The Concert Industry's New Star Moneymaker: The Aisle Seat

       

Illustration by Rafa Alvarez for Billboard

This summer concert season, long-overlooked aisle seats are the stars of the show, as data-driven dynamic pricing increases profits for promoters and artists alike.

The concert business has found a new cash cow right under its nose: the humble aisle seat.

Taking cues from the travel industry, Live Nation has recently begun to offer aisle seats at select shows at a surcharge of between $5 and $30 a pop. Now labeled as "premium aisle seats," the seat at the end of each row and as many as three additional seats further into the row are being promoted on Ticketmaster as an option for fans who are looking to "enjoy the convenience of easy access to refreshments, restrooms and venue exits."

"Lots of artists are doing it -- people will pay more for them. You look at the seat map and the aisle seats are all sold," says Paradigm agent Larry Webman, who helped book Sara Bareilles' latest tour. "Live Nation pitched that it works, and in Sara's case we rolled the dice with them and it seems to be coming to fruition."

The brainchild of Live Nation senior vp touring Brad Wavra, the premium aisle seat option is helping many artists and their camps boost revenue in a saturated live entertainment market, though aisle price hikes must be approved by both the artist and the promoter.

"It's such a no-brainer it's amazing it hasn't been thought of before," says Artist Group International chairman Dennis Arfa. "Many of our shows, whether it's Billy Joel or Rod Stewart, we've noticed that the aisle seats are a contribution to the face-lift of the tickets. On an arena or stadium act, it could easily be six figures a night. If you're a theater act and it's 20 grand a night, that's a big number."

The Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience has bumped up the price of its aisle seats by $10-$20 for select shows, while Bareilles' Hollywood Bowl show on Nov. 2 has premium aisle seats marked up by $5 or $10, depending on placement in the venue. Based on the price point for Bareilles' show, the singer-songwriter could gross nearly $15,000 more on the aisle seat markup alone. With steeper prices and the aisle seat bundles going four seats deep instead of two, the Game of Thrones show could potentially add more than $70,000 in revenue at the same venue; if applied to all 19 North American dates, it could grow its overall gross by $1.3 million on the aisle seat offer alone.

While Ticketmaster may be tapping into some pent-up aisle seat demand from average consumers, Barry Kahn, president of pricing software company Qcue, says data suggests that aisle prices are also being inflated by scalpers.

"A lot of this is driven by the secondary market. When brokers are coming in and buying tickets [on the primary market], they will get aisle seats if available," says Kahn. "You can't necessarily charge more for the aisle, but if your ticket says ‘aisle' and there are three other tickets in that row, yours will probably sell first."

StubHub has offered an aisle seat filter for ticket searches for the past few years, and having a ticket that falls into one of the secondary market's "preferred" categories -- whether it is actually a better seat or not -- drives a broker's ticket to the top of the list, increases inventory and heightens the chance for a sale.

"As we strive to build ‘filter forward' products that tailor recommendations, versus oversaturating with options, we have found that our repeat customers and most loyal fans use the tool most often when they are considering their ticketing purchases," says StubHub senior product manager Garrett Reeb.

Aisle seat offers are one of various ways artists and promoters have utilized data to determine profit-maximizing pricing for tickets. In 2018, Billboard Boxscore saw a 20 percent increase in revenue over the previous year for the top 25 tours, a boost of $500 million. The jump is a result of artists and promoters coming up with solutions to earn more revenue from the shows they are already putting on by more aggressively pricing seats that would go for the same amount or more on the secondary market. Taylor Swift's 2018 Reputation Stadium Tour drew criticism for a lack of sellouts, for example, but the singer pulled in an average of $5 million per show by pricing tickets higher and eliminating the profit margin for scalpers attempting to flip her seats.

But many artists are still reluctant to charge as much as they could at the risk of appearing greedy, opening the door for resellers to capture some of the profit instead. Upselling only the aisle seats may be an easier play for these more self-conscious acts. 

"If the artist is selling that ticket for $150 and it's going for $350 on StubHub, the artist isn't seeing that lift go to their gross," says Paradigm's Webman. "It's just coming up with creative ways to help the artist. Dynamic, platinum and aisle seats across a 30- to 40-date tour, it puts a lot of money in the artist's pocket."

Frank Luby, CEO of pricing consulting company Present Tense, says there are "probably a lot of fans who couldn't care less whether they are in seat two, seat three or seat one. But someone might really want to have it."

"I would love to see more opportunities that come about that take care of both the artist and the fan," says Arfa. "It's such a natural fit. It helps everybody win."

This article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.

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