The Who may be half of what they once were, but their bank account will keep expanding on tour this summer.

Last time around, in 2012-13, the paydays were pretty spectacular: $3m (£2m) in gross revenue for two nights’ work at the 02 Arena in London, $1.2m (£820,000) for a single show at Madison Square Garden in New York, and $1.7m (£1.16m) for two nights at the Allstate Arena outside Chicago. Overall, the 2013 US tour raked in more than $13m (£8.8m).

Not bad for a group that is now more about the brand than the band.

The Who – even with two founding members long gone – kick off what is sure to be a massively successful tour on Wednesday (15 April). And other bands who are missing key players from the eras when they scored their biggest hits and built their arena-filling reputations are touring like royalty in 2015, including AC/DC, Journey, Queen and The Smashing Pumpkins.

The Who have lost drummer Keith Moon, who died in 1978, and bassist John Entwistle, who died in 2002. Who fanatics know that even though Pete Townshend wrote the songs and Roger Daltrey often sang them, Entwistle and especially Moon were critical ingredients in the band’s most indelible tracks. The distinctive contributions of Moon and Entwistle to the likes of Won’t Get Fooled Again and My Generation make them virtually impossible to replace. Is The Who really The Who without them? Yet their fans don’t seem to care or notice. They’re happy to pay top dollar for what is essentially a very good Who cover band.

No logo

“I can’t explain,” the more sceptical Who diehard might say of this phenomenon, while quoting one of the band’s classic singles. Author Naomi Klein provided some insight into this trend in her ground-breaking 2000 book No Logo. Decades ago, marketing gurus for major corporations began tapping into “a psychological/anthropological examination of what brands mean to the culture and to people's lives,” she wrote. Companies thrive by producing “images of their brands” and consumers buy in.

The Who have released only one album of new music in the last 30 years, but their brand remains powerful, thanks to constant recycling of their oldies on TV commercials and programmes, Broadway plays, live albums and greatest-hits repackages and tours.

The Who are hardly the only band cashing in on the power of their brand, and the exceptions are few. Robert Plant has rejected multimillion-dollar Led Zeppelin reunion shows partly because he believes that Zeppelin isn’t Zeppelin without drummer John Bonham, who died in 1980. But losing a key musician or two hasn’t stopped other bands from forging on with replacements.

Even though AC/DC are without founding guitarist and riff master Malcolm Young and drummer Phil Rudd, the show will go on this summer with a stadium tour that launched last weekend (10 April) at the Coachella music festival in California. The face of the band remains guitarist Angus Young in his schoolboy outfit, but in many ways he’s presiding over a hard-rock machine that barely resembles its classic ‘70s incarnation, with only one other member remaining from that era: bassist Cliff Williams.

The Smashing Pumpkins roll on with only Billy Corgan left from the quartet’s ‘90s hit-making days. They’re headlining arenas and amphitheatres with Marilyn Manson this summer. Even without the distinctive voice of lead singer Steve Perry, the remaining members of Journey – including Perry soundalike vocalist Arnel Pineda – are still touring as Journey and playing a May residency in Las Vegas for tickets as high as $450 (£300) a night. Freddy Mercury died in 1991 and bassist John Deacon retired, but Queen continues to fill arenas as Queen with guitarist Brian May, drummer Roger Taylor and a prominently co-billed Mercury fill-in, whether Paul Rodgers or, more recently, Adam Lambert.

Going solo

What’s in a name? Artists, their managers and record companies have long known that the answer is ‘everything’. Vocal groups would splinter in the ‘50s and ‘60s and often compete for the brand name that gave them a glimmer of fame. The most notorious example might be The Platters, whose hit-making line-ups broke up numerous times, leading to a complicated 1965 legal tussle over which band members could tour under The Platters moniker. The lawsuits continued to fly for the next 50 years.

In the ‘80s, Roger Waters and his former bandmates David Gilmour, Rick Wright and Nick Mason fought a protracted court battle over the rights to the Pink Floyd name. Gilmour’s side eventually got to keep the name, and toured stadiums under the Floyd banner for the next decade, while Waters primarily played theatres. The difference in income was enormous. Even though Waters wrote the majority of Floyd’s music, his first solo tour in 1984 lost money, according to the bassist, whereas three years later his ex-bandmates pulled in $135m (£92m) touring as Pink Floyd.

Promoters note that while solo tours by musicians from prominent bands can do decent business, ticket sales rarely approach those piled up by their more famous brand-name bands. The Who’s Daltrey and Townshend know the score. As solo acts, promoters say, Daltrey can fill a club or a small theatre, and Townshend could probably draw enough to play slightly larger venues. But they can’t match the box-office haul brought by branding their collaboration as The Who, no matter how many replacement musicians they have to hire. They know that it’s the brand that matters, not who’s in the broken band.

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.