Ray Waddell is senior writer/touring for Billboard.
Everybody talks about the high price of concert tickets, but nobody does anything about it.
Not until the summer of 2004, anyway, when fans stayed away in droves.
If the fans did not teach the concert business a lesson about ticket prices, then one wonders if anything ever will. Promoters have long promised they would take a pass on high-priced tours; this year, instead, millions of North American concert-goers did just that.
At the same time, the fans passed on unwarranted add-on fees, unimaginative tours, $9 beers, crowded summer concert schedules and dates that went on sale four months out, then were deeply discounted week-of-show.
Still, these fans were hardly without diversions. They were entertained by videogames, DVDs, movies, nightclubs, Web sites, iPods, festivals and countless other attractions.
But, truth be told, most would rather see an act they like in concert than just about any other form of entertainment. A new study commissioned by Billboard indicates that 80% of music fans rank concerts “high” or “very high” as entertainment. People want to see concerts. But, increasingly, they can’t afford to.
The future of the touring business depends on developing new attractions and keeping young people in the seats. There are reasons Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Elton John, the Eagles and dozens of others can still make a good income on the road even when they are well past their commercial prime. They entertain, they are known entities and they deliver the goods live. Perhaps most important, they delivered when their fans were young and left a lasting impression.
That’s not to say newer bands can’t deliver. Great new talent arrives all the time. But at $50 per ticket, or even $30, many kids will never know if these bands have good live chops. Because if you’re on a limited budget, you don’t take a chance with your $30.
The industry is facing an artist-development problem that has reached crisis level on the live music front. Biology alone tells you that the list of top tours a decade from now will look vastly different from today and be unrecognizable 20 years down the line.
In terms of developing touring stars, the business did its job and then some in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The ’90s simply did not produce many lasting headliners, and it is no coincidence that stars the decade did produce, like Dave Matthews Band, were always very conscious of ticket pricing.
The jury is still out on what the new millennium will bring in terms of long-lasting musical careers.
Most industry professionals believe the appetite for music is greater than it has ever been. Fans just are not paying for it as much. In most cases, they are willing to pay more for one night of live music than for a CD that lasts a lifetime-but not several times more.
When asked on a billboard.com poll this summer which answer best-described their main reason for attending a concert, 79% of 3,000 respondents chose the following reply: “I only see my very favorite acts; it’s too expensive to see anybody else.”
Obviously, some shows are worth more than others. A night of live entertainment with Madonna, Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Barbra Streisand and a handful of other icons is a bargain compared with a Broadway show, an NBA game or even the ballet.
But there are only a few superstars. Some in the industry-and probably most fans-believe that only a few acts are worth more than a $35 ticket. And though fingers are variously pointed at check-waving promoters, overly ambitious agents, greedy managers or cash-strapped venues, the artists seem to get a free pass on ticket prices.
Managers and agents work for the act. It is their job to get the artist as much money as they can-while keeping an eye on career longevity. Promoters work with unusually narrow profit margins. Venues must have content to turn on the lights.
Acts determine ticket prices, pure and simple. You cannot blame them for taking the money and running. Today’s checkbook mentality among promoters has made that easier than ever. It falls to the managers and agents to drive home for their acts the importance of long-term thinking.
Somebody has to care about the future of the concert business. We are in real danger of losing a generation of concert-goers if ticket prices do not get in line. We cannot keep depending on the Vans Warped tour-which has maintained a low ceiling on tickets for 10 years-to be one of the few getting this value thing right.
This has been a tough year overall for touring. But nothing is wrong that a responsible pricing strategy will not quickly fix. Forget the discounts; tickets need to be priced correctly as the tour is conceived.
Promoters need to offer significantly less to artists in 2005. Their competitors need to resist the temptation to double that offer. More flexibility is needed. What’s worth $250,000 in Chicago may be worth only $100,000 in Boise, Idaho. And if agents insist their act is worth more, they should cut a straight back-end deal based on ticket sales instead of leaving promoters holding the bag. This will show promoters how much the agent believes in the act.
Promoters say they are going to take a pass. In 2004, concert-goers showed them how it’s done.