People often think that musicians make their money from record sales. That is where the rhetoric of piracy-as-thievery originates. And although this is true, musicians make most of their money from going on tour. Tickets are much more expensive than albums and, unlike them, aren’t infinitely renewable, especially now that they can be copied onto digital libraries. Furthermore, people are more likely to buy pricey merch at the concert in a fit of passion rather than at home with cool, cerebral removal. Concerts are very lucrative.
That is why today, we are examining the 15 highest grossing concert tours of all time. Not only do these acts contain the most extravagant instances of panem and circenses in human history, but there is also some astronomical math behind the cosmetics that will illustrate the old adage “slow and steady wins the race” (i.e.: one $55 ticket multiplied by millions of people over many hard-worked months results in a lot of money.)
The items of this list are surprising. More recent acts, for instance the Katy Perry Prismatic tour, are missing, even though Perry is one of few artists to have 1B views on a Vevo video. It seems that the older artists, who have more gravitas, are the ones making all the money from touring. Perhaps this goes to show the shifting structure of the industry.
Oh, and for the sake of suspense, they’re listed backwards from lowest to highest grossing. Stay tuned!
15 Bon Jovi – Because We Can Tour - $259,500,000
Bon Jovi, the other New Jersey rockstar, had the highest grossing tour of 2013. His Because We Can Tour, spreading across Australia, North America, South America, Europe and Africa, was a massive success, making it one of fifteen of the highest grossing tours of all time.
Granted, Bon Jovi is a super successful artist, having had several #1 songs (“You Give Love A Bad Name,” and “Livin’ On A Prayer”), so it’s no surprise that people the world over would want to go and see him in concert. Plus, his gritty voice and arena-ready songs, power chords and catchy choruses would make his a fun concert.
14 The Rolling Stones – Bridges to Babylon Tour - $274,000,000
With their Bridges to Babylon tour in 1997-1998, our guess is that the Rolling Stones could get a little satisfaction. With the $274M grossed, it’s more than a little unbelievable that the band would still feel spurned. But it’s entirely believable that the Stones would rake in that much money with a tour.
The Stones had been charting in the Billboard Top 100 since the 1960s, when World War II was only a stone’s throw (heh heh) away. That being the case, they quite literally had generations of fans willing to go and see them in concert, so it isn’t surprising that they could pack arenas from the Vault to Hyde Park.
13 Celine Dion – Taking Chances World Tour - $279,200,000
This 2008-2009 tour is the 13th highest grossing tour of all time. It’s no surprise that Celine Dion would appear on this list; in 2007, her decade long residency in Vegas ended, having grossed a total of $400M dollars. Newsweek Magazine proclaimed Celine Dion to be the biggest act since Elvis, high praise for a Quebecois songstress who sings syrupy love songs, but also not that surprising, since Celine Dion has cross-cultural appear.
She can perform for English markets in English and then switch to French for the world’s large French markets. Although her shows were presumably all in English, given the name of the tour and the album from which it borrows its name, she probably interacted with crowds in French, giving them a more intimate and comprehensive concert experience.
12 One Direction – Where We Are Tour - $290,178,452
Zayn Malik’s departure from One Direction is the end of the most profitable ever experiments in pop music. In 2010, they took a shot at the British television show X Factor. Since then, they’ve sold six and a half million albums in the U.S. alone, they’ve had nineteen songs in the Billboard Top 100, and all four of their albums debuted at #1.
Their boyish charm combined with their catchy music made One Direction a runaway success. This would explain the high gross of their 2014 Where We Are tour, where as newcomers they were able to eclipse some of the biggest acts in the history of music production.
11 Madonna – The MDNA Tour - $305,158,363
As the New York Times says, Madonna, whose first hit song came out in 1983, refuses to give into pop obsolescence. In a time where it’s hard for beautiful, bountiful young women to get noticed, let alone over-the-hill shock-pop stars, Madonna is still playing the system for everything it’s worth. How do we know?
Her most recent tour, MDNA, named after the megaflop of an album, was one of the highest grossing tours of all time, clocking in at #10. Madonna, like the Rolling Stones, has intergenerational fans. Her old discography, which continues to crop up in her stage shows, appeals to people who used to hear Madonna on the radio, and her new stuff, made with the help with pop music’s trendiest producers, appeals to newer ears.
10 The Rolling Stones – Licks Tour - $311,000,000
Once again, The Rolling Stones are back on the list (and not for the last time!). In 2002, The Rolling Stones released their 2-disc compilation album Forty Licks, a look back at their 40-year career. The album also contained four new songs that were much more promising than most of their other recent work, according to critics.
The Licks Tour, which went from 2002 to 2003, shows that the retrospective clearly revived (or perpetuated, probably) interest in The Rolling Stones. They made over $300M, a big ole chunk of money, and the album went four times platinum.
9 The Rolling Stones – Voodoo Lounge Tour - $320,000,000
And a third time! The Voodoo Lounge Tour, The Stones’ ’94-’95 spectacular, is the 9th highest grossing concert tour of all time. It would appear that The Rolling Stones have made a lot of money from concerts (especially considering that $320 million at the beginning of the 1990s is a lot more money than $311 million in the mid-2000s.)
