Highway to wealth

Published 05 November 2009 03:00, Updated 12 April 2012 04:15

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Once a pub band, always a pub band. Australian rock legends AC/DC have developed a no-nonsense, accessible style that they have garnered into one of the most successful, and sustained, music enterprises in the world.

In the past year, it has helped the band rake in $105 million, taking them to number one on the BRW Top 50 Entertainers list. Yet they have shown little sign of letting it go to their heads. Guitarist Angus Young commented recently that he prefers Kellog's Corn Flakes, despite having tried other breakfast cereals. His band has attained a similar emblematic status: immediately recognisable, appealing to the masses, easily consumed.

There have been plenty of reasons for members of AC/DC to become overly euphoric, to lose their sense of reality. Since forming in 1973 - they first performed at a New Year's Eve gig at Sydney's Chequers nightclub - the band has sold more than 200 million albums, says Tim Prescott, chief executive of Albert Music, the band's publisher.

Accordingly, industry practitioners and observers lavishly heap praise on the band for its longevity. It has reached that rare point in the music and culture business when the historical narrative becomes as important as the music itself. But unlike most super bands, it is not the musicians' personal lives that attract the most interest; it is the way they produce and market their products.

"Musically, AC/DC is one of the most underrated bands of all time," the founder of the music website Undercover.com.au, Paul Cashmere enthuses. "It is only now they are being recognised as the great musicians they are. Angus Young is finally being hailed as a guitar legend, but go back to the 1990s and whenever guitar rock gods were talked about it was always Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix.

"Look at the body of work AC/DC produced. Those first three albums came out in just over a 19-month period and in that short time they gave us Jailbreak, It's A Long Way To The Top, High Voltage, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and TNT. Songs that even today with a different singer are still core to the set list."

The managing director of Mushroom Publishing, Ian James, says he "admires AC/DC enormously for their determination over the years". He says that each album was an important turning point in their career, and that they took the time to get it right. The band's brand and its commercial tactics have, in the eyes of many observers, converged. Primal, head-banging rock and reflective, sophisticated strategies for the digital age, do not sit together especially well. AC/DC's decision to avoid online downloads has, rightly or wrongly, been interpreted as a sign of their artistic integrity.

"They haven't been too eager to enter into the digital age," James says. "It is a classic example of less is more - that quality matters and you should stay true to what you do well."

Cashmere says that AC/DC has never fully exploited its catalogue like many bands. "There has never been a greatest hits album. They do not allow their music to be sold through iTunes. They do not license their songs for TV commercials. There isn't the endless repackaging with extra tracks and bonus editions that everyone else seems to do.

"AC/DC has always stood by their core values. Sure, they have made a lot of money, but they have done so by not prostituting their brand."

AC/DC's approach may be a lesson about maintaining a brand, but it offers few pointers to the rest of the popular music industry. James acknowledges that the strategy is far easier for a traditional rock band than pop bands, which usually have a far shorter shelf life and are far more subject to fashion trends.

If there is a business lesson, it is that AC/DC's approach resembles the "lean thinking" described by the chairman of the Lean Enterprise Institute, James Womack. He argues that businesses usually start out with a strong idea and efficient ways of operating, but typically lose that ability.

This has not been the case with AC/DC, who seem to have not indulged in the big entourages and ornate accoutrements that normally accompany global acts. Their formal management is accounting and law firm Prager and Fenton, of New York. They do their publishing with Australian company Albert Music, not one of the big global firms.

More time than usual is spent on planning. Prescott says he does not think the band has a strategy of keeping its product scarce to maintain its value; it is rather that they take time to prepare and do not release products until they are ready. "They haven't played any music for a long time because they didn't think they were ready," he says.

"I don't think I have ever come across a relationship as unique as this one. The Albert family company had a private and personal relationship with the band since the beginning when Ted Albert signed them." He says it is a "substantial" part of the Albert business.

When the band members decided to record Black Ice, their first studio album since 2000, Prescott says they took two years to "set the record up". This allowed the timing of the release to be carefully planned, and relationships with retail outlets and the media to be established. The band made a deal with US retailing behemoth Wal-Mart to set up Rock Again AC/DC Stores to coincide with the release of Black Ice last year. Columbia Records created AC/DC Rock Band Stores.

Prescott says the long lead times were especially important in the United States, where retail outlets are struggling. "The decision was made to do an exclusive deal with Wal-Mart because they wanted to support the whole catalogue. They aren't available online, and they don't believe in greatest hits [compilations]."

Still, the band's strategy offers few clues to other musical groups. The federal secretary of the Musicians Union of Australia, Terry Noone, says it should not be considered a business exemplar. "People look at that and think it is a model. The only reason that it is a model for AC/DC is that they are already famous. To anybody else, it is largely irrelevant."

Noone says AC/DC's strategy does demonstrate that the internet has limited value. "The internet is not a broadcasting medium, it does not work. How are you going to go and find something if you don't know about it? What the internet is fantastic for is distribution, but if you are not known, the internet won't help you."

The most distinctive aspect of AC/DC's strategy is that they have relied on traditional distribution outlets - even supermarkets. It is working. "It is very rare to sell 5 million CDs these days," Prescott says. "They did it from physical sales."

The studied naivete of the Corn Flakes-loving Angus Young is all part of the performance. Like Corn Flakes, his role-playing is easily consumed, but not necessarily all that it seems to be. It is above all a comic performance - Young's slightly satiric smile and sharp eyes hint that the image of the dumb rocker who "doesn't like it too deep" and only knows how to play a few chords is, well, a bit of an act. Rock music is ultimately a form of theatre with musical accompaniment, and Young realises which part he is required to play.

Then there is the other Young brother, Malcolm. Guitarist Gavan Anderson, who played with Johnny O'Keefe, Bluestone, Brian Cadd and Max Merritt & the Meteors, says Malcolm is in many ways the better player. "Angus is an exceptional guitarist, but I think Malcolm is the glue that holds it all together. Rock is rhythmic in nature, and you need somebody playing rhythm who knows how to drive the band. Malcolm slips under everybody's radar, but if he gets a chance to do a solo, he rips off a beauty."

Noone describes Angus Young as an arch professional. "He's an extremely serious muso who can demonstrate, for instance, the different blues styles. It doesn't mean what he does with AC/DC is all he can do, or all he wants to do. But he is a professional. He does what is required to do the job. That is the thing about AC/DC. There is no pretension. It is what it is."

500,000

Number of tickets sold to AC/DC's 11 Australian concerts

7

Hours taken to sell the tickets

360,000

Australian sales of AC/DC's latest album, Black Ice

26

Number of countries on AC/DC's Black Ice touring schedule

It's a long way to the top AC/DC's years on the BRW Top 50 Entertainers list Year Value $m Rank 1996 12.5 2 1997 25.0 2 1998 5.0 7 1999 4.0 19 2000 4.0 20 2001 20.0 2 2002 30.0 2 2003 N/A N/A 2004 20.0 3 2005 18.0 4 2006 25.0 2 2007 18.0 6 2008 12.0 8 2009 105.0 1 Source: BRW