How Rush Stays At The Top Of Its Game
To stay relevant, many acts think they need to jump on the latest marketing trend, try the newest social networking tool, give their brand a makeover or practice shock tactics to gain publicity.
The members of the iconic Canadian rock trio--singer/bassist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart--have no interest in tweeting what they ate for breakfast. They see no reason to transform their image as talented, hardworking musicians.
So it's a sure bet that they'll accept the Billboard Legend of Live Award with the same low-key attitude they've always displayed. Lifeson will be on hand to receive the honor on Nov. 4 at the Billboard Touring Conference & Awards.
Such behavior doesn't make headlines. But it's an attitude that has built and sustained Rush's career on the road, on records and on the radio.
Four decades since it emerged from the suburbs of Toronto, the band remains as relevant as it is busy.
Its 1976 breakthrough album, "2112," is featured in its entirely on "Guitar Hero 6: Warriors of Rock," released Sept. 28 by Activision. On the same date, Eagle Rock Entertainment's "Classic Albums" DVD series, which profiles legendary albums, released "Rush: 2112 + Moving Pictures," pairing "2112" with the group's landmark 1981 release. And this summer introduced the official Rush app, packed with music and band content.
At press time, Rush had just wrapped four sellout shows in South American stadiums and found itself in the sweet spot of needing to decide whether to resume its Time Machine tour or finish work on its 20th studio album, "Clockwork Angels."
"There's a lot of pressure to continue the tour because it's been so successful," says longtime manager Ray Danniels of SRO Entertainment. "But there's also that artistic drive to finish the record."
The Time Machine tour grossed $25.6 million and sold 359,563 tickets to 36 North American shows, according to Billboard Boxscore.
"In a summer where a lot of people complained about the business, this band quietly did better business than anybody even expected them to," says Gerry Barad, COO of Live Nation Global Touring, producer of Rush's tour.
Amid a season of "$10 tickets and two-for-ones and special discounting, Rush did none of that," says Adam Kornfeld, VP of Artists Group International and the band's responsible agent for North America. Kornfeld adds that tickets were "priced right. [Rush] really seem to be recession-proof. The fans have spoken, and this is a band people really want to come see because of the quality of the show they put on."
The impressive lighting and video components that frame a three-and-a-half-hour Rush concert are only one reason that Time Machine (like previous tours) did so well. This year, the band played "Moving Pictures" in its entirety for the first time.
Smart routing is also key. Besides hitting core cities, Rush also visits new places and returns to markets it hasn't visited for a while. (On its latest tour leg, the band played for the first time at the Great Allentown Fair in Pennsylvania and, after a 20-year absence, returned to Syracuse, N.Y., for that city's state fair.) And Danniels points out that Rush released two new songs earlier this year despite the fact that the album isn't finished. "Caravan" and "BU2B" were released to iTunes; "Caravan" hit No. 38 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs chart and No. 6 on Heritage Rock Songs, providing a radio push.
The documentary "Rush: Beyond the Lighted Stage" was another major tour driver. The behind-the-scenes film--which explores Rush's history and features such celebrities as Sebastian Bach and Jack Black commenting on the band's influence--premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April. It won the Heineken Audience Award, aired on VH1 and had a North American theatrical run.
Through all its years together, Rush has been extremely loyal to its support team, and the feeling is reciprocated. Among those who have worked for Rush for decades are Danniels; international touring agent Neil Warnock, CEO of Agency Group Worldwide; tour manager William Birt; lighting director Howard Ungerleider; and keyboard technician Tony Geranios.
"We've even had some of the same truck drivers for over 30 years, so there's something about our tours that keeps our folks coming back," Geddy Lee says.
"How did the band stay together for over 40 years? There has to be something within the three of us that we respect and like to keep going, and that's got to emanate out into the people we work with as well," Lee says. "We try to keep as many as we can with us for as long as we can. We've got a hardcore group of people we've been fortunate to hang on to, and they've kind of grown up with us."
