Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Future of Concert Tickets

Not much going on in the Richmond music scene this week as everyone really to starts to kick in with their holiday parties, buying gifts and preparing for Christmas. So I thought I'd write a little essay on something I've been thinking about for a while.

As I sat on the John Paul Jones Arena site last week, trying my best to get through to plunk down $95 + "service charges" to see Bruce Springsteen, I began to ponder a different way to sell concert tickets. As I much as I love Bruce, he has almost hit my personal $100 list price limit for tickets. U2 went over on their last tour, and as much as I love them, I passed on buying tickets. As I look at my limited concert fund, I can spend $100+ for tickets to a big show, have to travel at least 75 minutes to C'ville's JPJ Arena (where they don't even serve beer), pay for parking and probably dinner, deal with traffic getting in and out of the venue, then drive back to Richmond late night on dark, dark I-64 or, if farther than C'Ville, pay for a hotel. Not to mention that I now have kids and would either have to get a babysitter (if my wife wanted to go) or bargain for some "time-off" away from home. For all that money, I can attend 5 - 6 shows here in Richmond at places where you can buy beer and be within 15 minutes of any venue here in town. If we had big acts come to Richmond, there may be more inclination to see those acts but with C'ville the closest venue, big acts for me are now few and far between.

We all know that the reason for the explosion in ticket prices has to do with two things: (1) baby boomer acts touring for their now well-off baby boomer fans and (2) internet auctions. When a band can see their tickets going for 3 - 4 times above list price on eBay, they have to start to think "Why am I not getting a cut of that?" And rightfully so. With album sales going down the drain, touring has become the major cash cow for many a band. The Eagles, the band that started asking for and getting these high ticket prices with their first reunion tour in the mid-90s, have toured since that time with with no new album until this year. Sure they could probably live off sales of their back catalog, but they kept the reunion tours coming because the $ was nice. Bands much less successful in album sales then the Eagles depend even more on touring.

Unfortunately, your average fan has suffered because of a few willing to pay exorbitant prices to see a band. Out of a 20,000 seat arena, 100 - 500 fans (at most) buy tickets off eBay or from a broker. But those high prices on the Internet are what the band sees. So the next time they come around, the top ticket price goes from $75 to $200. Now your average (by average meaning average income, not necessarily average fan zeal) 19,000 fans have to pay more for a seat if they wants to see the band because a few hundred people were willing to pay exorbitant amounts.

And the band can pretty much forget about having casual fans give them a try. When I was 16 years old, I decided to check out Clapton at the Philly Spectrum on his Behind the Sun tour. I liked Clapton and was a fan, but not a huge fan. I bought a ticket for less than $20 the day of the show, was amazed and have been a huge Clapton fan ever since. When I was 16, the minimum wage (which is around what I was making) was $3.35/hour. So I got a ticket for about 6 hours work. Today the minimum is $5.85. Can anyone get into an arena show for $35 now? Fugeddaboutit. That will barely buy you 1/2 a seat for most arena shows.

What needs to be done for large shows is auction all the seats for shows that have assigned seating. (Yes, those of you who read the excellent weekly football column on ESPN called TMQ will know that Gregg Easterbrook wrote about this on Tuesday but I swear I had the idea for this blog last week. I was actually kind of pissed when I saw him do the story. Even though the number of people reading his blog are astronomical compared to mine. Like there is really some competition. But I digress.)

The auction would run for two weeks or so. Ticket prices could be set as low as the minimum needed to cover the venue/artist costs. Of course, minimums could be higher than that but then the artist/venue has to weigh the risk of playing to a less than full house.

Once you place a bid, you can't cancel the bid. Seats would be ranked by how close they are to center stage. The higher the bid, the better your seat. Bids are sorted by highest bids first, and in the case of tie bids, who placed their bid first. You can raise your bid at any time which would also update the time of your bid to the time you placed your latest bid. The seating list and prices would be updated on a periodic basis (daily, hourly, instantly) so you can see where your seats are currently and what you would need to bid to sit where you want to sit.

In this scenario, those 500 people who must sit in the front so they can spend the concert calling their friends on their cell phone to impress them with how much they spent on tickets, can go nuts trying to outbid each other. The artist/venue would get to keep the profits. Ebay and ticket brokers would be shut out from selling tickets to all but those who didn't get in on the auction. The ticket brokers would have no incentive to raise the bids up in the hopes of selling tickets later, because anyone wanting tickets would already have bid to their price level during the auction, choosing to outbid the broker (in which case they don't need broker tickets) or choosing not to go high (in which case they have decided the broker price is too rich).

So the top 500 seats may go for 3 - 5 times the "normal" ticket price, but if you are willing to sit further away you may get tickets for a more reasonable price.

Auctioning could also benefit an artist willing to try to please as many fans as possible. Let's say on the first day of an auction for a show at a 20,000 seat arena, 100,000 bids are placed. The artist could then (at the risk of lowering ticket demand/prices, but pleasing as many fans as possible) add another 3 - 4 shows. This strategy could also work in reverse. For example, on the first day of an auction for a show at a 20,000 seat arena, 1,000 bids are placed. The artist could move the venue to a 2000 seat venue, raising demand for seats (assuming additional bids will be placed) , potentially raising the bid prices and creating a more intimate show for the audience. Younger bands or bands at a certain level of popularity may also be more likely to give a big show a try, knowing they might get lower ticket prices, but getting the rush for themselves and their fans of 18,000 people going nuts.

Obviously there could be some ego strokes (in the first case or if an artist sells out a show at a high average price) or some ego blows (in the second case or if an artist sells less seats at low prices). So it will take some brave artists and/or hugely popular artists to try this first. But an artist would have a better chance of selling out a show and gaining new fans. If I have some marginal interest in an artist, I may be willing to bid $20 and get some seats that aren't the best but have a chance to check out someone new or see someone I have seen a number of times before. People might be more willing to risk a date night at a show if the tickets aren't high priced or maybe they'll take the kids.

Also, no could complain about high ticket prices or sell outs. Ticket price is set by demand. The only people you could bitch about are your fellow fans and you'll either pay the price or you won't. All those parents of Hannah Montana fans couldn't be angry and calling their local congressman if the show sells out because (1) the brokers wouldn't be able to snap up seats for reasons previously mentioned and (2) if the parents really want to get those tickets for the kids, they can bid more.

Now there is still a part of me that would lament the fact that I probably could never score close seats again for a big show by getting lucky. But between ticket brokers, corporate boxes, artist fan clubs, American Express pre-sales, etc. those chances of getting lucky are almost non-existent anyway now. There may also be ways to get lucky, for example, a random drawing of all bidders to sit in the front row or rows or good seats. As long as such a lottery was mentioned prior to on-sale so people who do want to bid high know what they are bidding on.

There is part of me that says that rock and roll should be egalitarian and salt of the earth. But arena shows have become too much of a big business to have that be really true anymore. And shows that would end up more for your average spending joe and real rocker, would do so naturally and might be better shows than the high priced ones for the impress their friends, cell phone talking, sit in their seat, rattle their jewelry type crowd.

But if you want to rock with the masses, your best bet is and would likely still be, to go to a club, where you can swap sweat, spill beer and feel the spit. The best rock 'n' roll is usually being made in a crowded bar at 1 AM on any given Saturday night anyway.

Good night, Richmond.

Tony Jordan