Who Needs Tickets?

I was wandering around wordpress the other day and came across a great post by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. He is discussing ticket sales and scalping.  I have some thoughts on those issues but that is not the purpose of this post. In the course of his piece, Reznor writes that:

The ticketing marketplace for rock concerts shows a real lack of sophistication, meaning this: the true market value of some tickets for some concerts is much higher than what the act wants to be perceived as charging. For example, there are some people who would be willing to pay $1,000 and up to be in the best seats for various shows, but MOST acts in the rock / pop world don’t want to come off as greedy pricks asking that much, even though the market says its value is that high…

As someone who periodically organizes small shows for unknown groups (mostly as fundraising events) I had an interesting thought.  If artists and their promoters are deliberately giving the impression that concert tickets cost less than they are worth, even if the market is recouping that difference through resellers, then the perception of the ticket buying consumer is skewed.

I think Reznor is correct in noting that bands don’t want to be perceived as greedy, and this is mostly due to the myth of the artist as a pure instrument of creativity. If a band is really “all about the music” then they should be willing to play for any audience at any price. This isn’t the reality for most professional entertainers, but that perception is an integral part of the music industry. I’m not even arguing that musicians should conform to a ridiculous notion of artistry; rather I think that both they and their fans should acknowledge the reality of the business.

Although many people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for concert tickets, I don’t think they rationally believe that the price is worth it. Ticket prices are announced in advance of shows, and many people respond to “high” prices with shock and disdain. “How can they charge that much?” is a common question. Yet when may of those same people are faced with the immediate choice to either buy a ticket or miss the show, they respond by paying the actual open market value of the scarce ticket, which is normally many times higher than the face price.  Thus there is a distinct difference between what people think a concert ticket is worth, and what they will actually end up paying for one.  The biggest proof of this comes from the current Ticketmaster reselling scandal.  It is true that many governments are stepping in to curb the resale of tickets at inflated prices (by Ticketmaster themselves I should add), I find another lesson in the details of the case.  People have been buying the inflated tickets because they are desperate to see the shows.  Yes they complain about, and some just give up, but many of the concerts, Bruce Springsteen for example, still sell out.  If Ticketmaster is forced to give up its resale business, we might see an even greater increase in ticket prices.  I imagine it will be a constant battle between artists looking to maintain their image, and a business trying to sell at market value. 

Consequently, when consumers evaluate the ticket cost for a musical performance of any kind, they are working with a price scale that does not reflect reality. If being up close at a NIN show is worth thousands of dollars, then attending a small show by an unknown, but good, band is likely worth more then the 5 or 10 dollars that is customary. 

Of course it should be said that Reznor may have inflated the value of concert tickets a bit, and that an indie show still presents an unknown and unpopular product to the buying public.  If, however, the cost of regular concert tickets, on their face value, continues to rise, and begins to reflect the true market value, not only would there be a backlash against established artists, the prices for less mainstream shows would likely slowly rise.  Would this have any effect on those at the bottom of the food chain?  Probably not for awhile as most people would still expect a PWYC, $5, $10 type of cost for local shows.

A radical upward shift in concert ticket prices could have several effects on the music industry.  It is likely that the average music fan could be priced right out of the game. When my mom was a teenager she saw bands like The Who and Alice Cooper for a couple of bucks on a Saturday night.  For a recent Who show in Hamilton our tickets were $90.  Does that mean my mom got a deal in the 70’s? That’s possible, but I know for sure she won’t be likely to see them again because of the cost. 

Rising prices would also lead to music fans seeking out alternative avenues for live entertainment. I suspect this will take two forms. The obvious one is increased attendance at indie type shows. People will be more inclined to check out a less known group that approximates the experience they get from their favourite bands. The second, and more important, form is the internet. There are already places to view streaming concerts online. How long will it be before most people are experiencing live music mainly through virtual streams?  Home entertainment systems are constantly improving, and new TVs are outfitted with high quality digital capabilities. I know I’ve seen HD concerts that felt almost real. Will they replace the total live experience, which includes the energy of the crowd, the glare of the lights, and certainly not the comfort of a couch? I doubt it, but for people who can see 15 shows for the price of 1, it’s probably worth it.

This entire issue is ultimately about the price we are willing to pay for an escape from reality and a natural high.  For some, it’s priceless, while for others it will put a huge strain on their monthly budget.  Changing technology will continue to radically alter the way we experience music. The issue of ticket prices may be a mute point someday. But that is a post for another day.