Rush--Lee, Lifeson and original drummer John Rutsey--made its recording debut with a self-titled album in 1974. Peart joined later that year after Rutsey's departure, releasing his first album with the band, "Fly by Night," in 1975. With the change, the act's blues-influenced rock began incorporating more progressive elements. Many critics sneered at the group's intricate, lengthy compositions and lyrics, but fans felt otherwise. In 1976, Rush made its breakthrough with "2112," its first release to sell 1 million copies. The RIAA has since certified the set triple-platinum, while best seller "Moving Pictures" is four-times platinum.
Acts ranging from Tool to Dream Theater cite Rush as an influence. Live Nation's Barad recalls a who's who of artists recently attending a show in Las Vegas. "The guys from No Doubt, Stewart Copeland, Les Claypool, one guy from Tool and a couple from Rage Against the Machine, who are all really good musicians, they all came to see this band," he says.
Eventually critics came around, and today, the band has received unforeseen attention from the mainstream. But it was the group's dedication to its craft, as well as that of its longtime fans, that enabled Rush to amass the third-most consecutive gold or platinum albums in the United States, according to the RIAA, behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The group has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide, according to SRO Management.
Its video catalog also sells well. The live DVDs "Rush in Rio," "R30" and "Snakes & Arrows Live" are seven-times platinum (700,000 copies), five-times platinum and two-times platinum, respectively, and the DVD of "Beyond the Lighted Stage" is two-times platinum, according to the RIAA.
Warnock at Agency Group Worldwide observes that Rush's consistency in producing strong-selling albums and tours is why fans have stuck with the band. "Their music is absolutely unique in terms of the way Neil writes the lyrics and the three of them construct the songs," he says. "Everything they do when they put out a new album is fresh. It's not derivative of something else."
One such fresh maneuver was the band's four-date South American run, where it returned to Brazil and played its first shows in Chile and Argentina. While the group does tour Europe, it doesn't cover the continent for every visit. According to Warnock, Rush could play more markets, but its production makes it prohibitive, and the band, although appreciative of its worldwide fans, doesn't feel pressured to penetrate as many territories as possible.
"They could tour everywhere if they chose to go," Warnock says. "But they have a huge production. They carry most of that production with them, which makes it hugely expensive to take anywhere. So balancing the books and flying around the world is incredibly difficult."
Still, that hasn't kept the fan base from growing. The success of "Beyond the Lighted Stage" dispelled the long-held notion that women don't like Rush, as the movie drew a female audience--and the same goes for its recent tour. "We've probably gone from less than 10% female audience to well over 20%," Danniels says of the Time Machine trek. "I have guys that come up to me all the time that go, 'I've seen this band eight or 10 or 12 times, and my wife or girlfriend has never been willing to go, and this time she's here.' "
Cameos in other movies, like the 2009 comedy "I Love You, Man," and a presence on the "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero" platforms have also exposed Rush to new audiences. Online, Rush has the requisite websites and social networks covered, and numerous fan blogs and YouTube postings add to the trio's formidable Web presence. And just as wives and girlfriends accompany their mates to concerts, parents are introducing Rush to their kids.
Live Nation Global Touring chairman Arthur Fogel says of Rush and its audience: "It's an interesting dynamic. They've regenerated their audience and sort of hit that iconic plane. This year's tour has done incredibly well."
More touring is inevitable, according to Danniels. He predicts that "Clockwork Angels" will arrive either at the end of 2011 or in first-quarter 2012. And as far as the long-term future is concerned, Rush is fit to keep logging plenty more career miles.
"I think they will go for a long time," Danniels says when asked how long Rush will remain active. "They talk about 10 years. I think as long as they remain healthy, I don't see them not doing this. They're enjoying it."
And so are the fans. Kornfeld says of seeing Rush live, "When I turn around and look at the audience, and I see their expression and how into it they are, it's very exciting to see," he says. "I know when people leave a Rush show they're excited it has lived up to their expectations and then some. And I know they're going to go tell everyone and share the excitement with other people."