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March 03, 2015

How To Sell Out Arenas 50 Years From Now, According To Bob Seger

Touring has always been a vital part of any artist’s income, but as album sales continue to plummet and streaming monies trickle in at a fraction of what acts are paid per digital download, road revenue has become an even greater share of the pie.

This weekend I went to see Bob Seger perform at The Forum in Los Angeles. Seger’s last Billboard Top 40 hit was 1991′s “The Real Love,” and yet the 18,000-seat venue was filled to the rafters.

Seger turns 70 in May and the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer has made noises, without announcing anything definitive, that the tour, which ends March 28, may be his last. As he introduced “Rambling’ Gamblin’ Man,” his first hit from 1968—when Lyndon Johnson was still president—it struck me that he has been touring for nearly 50 years. And his popularity remains undiminished as a live act.

How many artists experiencing their first hits today will still be able to sell out an arena in 2065? Following the example set by Seger would certainly increase Sam Smith and Iggy Azalea’s odds.

Here are seven things any current artist could learn from Bob Seger about career longevity:

Stay true to yourself: Seger has always been about selling anthemic tunes with everyman themes that appeal to the meat-and-potatoes crowd and he’s still doing that today. He’s a reliable brand and he doesn’t mess with that formula. Any fans who had seen him before came to the arena knowing they would leave satisfied.

Deliver: There was not a moment at the Forum where it felt like Seger was resting on his laurels, even when performing signature songs like “Night Moves” that he has played thousands of times by now. More importantly, he still sounded great, sustaining high notes if not with ease, with a still strong ability. He has said that he will let his voice determine how long he remains on the road. If the Forum show was any indication, he’s not going away any time soon.

*Don’t go for cool, go for real: Seger was never considered hip, even in his heyday. He had something much more enduring: an appealing, uncynical appreciation for his gifts and for his audience, bundled in a midwestern sensibility. He has never pandered to reach a new audience; he’s not going to be duetting with Kayne West anytime soon. His outfit of dad jeans, button-up short sleeve shirt, glasses and workout headband were endearing for their authenticity. Just know that jaded and disaffected don’t age well.

*Give credit where it’s due: Yes, Seger’s name is on the ticket, but he’s smart enough to know he didn’t get where he is alone. No one does. He repeatedly name checked  the members of his Silver Bullet Band. Any song he performed that he didn’t write, he mentioned the songwriters, and, in some cases, told a short story about how he found the tune. Who knew he’d covered songs by John Hiatt and Steve Earle?

*Have songs that wear well: Let’s face it, no one really needed to hear “Her Strut” after 1985, but, in the main, Seger is vastly underrated as a songwriter and the bulk of his material feels timeless. Who else in rock has a line that tells a full story as succinctly as “She had been born with a face that would let her get away” from “Hollywood Nights.” There’s a whole novel in those 13 words.

*Save money where you can: Seger’s stage set up was minimalist. He smartly saved money on production, but didn’t skimp in when it came to the music: at times there were more than 12 band members on stage filling out his sound, each one of them making a strong contribution. All the bells and whistles in the world can’t make up for a lack of talent.

*Respect your fans: There was a humility to Seger’s performance that never seemed obsequious or insincere. He started on time, played for almost two hours, delivered the songs that people wanted to hear, as well as dipped into the new album, and, judging by the huge grin on his face for most of the evening, was as happy to be there as we were.