Billy Joel hasn’t released an album since 1993, yet he is now among the highest-rated money-makers in popular music. Part of that is due to a monthly engagement he has undertaken at Madison Square Garden. As The Atlantic’s Adam Chandler reports today in the lengthy essay “The United States Of Billy Joel,” the old piano man has sold out MSG 40 times since announcing this large-scale residency in 2014. This leads to an obvious question: How in the world are there still that many people who want to see Billy Joel every single month?
Chandler has several theories. One is the singer’s amazing longevity: His audience is filled with people who grew up listening to him or grew up listening to their parents listen to him. Out of his 121 recorded songs, 33 of them are top 40 hits. “Billy Joel has, believe it or not, sold more records in the United States than either Michael Jackson or Madonna,” Chandler notes. So pretty much anyone who attends a Billy Joel concert is going to be familiar with a vast majority of the set list. Since the Beatles are long-gone, and the Stones’ tour schedule is much less frequent, he has few contemporaries in that arena.
Then there are Joel’s long-established concert habits, which are seemingly crafted for populist appeal to such a large audience. He’s known for buying up the first two rows and switching out people in the nosebleed seats, instead of filling his front rows with luminaries. He also frequently runs an onstage poll, having the audience vote between two songs in his set (Stranger deep cut “Vienna” is a surprisingly popular choice).
Add his New York status as a Long Island local hero, and it all adds up to a popular, tremendously successful package. Chandler concludes, “The MSG residency… has turned Joel, who was all but retired just a few years ago, into the music industry’s fourth-highest paid performer in 2014 and 2015 (the most recent years for which data is available). Another way of putting it: Despite having not released a new pop album since 1993, Billy Joel is outearning the likes of U2 and Adele.” Read more of this illuminating take in The Atlantic.