The Long Goodbye: The Art & Commerce Of Farewell Tours

Elton John
AP Photo / Invision / Evan Agostini
– Elton John
Elton John tickles the ivories at Gotham Hall in New York City Jan. 24.
A recent string of high-profile acts announcing they would soon be hanging up their road hats – including Elton John, Paul SimonNeil Diamond, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Slayer – prompted us to take a look into the phenomenon of the “farewell tour.”
One question that inevitably comes up whenever an artist announces their farewell tour: “Is this really going to be their last tour?” While it seems cynical, the reality is that many artists have sold tickets to a “final” tour, only to come back just a few years later. This infamously prompted the members of Mötley Crüe to sign a legally binding document in 2014 to ensure there would be no return after their last outing. 
Some acts have gotten away with reneging without much consequence, like The Who, which said goodbye in 1982, but whose fans welcomed them back with open arms later on in the decade. The era was one of relatively low ticket prices, so fans were likely excited at the prospect of seeing the group.
Sir Elton himself already claimed to be retiring from touring in 1977, only to return two years later. We have good reason to believe Elton’s promise this time, as he is older and has said he wants to spend more time raising his children. He will also likely be exhausted after performing the 300 dates that extend more than three years.
The upcoming tour is going to be huge business, as Elton hasn’t historically been shy about pricing. He isn’t very good about reporting, but just with our chart estimates from every year dating back to 2009 – which are likely well under his real numbers – we have him moving a total of 4,947,824 tickets and grossing $590,709,626 in today’s dollars. Those numbers are comparable to the likes of The Rolling Stones, who outgrossed him with $654,709,299 off fewer tickets (3,426,070) in the same period. Another artist at Elton’s scale is Dave Matthews Band, which reported more tickets (6,068,058) but grossed less ($380,045,157).
However, the fact that he has announced this as a farewell tour puts it in a special category of tours that many artists inevitably come to.
Some acts refer to the unlikelihood of their reunion in the tour names, like Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over” tour which ran from 1994 to 1996, and Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime” tour which is still running around the globe, with European dates booked into July. 
A common thread among most artists who claim they are retiring is that they didn’t realize how much they would miss performing and recording. Jay-Z told the Associated Press in 2006 that his two-year retirement was “the worst retirement in history” and that his work kept calling to him. Back in those days hip-hop hadn’t become the touring force that it is now, as Jay-Z’s recent “4:44” outing has been touted by Live Nation as his most successful endeavor ever. 
LCD Soundsystem’s return roused some surprisingly hard feelings with fans when the group reunited in 2016, just five years after its “Last Show Ever” at Madison Square Garden Arena. While the artists basically said that they missed making music with each other, some fans complained they could no longer say they were present at the band’s “last performance,” a point of pride for many. 
Part of announcing any farewell tour is that it should, in theory, spike demand for tickets. Barry Manilow said his last big tour would be in 2015, and we had him at number 100 on the Year End 
Top 100 Worldwide Tours chart with $17.4 million on 238,342 tickets to 33 shows, with prices usually ranging from around $20 to $250. Compare that to his numbers from 2013, when in just North America he grossed $10.3 million on 48 shows, and it seems the hype of a “farewell” tour may have indeed helped Barry’s business.
KISS did a farewell tour with its original lineup in the early 2000s, but has kept the moniker and act alive with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley at the fore, and the fans keep coming. In 2000, when the farewell tour was in full swing, the group reported 1,292,121 tickets and a total gross of more than $61.6 million, seriously huge business at a time when ticket prices were nowhere near where they can get now. We have record of 127 shows that year, and for most of that run KISS kept prices between $35 and $85. 
The band had a smaller year in 2004, yet still grossed $13.1 million on 43 shows, showing many fans didn’t care that it was no longer a “farewell” tour. 
Cher said she was retiring in 2002 with a tour until 2005. She kept off the road for about 10 years, sticking to Vegas residencies, but she started rambling again in 2014, which she promised “Is my farewell tour. I’m never coming back. I swear to God,” according to Rolling Stone. She certainly worked hard during the first farewell, as the combined totals for those years have her at 275 shows grossing $188.7 million. She took in arenas and amphitheatres throughout that tour, and many of the sheds and small arenas capped out around 6,000 seats, meaning much of that money was earned through sheer volume of shows. 
The “Queen of Comebacks” did her thing again 2014 with Cyndi Lauper coming along, and we have 49 shows on the year, with a total gross exceeding $54.8 million. Demand was, in a word, high, as every show was reported at 100 percent capacity.
An artist who seems to have done right by fans with his goodbye is George Strait. He made it very clear that he was retiring from touring in 2014, but that he would still perform the occasional show from time to time. This didn’t lock him into a commitment of not performing runs of shows, as he notably held down a residency in Las Vegas, but he let his fans know he wouldn’t be on the road much, and he had already reduced his touring to mostly weekend shows.  
Ozzy Osbourne has mirrored that sentiment, saying in a statement, “This will be my final world tour, but I can’t say I won’t do some shows here and there.” He will also be playing farewell dates as a solo artist into 2020, starting in Mexico in May. His old band, Black Sabbath, staged most of its “The End” tour in 2016, with $73.9 million grossed over 65 shows, a nice uptick from the 54 shows in 2013, which grossed more than $53.8 million. 
Finally, the conversation about farewell tours has to include Scorpions, whose “Farewell Tour” ended in 2012, but have remained a consistent presence on the road since. The long goodbye doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone, as Scorpions had $20.1 million grossed on our 2017 Year End chart and a rep for the band, Jens Carsten Schneider, told Pollstar the band is continuing its “Crazy World Tour”.