After nearly 60 years in the music business, there’s precious little Elton John hasn’t already achieved. The icon has sold millions of records, toured the globe countless times and even saw the biopic based on his life, Rocketman, win honors at the Academy Awards and Golden Globes. But this week he added another accolade to his extensive collection, and one that sets a mind-boggling record: his multiyear Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour became the highest-grossing tour of all time, and the only one to surpass $800 million in gross, passing Ed Sheeran’s Divide tour for the title.
John’s outing isn’t even over yet, and there’s still the possibility that this tour crosses even higher benchmarks before all is said and done. But it’s already a crowning achievement for Debra Rathwell, the executive vp of global touring and talent at AEG Presents, who promoted the trek. And the milestone earns her the title of Billboard’s Executive of the Week.
Here, Rathwell breaks down how the tour came together and became so successful, the strategy behind moving up from arenas to stadiums midway through, the challenges posed by the pandemic and the lessons learned from such a gigantic undertaking. “I’m not sure that there will ever be another artist like Elton John, or a tour quite like the FYBR Tour,” she says. “But for any artist aspiring to achieve this level of success, this tour is probably the best example of what comes out of hard work and a love of performing: get out there and share your music with your audience.”
This week, Elton John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour became the highest-grossing tour in history, and the first-ever tour to gross $800 million. What key decision did you make to help make this happen?
This all started to come together six years ago, back in 2017, a full year before the first date of the Farewell Yellow Brick Road Tour. Jay Marciano (AEG Presents chairman/CEO), Howard Rose (John’s longtime agent), Keith Bradley (John’s tour director), Donna DiBenedetto (AEG Presents vp), Barrie Marshall (Marshall Arts), Doris Dixon (Marshall Arts) and myself met in Las Vegas to begin the job of routing and shaping the first half of tour. At that time, Elton John was playing the final shows of The Million Dollar Piano residency at the Colosseum.
Once we had our plan together, Elton held a press conference in New York in January 2018 to officially announce his retirement from touring, but not before he had embarked on a final run of 350 shows over three years, beginning that September. He wanted to travel around the world to say farewell to his fans. We all knew right then that this would be the greatest tour of all time, and that it was our job to back up Elton and deliver the goods.
No single person can take credit for the monumental success of the FYBR tour — apart from Elton John, of course. But if I had to describe my small part of it over these past five years, it’s been kind of a “utility player” role. Depending on the day, or even minute, it’s coach, captain or just “the bossy girl with the clipboard” who keeps things on course.
Elton spent the first few years of this tour in arenas, before moving up to stadiums this past year. Why did you guys go that route?
For several years prior to the first arena show in Allentown, Penn. (Sept. 18, 2018), Howard Rose had booked shows in smaller secondary markets, which created demand in the major markets. That demand, combined with the news of the retirement, created demand for multiple shows in those markets. We repeated this strategy several times during the tour. But we also made sure to return to many of the same smaller secondary markets; it was important for Elton John to bid a final farewell to as many of his fans as possible.
It was always the plan that the final lap of the FYBR tour would be in stadiums. This was important to Elton and mapped out in the planning stages. Getting them organized and on sale during COVID turned out to be our biggest challenge.
Given the demand of an iconic performer’s final tour, how did you approach setting this up differently than you would have any other tour?
The tour was divided into two parts that we internally referred to as “Round One (179 shows)” and “Round Two (153 shows).” Round One kicked off with that Allentown show and ran all the way through to Sydney on March 7, 2020. Of course, we had no idea that the world would be shutting down four days after we wrapped Round One. And we certainly never imagined that Round Two wouldn’t be wrapped until summer 2023.
The tour also encompassed the pandemic. How did that affect your plans, and how did it force you to adapt once you got back on the road?
When we resumed touring in January 2022, we had very strict COVID protocols in place for all members of the touring team and local venue staff. With some minor adjustments in the routing, we were able to reschedule shows. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the two sold-out shows in Montreal and the two sold-out shows in Toronto due to government COVID restrictions. We also had to cancel some entire territories altogether; we always intended to bring the FYBR tour to Asia and South America, but two years of COVID delays and the rescheduling that followed made that impossible.
We also made the decision that the ticket prices for the stadium shows would be pretty similar to the arena shows — we were in a situation where rescheduled arena shows were on sale at the same time we were putting stadium shows on sale.
How has touring changed overall given the events of the past few years? And how has this tour itself evolved across the years that it’s been going?
The interesting thing to watch was that as the FYBR tour continued, the audience got younger. Elton John broadened his fan base over the life of the tour. Rocketman and his biography Me: Elton John were big moments for us. And The Lockdown Sessions album released in October 2021 was of course one more thing that connected him with a new generation.
The public demand for tickets increased exponentially as the tour was coming to an end. It actually got quite frenzied as the final shows approached in every market. We were all so excited that we were able to sell out three Dodger Stadium shows in Los Angeles, culminating with the livestream of the concert on Disney+.
What have you learned from this long-running Elton tour that you can apply to the rest of your clients?
First and foremost, the initial messaging and announcement of a tour is so important. It really is critical to its success. And the messaging that Elton John conveyed to his fans at that press conference all the way back in 2018 was front and center at all times.
Also, this tour really drove home the importance of having a strong team around you. I have loved every minute being a part of this team. It has been the greatest pleasure of my professional career to be involved with Sir Elton John, David Furnish, Luke Lloyd Davies and all of the wonderful people at Rocket Entertainment. Keith Bradley is the finest tour director and this tour would not have made it around the world for five years, in its many shapes and forms, without him. Many cherished hours were spent with Howard Rose and our touring partners Marshall Arts (Barrie Marshall and Doris Dixon) for the U.K. and Europe and Michael Chugg and Frontier for all of the shows in Australia and New Zealand.
Plus there’s our AEG Team: Andrew Sharp and John Merritt who have been traveling around the world for these past five years — apart from when they couldn’t — and Donna DiBenedetto, my promoting partner who keeps things organized. And of course, Jay Marciano’s leadership and experience has been invaluable. It’s just an incredible group of people from top to bottom.
I’m not sure that there will ever be another artist like Elton John or a tour quite like the FYBR Tour. But for any artist aspiring to achieve this level of success, this tour is probably the best example of what comes out of hard work and a love of performing: get out there and share your music with your audience.
To sum up: Start each tour with a clear message and intention, and a collaborative mentality is imperative. A successful tour requires lots of teamwork on the part of the agency, management, promoter and artist. Think big, and think worldwide. And always be patient. When I first meet with the extraordinarily talented artists with whom I get to work, I often joke that I will negotiate the rights to their 20th Anniversary Tour right then and there. But it’s not really a joke. That’s how much I believe in them.
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