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Concert Industry Responds to Fans Caught Between Rock and a Hard Place
Concert Industry Responds to Fans Caught Between Rock and a Hard Place

By Melinda Newman
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 3, 2009

Anyone who says you can't get something for nothing hasn't tried buying a concert ticket lately.

Purchase a ticket in the top two price tiers for No Doubt's spring-summer outing and receive a code to download the rock band's entire catalogue of more than 80 songs, free. Grab a few extra friends to go to a show at a Live Nation-operated venue and get two of the six ducats free. Buyers who took advantage of the pre-sale for the Vans Warped Tour purchased tickets for $25 (last year's regular admission was as much as $15 higher in some markets). The promotion included service fees and a free Warped compilation CD.

It's all an attempt -- in sophisticated music industry jargon -- "to put butts in seats."

"Every one of us gets up in the morning seeing the same reports on CNBC about how crappy the economy is," says Jason Garner, CEO of global music for promoter Live Nation. "The world is in an economic crisis; we have to make sure we're adding value to the fan experience."

Even if there aren't freebies attached, there are still big discounts to be had. Lawn seats at No Doubt shows go for as low as $10 in many markets, while U2 set aside 10,000 seats at each upcoming U.S. stadium date for under $30. That's $20 less than the cheapest seat when the Irish band played a U.S. stadium date on the 2005-06 Vertigo Tour (the rest of the domestic dates were in arenas). Lucinda Williams is offering ticket holders $7 off a T-shirt or $5 off a CD at her merchandising tables this year. Bruce Springsteen gives fans a way to do good while saving money: The Boss has donated a limited number of $20 tickets to food banks in select cities to sell to his shows (usually through Ticketmaster) with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the charities. Those prices are roughly $80 less than the highest-priced ticket for most Springsteen shows.

Many promoters are doing everything they can to encourage cash-strapped fans to rock now, pay later. In a ploy normally reserved for selling major appliances, promoters of such events as Tennessee's Bonnaroo and Michigan rock fest Rothbury are offering layaway plans for the multi-day festivals. Chicago's Lollapalooza does not offer layaway, but service fees have been stripped away for this year's three-day August festival in Grant Park. Promoter AEG Live featured layaway for both the alternative music super-daddy Coachella and its country cousin Stagecoach, held on successive weekends in April in Indio, Calif. Coachella's attendance, according to organizers, was 160,000, the second-highest in its 10-year history. According to AEG Live President and CEO Randy Phillips, 24 percent of Stagecoach ticket buyers and 19 percent of Coachella attendees took advantage of the plan.

Low prices may be getting lower, but don't expect the high range to topple anytime soon for one simple reason: People are still willing to pay. Garner goes so far as to say, "The [top] ticket is not ever going to come down." The difference between the face value of a hot act's top ticket and the price that ticket brings on the secondary market is often several multiples. (In March, Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor, in an unsubstantiated claim, wrote on his blog that some artists take tickets and sell them directly to the secondary sellers.) Among the top resellers are StubHub and Ticketmaster-owned TicketsNow.

The average ticket price for the 10 top-grossing tours in North America last year was $151.34, according to Billboard. Ten years ago, that price was $47.66. The top price on the hottest tours, especially given the proliferation of "gold circle" and VIP programs that include all kinds of bells and whistles, has also skyrocketed. In 1998, the most expensive ticket among the top 10 tours was $500 for the Rolling Stones. Last year, that honor belonged to Bon Jovi. The price was $2,060.

Promoters say they are seeing little resistance to VIP packages that offer the fan a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For example, Britney Spears's Circus Tour, which finishes its first North American leg on Tuesday before heading to London, includes 100 $500 tickets per show for seats on couches or stools around the stage's perimeter. "They're the first to go," says Phillips.

That leaves acts toying with the bottom-end prices. For No Doubt's first tour in five years, the band decided to offer the catalogue giveaway (the top-tier tickets range from $42.50 to $80), but also wanted to make the amphitheater show affordable to all.

Selling $10 lawn seats, which often represent up to two-thirds of the capacity, is a tactic No Doubt manager Jim Guerinot first employed on lead singer Gwen Stefani's solo tour two summers ago, before the economy tanked. Now, as it did then, the lower price point permits fans to see the show on the cheap, but it also means the tour can stop in weaker cities it would otherwise bypass. "It allows us to go into markets that you wouldn't have gone into," Guerinot says. "You've now added eight shows to your tour that your would have skipped."

Guerinot cites Indianapolis on the Stefani tour as a city she normally would have avoided because it wasn't a strong market for her. Instead, she offered the $10 ticket and 23,309 paid to see that show. (At least 17,000 of those attendees paid only $10.) "The other option is to do $35 and do 5,500 people," he says. "We're much rather play to 24,000. There's nothing like the hand-to-hand combat of a live performance to create fans."

Guerinot also manages Nine Inch Nails, which is paired with Jane's Addiction this summer on what fans have dubbed the NINJA tour. Lowest ticket price for that outing is $19.91, a reference to the first time the two bands shared a bill, on 1991's Lollapalooza tour.

A bustling venue is nice for the act, but it is a matter of life or death for the venue operator. That's why Live Nation, which operates 44 amphitheaters, including Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, salivates at the thought of $10 tickets. Live Nation is counting on fans spending more bucks on merchandise and concessions, which is where the venue operator makes money (in addition to parking and facility fees, which are often charged per ticket).

Live Nation is upping the ante to encourage concertgoers to bring pals along. "We sell the overwhelming percentage [of tickets] in twos," Garner says. A few years ago, Live Nation discounted tickets on the John Mayer-Sheryl Crow tour; fans who bought four tickets paid for three, or got six for the price of four. Live Nation rolled the program out to more than half of its shows last summer, selling 1.5 million tickets (15 percent of its amphitheater ticket sales overall) via some kind of discount program. This season, the goal is to offer the discount on 70 percent of the shows.

Arena shows aren't seeing as low a price dip. Phillips says he doesn't expect to see arena seats for major acts swing below $20 -- Taylor Swift and Keith Urban are offering $20 seats at their concerts. "That's really the low-water mark," Phillips says.

Keeping prices low means the acts take home less. Artist guarantees are "somewhat" lower this year, Garner says, but "our agenda isn't how we pay the artists less money; it's more how do we sell those 40 percent of tickets that go unsold every year."

The Oklahoma rock band All-American Rejects hit a career high a few weeks ago: After seven years of releasing records, the group topped the Top 40 airplay chart for the first time with the catchy "Gives You Hell." However, the quartet didn't use that landmark as an opportunity to ratchet up concert prices. All tickets for its three-act I Wanna Rock theater tour are $28.50, the same price the band has charged since it began headlining. "It's funny; a number-one song on Top 40 doesn't get you as much as it used to," muses AAR lead singer Tyson Ritter. "I understand it's tough times for everybody. The one thing people seem to find solace in is music."

Much of this ticket slashing is precautionary: Promoters say ticket sales haven't significantly declined. "I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop," Phillips says. However, he is encouraging acts to put tickets on sale as far in advance of a tour's start as possible, in case things get worse. "I have a feeling that [for] shows that go on sale in May and June, this rampant unemployment will bite us," he says.

Garner remains ever the optimist. People may cancel vacations and similar big-ticket items, he says, but they want their music. "The [average] fan goes to one or two concerts a year. The bands they love are the soundtrack of their lives," he says. "On average, a concert ticket costs $50; that's the greatest value in the world. It's a two-hour magical moment."

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