The Stones: Still Rolling at 50

For a man who once said, “I’d rather be dead than singing Satisfaction when I’m forty-five”, the  50th birthday of the Rolling Stones must come as a surprise. That’s right the British Invasion’s most enduring act celebrates its golden anniversary July 12, 2012.  Founded in London in 1962 by Brian Jones, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ian Stewart, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, this iconic band has had more longevity than 94% of marriages. Along the way, the band had one major lineup change —  Ronnie Wood took the place of Brian Jones —  and a few regular contributors like Darryl Jones and Chuck Leavell but for most fans their success has hinged on the core songwriting duo of Richards and Jagger.

Over a half century, the numbers are staggering:  The Stones have sold over 200 million albums; grossed over $2 billion just since 1989 – that includes sales of records, song rights, merchandising, sponsorship money, and touring.  Of the top 10 highest grossing concerts tours, The Stones hold the #2, #7, #9 and #10 positions; the Bigger Bang Tour, Bridges to Babylon Tour/No Security Tour, Voodoo Lounge and Licks Tour respectively. They are listed as  the second most successful group in the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  If you combine the personal net worth of all four primary members — $831 million as of 2012 – it exceeds the GDP of the islands of St. Kitts or Grenada.

Behind the glamour, the Stones emerge as shrewd businessmen with a keen understanding of vertical integration and lean operations.  They’re relatively frugal.  They keep their eye on the bottom line.  They think like an owner, not like an employee. (Rolling Stone Records was founded in 1970.)  They also took their tour operations and  professionalized it with one central tour director dealing with venues worldwide directly. They also harvested new streams of revenues, like corporate sponsors, skybox sales, and merchandising.

The Stones also joined a litany of UK celebrities who left the country to avoid the British tax code.  In 1971, after an unsuccessful court case to regain control of their 1960s catalogue,   the band’s manager, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, set up Promogroup in Amsterdam, a company that collected most of the band’s royalty income from records, radio, TV airplay and song publishing.  Ultimately, they  paid  $6 million of taxes on their $370 million in earnings.   Additional companies were created —  Promotour, Promopub, Promotone, and Musidor — each dedicated to a business line and based in in the Netherlands, which offers enormous tax advantages for foreign bands.

Today, Keith Richards has been interviewed saying that the Rolling Stones make most of their business decisions based on taxes: they rehearse in Canada rather than the United States to avoid paying higher tax rates and they don’t do any business anymore in the United Kingdom.

Along with lucre, the twilight years have brought respectability. Not only have they amassed a long list of accolades, including induction into the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, there are apparently knighthoods in the offing. In a 2002 interview with Andy Serwer for CNN Money, Richards was asked about retirement.  “How long can we go on?” he repeated. “Forever. We’ll let you know when we keel over.”