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Flying Ticket Prices

James Brown once said “Music has to breathe and sweat. You have to play it live. ” For a long time, I thought the same logic applied to listening. For a real experience, I thought, to really feel it, you had to have the hum of the P.A. speakers and the sway of the crowd. You had to have that spirit, that buzz. 

ticket prices costlyI rarely go to concerts anymore.  Not too long ago I went to see at least one a month. I’d see U2 every time they came around.  I heard Norah Jones cover AC/DC at the famous Fillmore.  I saw Bonnie Raitt in her home territory at a restored Art Deco theater.  I saw Indie acts, blues greats, aging-rockers, and up and comers.   But I got tired.

Four years ago, or thereabouts, I saw Indie rocker Ryan Adams play at the old Warfield theater. It was one of the last great shows I went to.   Smoking had been illegal in public places for at least a few years. Ryan, asked what the fine was, and then with a comment equivalent to “screw it,” rebelliously lit a cigarette and played his set.   I’m not a smoker, but in his actions, there was attitude, energy and life; what you expect at a rock concert.   In contrast, two years ago I saw an arena show in San Jose.  I paid a premium to get seats close enough to see the stage without binoculars.  Around me, a few people stood on their chairs to see better, or stepped into the aisles.  Before they could even scream “encore,” ushers and security guards were on them like vultures; threatening to kick them out if they didn’t “behave more appropriately.”

Importance of maintaining the fire code notwithstanding, the contrast between those two experiences was a punctuation mark on my exhaustion.    Tickets prices keep going up and the quality of the entertainment (on average) keeps going down.  I still love live music but something has been lost.  Maybe I got too much of a good thing, or maybe I got jaded.  Whichever, I just got tired of the fuss.  I had enough.  Popular bands are playing fewer small, intimate venues.  Big stadium shows are becoming more extravaganza than music.   Good seats, or any tickets at all, are becoming harder and harder to get.  The music at the shows often doesn’t have life.  It’s seems less about performance sometimes than promotional obligation.  The experience has become increasingly…bottled up.  Now, I find my entertainment among the myriad of other choices available in this digital age.

Despite my personal frustrations, and the blow to my ego-  my money hasn’t been missed.  The concert industry is booming.  In a 2002 lecture, Princeton Economics Professor Alan Krueger noted between 1996 and 2001 concert ticket prices were up 61% but the consumer price index was up only 13%.  In 2003 the average ticket price had increased to $50.35 a more than 95% (source)increase over seven years earlier.  For 2006, numbers released by Pollstar, North American ticket revenue for 2006 was up to $3.6b, a 16% increase over ’05, and the average price of tickets was now up to $61.45 (8% increase over 2005).

One could speculate that the increases are due to any of several things: increased production costs, increased profit margins and industry consolidation, or even basic supply and demand (predicated on the top 5% of artists generating upwards of 80 percent of the revenue). Whatever the reasons – people are paying the fees.  Maybe they’re seeing fewer shows but they’re doling out the dollars for the big ones.

That’s good news for the bands, it’s good news for the ticket companies like IAC’s Ticketmaster and Ticketweb (though they make a good bit of their money from surchages and not the gate fees),  secondary resellers like eBay and their newly acquired Stubhub component, and it’s especially good news for concert promoters.  According to Professor Krueger, in 2001 – 76% of revenue was handled by four promoters with Clear Channel leading the group. And not much has changed since. (Note: Clear Channel spun off Live Nation in 2005, Live Nation acquired House of Blues in November 2006). 

Competition for my entertainment dollars and leisure time in fierce.   As a consumer in the digital age, I have an overwhelming number of choices.  In this climate, even now as the summer slate of concert tours begin ticket sales and promotions, I’m in no hurry to invest my money in event tickets (and at upwards of $150 a ticket for some shows, they do sometimes feel like an investment)  but I may look into investing in the promoters putting on the shows.

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