though they’ve repeatedly hinted that they’ll record a new album together, the Pixies have released only asingle new song since regrouping in 2004. While they spend the fall playing their 1989 classic Doolittle again and again on a 28-date “20th Anniversary” jaunt through Europe and North America, bands that might’ve been the next Pixies—Woods, say, or Dirty Projectors—will be stuck wringing even less money from the (non-)record-buying public and receiving less attention from the industry than the Pixies did in their day.

This is no knock on Pavement—who also, incidentally, have no plans to write or record new material anytime soon. Stephen Malkmus is singular talent. As Pavement’s lead songwriter, he balanced craft and insouciance better than anyone who came before or after, singing asymmetrical melodies with surrealist lyrics in a standoffish deadpan that sounded like he didn’t care who (if anyone) was listening—all while making sure never to let too much time elapse between hooks. As its lead guitarist, he strenuously avoided the usual blues, classic rock, and post-punk clichés, choosing instead to let his lines zig-zag, seemingly at random but always with purpose, between sweetness and dissonance. Every Pavement album is great; I can’t wait to see them live. They deserve our support. But that doesn’t change the fact that fans like me would be doing more for the music we love by putting the nearly $1 million we’ve spent so far on the nascent Pavement reunion—$40-plus per ticket x 7,000 tickets per show—toward new bands in Brooklyn, Baltimore, San Francisco, Omaha and elsewhere... instead of downloading their songs for free from BitTorrent. That’s the investment with the bigger potential pay-off: new music rather than nostalgia.

Who knows? We may even make it possible for a group from our own generation to reunite some day.