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In the 2009-10 financial year, rock group AC/DC earned an estimated gross revenue of $131 million from ticket sales to their worldwide Black Ice tour. It’s a far cry from the $200 Gene Pierson remembers paying the band for their first gig at Chequers nightclub in Sydney in December 1973.
The band’s founding brothers, Angus and Malcolm Young, with their older brother, George, also an Australian rock luminary as a guitarist for the Easybeats, debut on the BRW Rich 200 with an estimated fortune of $283 million. The value stems from a share in the band’s earnings over the past 15 years, an estimate of the present value of the rights to their music and some private property, mostly in Sydney harbourside suburbs. Oldest brother George, who lives reclusively in Portugal with his family, owns most of the property.
Surpassing many of their rock and roll contemporaries and a plethora of one-hit wonders, the band’s popularity has endured for nearly 40 years, selling more than $200 million worth of albums in the process. After an eight-year absence from live performances, the band’s Black Ice tour, which ended in June 2010 after playing nearly 170 shows, in 20 months, to almost 5 million fans is said to be the second-highest grossing tour ever, behind the Rolling Stones’ in 2005-07.
Pierson, who worked for gig venues around Sydney in the ’70s, says the key to AC/DC’s long-term appeal is that they have always “stuck to their guns”.
“Right through the disco era they always were AC/DC,” he says. “They never adapted like [performers tend to] nowadays, like Lady Gaga and Madonna, who change each week. These guys have been the same for almost 40 years. It’s that sameness that people can relate to.”
Pierson remembers a story of the band meeting with Capitol Records in Los Angeles, before signing to Australian family label Albert Music, which they remain with to this day. “One of [Capitol’s] A&R [artist and repertoire] guys [asked] if they could do some dance covers. They stood up in that meeting and walked out.”
Angus and Malcolm are better musicians than businessmen but have a clear sense of identity and are surrounded by people who have been instrumental to their success, Pierson says.
Their early roadie, the late Ray Arnold, “did everything possible to ensure they were going to be the biggest rock band in the world”, he explains. The band’s first manager, Michael Browning, radio station identity Rod Muir and vice-president of A&R at Albert during the 70s, Chris Gilbey, also stand out in Pierson’s memory.
Gilbey denies he was instrumental but agrees the band had many helping hands. “Most bands, and this band in particular, are not just the people who go on stage. It’s a whole team,” he says. “In the early days of AC/DC, ever-present were George Young and [Easybeats lead guitarist] Harry Vanda as the creative mentors. They brought not just the business nous but a wealth of experience from the Easybeats.”
“I think George and Harry were, in a very positive way, the eminences grises of AC/DC,” Gilbey adds, using the French phrase that describes people who exercises power or influence from an unofficial position.
“Michael Browning was one of the best managers I ever dealt with,” Gilbey says, remembering Browning’s “simply unstoppable enthusiasm to make that band successful”.
Gilbey noticed a strong family bond between the brothers. “I think that Angus, Malcolm and George are part of a very close-knit family where the is a very high degree of mutual trust between the siblings. When you have a family that works so closely and positively together it makes for a powerful value proposition.”
The band does not sell digital versions of its albums, for example through iTunes, and has never released a greatest hits album. There is a perception in the industry that careful brand management has played an important role in AC/DC’s lasting popularity, although such a strategy these days would falter.
Promoter Garry Van Egmond, who has worked with the band on and off since 1982 and co-promoted part of the Black Ice tour, says AC/DC is just hitting the top of its career, for which consistency has been key. “They just keep delivering what the customers want.”