(Editor‘s note: This article was originally published on Oct. 22, 2006, the day of the Rolling Stones’ first-ever appearance in Austin. The band will play its second concert here on May 24 at Circuit of the Americas.)
It's nine stories from the ground to the top of the tallest spire of the Rolling Stones' stage at Zilker Park. The spires hold lights, special effects and a series of skyboxes for patrons who paid at least $500 for the chance to peer down on the venerable band tonight as it plays Austin for the first time.
The video screen that enables fans standing 100 yards back to see Keith Richards and Ron Wood trade solos is 2,450 square feet, the largest ever on a concert tour. Four hundred and seventy pieces of pyrotechnics will go off.
Three "steel" crews travel the country, building and tearing down the elaborate structure that has come to be expected of Stones stages; the production crew arrives the day before a show to set up the lights, sound and the rest of the spectacle.
The Stones are able to pull off such events because they have been ratcheting up the wow factor for rock concerts since the ’70s, from giant inflatable body parts to corporate sponsorships. They've made a ton of money doing it, moving from rock ’n' roll bad boys to men of wealth and taste.
2005 was quite a year for the Stones. The album "A Bigger Bang," the Stones' first studio effort since 1997’s "Bridges to Babylon," has sold more than a million copies. The subsequent North American tour was a blockbuster, grossing $162 million over 42 shows. The Stones' 2005 jaunt also generated $20 million in merchandise sales, which comes out to about $17 a head.
The concept of a Stones tour as a seismic cultural event dates back more than 30 years.
Ray Waddell, who covers the concert industry for Billboard magazine, told the American-Statesman, "The band rewrote touring history a bunch of times. It's just innovation after innovation. You can almost chart the course of this business by Stones tours."
After the Hell's Angels and stabbing disaster at the Altamont concert in 1969, the band took a few years off from touring.
In early June 1972, the Rolling Stones opened their North American tour with a swing along the West Coast.
Famously described by organizer Pete Rudge as "not like a rock ’n' roll tour; more like the Normandy landing," it was the first Stones tour that reflected their status as pop culture icons as much as rock stars. Truman Capote was around; Mick Jagger hung out with such socialites as Lee Radziwill in the Hamptons.
For the 1975 tour, the Stones started making the productions truly theatrical. They played on an unfolding, lotus-shaped stage, Jagger rode a cherry-picker into the crowd, and a giant inflatable phallus made an appearance.
In ’78, perhaps inspired by the punk and disco that influenced the "Some Girls" album, the Stones made a conscious decision to pare down the stage and bring the focus back to the band, which included now-Austinite and former Faces member Ian McLagan on keyboards.
But it was on the 1981 tour that the Stones inaugurated a practice that has since become something of an industry standard for large-scale tours: the sponsorship.
After a deal with Schlitz beer fell through, Jovan Musk paid $500,000 for the privilege of being associated with the Stones tour. Thanks perhaps to the influx of cash, the ’81 tour featured a massive stage, hydraulic platforms and a whole mess of balloons.
According to Waddell, things soared into a whole new weight class for the next go round, the 1989 Steel Wheels tour.
For Steel Wheels, Canadian promoter Michael Cohl scooped up international touring rights for the Stones, guaranteeing the band a cool $70 million, plus some back-end profits.
Cohl quickly showed the Stones that they were leaving money on the table.
"Cohl brought it all under one umbrella," Waddell said. "He does it all: the tour, merchandise, TV rights, everything. He saw . . . that there were revenue streams that might have been otherwise untapped."
For that tour, the group sold everything from shoes to skateboards, and Waddell said the Stones were the first band to have credit card machines at the merchandise tables.
"Suddenly, a $500 leather jacket could become an impulse buy," he said.
For the 1997 tour, phone company Sprint stepped into the sponsorship role. In 2002, it was online broker E-trade. Subprime mortgage company AmeriQuest, under investigation at the time for predatory lending practices, sponsored the ’05 jaunt and Super Bowl halftime show. (The company settled for $295 million in restitution in January.)
But there has been no such drama with the tour's current sponsor, Radio Shack. The 85-year-old Fort Worth-based company started discussions with the Stones about a year ago, according to Radio Shack spokesman Charles Hodges.
"Timing was the key thing," Hodges said. "We make a third of our annual sales in the fourth quarter of the year, and since the Bigger Bang tour was interrupted in the spring, the timing was perfect."
It also helps, from Radio Shack's point of view, that the company has a reputation for being a neighborhood electronics store, the kind of place that's in small town America.
On this tour, the Stones are playing such secondary markets such as Missoula, Mont., and Wichita, Kan.
Radio Shack paid a sum Hodges declined to disclose to associate its brand with the Stones, from the on-stage banners during the opening act to the signs around Zilker Park to products with the Radio Shack logo.
Of course, there's the really big benefit: "The exposure of national sponsorship and the cache of being associated with the number one touring band of all time," Hodges said.
Which Waddell contends the Stones still are, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
"People have been writing them off for over 20 years, but they're playing incredibly well. They're absolute pros about everything. It's a hell of a show."