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4 Responses to “Who Needs Tickets?”

  1. Dave Says:

    I believe that live music is more right than privilege. I don’t think I should have to pay $1000 or even $100 for a single concert seat. When an artist goes on tour and charges $50 per seat that has built in a certain profit level that covers their costs and gives them a good chunk of cash (if they can fill the venue). I don’t like the idea of letting the market dictate the price because then only the wealthy actually get to see the show. If I wanted to see U2 and it cost me $500 for the seat I probably wouldn’t buy it but if I did it would be hard for me to enjoy that show given what I had spent. And frankly, I don’t think stadium shows are even worth that much given the poor quality sound and tighly cramped space that is allocated to each concert patron. I think tickets are priced right for what you get but some people are desperate to see their favourite artist/band and will pay almost anything. This is where exploitation comes into play in the form of resellers, scalpers and more recently Ticketmaster (redirecting to reselling sites).

    I take major issue with Ticketmaster and they way they run their business. First, they should not be involved in reselling. I find it hard to believe they could have linked to a reseller site twice (for two different concerts) purely by accident. Second, they don’t provide a lot of value but have massive surcharges. How could the surcharges amout to 20-25% of the value of my ticket? All they do is print the d**n tickets anymore! Third, they charge a convenience fee for the majority of us who buy tickets on the web but they are the one receiving the greatest amount benefit (cost savings of not having to employ someone in a store to process the request). Fourth, Ticketmaster can and should do something about scalpers but they choose to do nothing. When you repeatedly have the same credit cards / users / IP addresses buying the maximum block sizes of tickets it is clear that they are going to be reselling and/or scalping them. This problem isn’t a particularly difficult one to solve and it is shameful that Ticketmaster hasn’t dealt with this yet.

  2. ponpilate Says:

    I think the ongoing battle over downloading music has taught us that there are two main groups of musicians/labels: those who believe that the more accessible music is the better it is for the artist, and those who believe in milking every penny out of every song they produce. I think a useful analogy for music is visual art. I think if you are an art fan, even though it is more expensive for you to own art, it is much easier for you to enjoy it live because one ticket to a large gallery gives you the opportunity to take in a wide number of pieces. A ticket to a concert allows you to enjoy 2-3 bands, only one of which you really want to see.
    Concert ticket prices are ridiculous, but I’m not sure I go as far to say that enjoying music is a right. It is still a consumable product. Musicians could argue that people have the right to make and enjoy their own music, but that professional composers/entertainers are entitled to fair market value for their work. I don’t believe Ticketmaster deserves any of that money because they do so very little in comparison to what they charge. I will never pay more then $50 dollars for a concert, at least until inflation dictates that I should. It could also be argued that music is more accessible than it was ten years ago because the cost of buying recorded music has dropped in recent years (and been broken down to a per song rate through the sale of MP3s). This raises the question of which form of musical experience we are entitled to. Is it just hearing the songs performed? Or is it attending the performance itself? I often prefer the former to be honest for the reasons you pointed out. I am not someone who generally connects with the live energy that people always seem to write about. I can get the same emotional response from listening to a CD.
    I am interested to see how the Tickermaster reselling business turns out.

  3. Dave Says:

    One other thought I had was that if ticket prices were market determined and ran around $500 or $1000, this might work for one tour but on subsequent tours the value of the tickets would be greatly reduced because those few big spenders would have been satisfied. Also, I think that once someone spends that much on a ticket they may feel ripped off and may opt to not spend that much again on a ticket. Like I said before, stadium rock isn’t very much fun in my view. The music quality is poor and standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers is never fun.

    I think it is in the best interest of artists to keep prices low. If they don’t they could alienate their largest fan base (young people who lack the funds to attend shows at high prices).

  4. ponpilate Says:

    I think it really depends on the band. People continue to shell out hundreds for Rolling Stones tickets and they have done anything musically relevant in years. There is usually enough time between tours that people will spend the money regardless. In fact, some people buy tickets to multiple shows in one or more cities. The last time U2 was here they did 4 shows and I knew people who went to all of them. For some people the live concert experience, regardless of the lousy sound quality or crowded space is a fantastic time. I think that is true for a lot of music fans globally.

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