Their Voodoo Lounge album went double platinum; it was their most successful album in a while at that point, with people saying that the Stones’ recent downgrade to a foursome gave the band a new lease on life. This was reflected in the success of their eponymous tour, which brought in all sorts of change.
8 Bruce Spingsteen – Wrecking Ball World Tour - $355,600,000
He’s been called “America’s Blue-Collar Troubadour,” but Bruce Springsteen clearly has international appeal. His Wrecking Ball World Tour collected over $350 million dollars in the 2012-2013 period.
Coincidentally, having nothing to do with Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball,” the tour was named after Springsteen’s super successful 2012 album, which Rolling Stone magazine called the best album of 2012. It seems as though in our day and age, all these decades after “Born to Run,” still no one gets it like The Boss from Jersey.
7 The Police – The Police Reunion Tour - $362,000,000
No one likes when something finishes. It makes us sad and reminds us that, as Nelly Furtado said, all good things come to an end. And everyone likes a reunion, which is why the Sex and the City movie, despite being unwatchable, still made $415 million worldwide.
This might explain why The Police Reunion Tour from 2007-2008 made enough money to get it the #7 spot on this list. It also probably didn’t hurt that The Police is one of the world’s most successful bands, having sold a grand total of 75 million albums or so. That, plus Sting’s super good-looks, got people going to the ticket booth.
6 U2 – Vertigo Tour - $389,047,636
At #6 on this list is the Irish band U2 with a tour called Vertigo, from 2005-2006. This tour came on the heels of their How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb album that was an unqualified success, going multi-platinum all over the world (triple platinum in the US, quadruple platinum in the UK, ten times platinum in Ireland!)
U2 has always been a great concert band. Their stadium rock sound is not merely adaptable to large venues, it is designed for them, making U2 a contender fit for the world’s largest amphitheaters.
5 Madonna – Sticky & Sweet Tour – $408,000,000
Another Madonna entry, this tour comes in at #5. The arena edition of her Hard Candy album, this pun of a tour made Madonna big money in the 2008-2009 period. Although the album itself was a flop, too -- going platinum nowhere and finishing the year at 53 in the Billboard Top 200 Albums – the tour was far from it, getting the pop vet over 400 million in revenue.
Part of the reason could be that the tour premiered to good reviews in various music publications and also that Madonna, despite her advancing age and increasingly stale sound, can still put on one hell of a show.
4 AC/DC – Black Ice World Tour – $441,121,000
With over 150 million physical copies of their albums sold worldwide, AC/DC was poised to have a massively successful concert tour. And Black Ice, which lasted two years rather than the traditional one year, was strenuously long.
The Australian band traveled to North America, Europe, South America, Oceania, and Asia - that's 168 performances in 29 countries over two years. The tour tallied over 5 million attendees, which almost reflects the sales of their album by the same name, which went platinum the world over and sold a total of 8 million copies. For something as usually niche as hard rock, AC/DC certainly managed to monetize in an impressive way.
3 Roger Waters – The Wall Live - $458,673,798
Another unusually extensive tour, this Roger Waters concert ran from 2010 to 2013, bringing the Pink Floyd front man over four hundred and fifty million dollars. This show has been called one of the most complex and ambitious rock shows ever attempted.
It is estimated that the staging of the show (set, lighting, design, etc.) cost a grand total of $60 million, which is insanely expensive considering, for example, that Revenge of the Sith cost $113 million and that was, like, a big Hollywood blockbuster. Then again, the concert brought in almost 10 times its production cost, so there is no question that the original investment was worth the risk.
2 The Rolling Stones – A Bigger Bang Tour - $558,255,524
The Rolling Stones roll in for a fourth and final time at #2 with their Bigger Bang Tour, the 2005-2007 circuit that accompanied the release of their A Bigger Bang album. The album, which went platinum nowhere but in the United States, was not as much of a success as The Forty Licks compilation. It received mostly tepid reviews across sources. But, for some reason, their Bigger Bang tour was the show that everyone went to see.
Perhaps it was residual Stones mania resulting from the success of their compilation album. All of a sudden, everyone was listening to the Rolling Stones in their cars again, thinking how fun it would be to go and see them. It doesn’t hurt, also, that the tour was a super-sized two years, giving them twice as much time as other acts to rake in the money.
1 U2 – U2 360° Tour - $736,421,584
With all the successful bands and artists in the world, who would have thought that U2 would be the one to get three quarters of a billion dollars from a concert tour? Their 2009-2011 World Tour, which hit North America, South America, Oceania, Africa and Europe, was an extraordinarily lavish affair, with lighting displays that illuminated the entire night sky when fully powered and dangling microphones that front-man Bono used to swing across the stage.
Elders are always claiming that no one will ever be able to defeat big league rockstars like Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones, but with timeless tunes and $3/4B showmanship, U2 is close.