When I see the ticket prices of the biggest box-office rock concerts these days, I've got to wonder who's going. Certainly not my teenage son, Louie, or his friends, with their part-time, minimum-wage jobs. The average price for seats on the Eagles tour was $110; for the Who, it's $91. Louie's crowd calls these acts classic rock and buys loads of their CDs, but their concerts are hopelessly out of reach. Tickets to see Madonna averaged $175, and one of her shows in Chicago topped out at $1,335.
Meanwhile, new groups such the Strokes or Modest Mouse, acts Louie would really love to see, aren't touring at all. People in the industry tell me there's a cycle: High ticket prices limit the type of audience, the newer bands can't fill an arena, so the tour never happens. They play clubs, where liquor sales usually bar teens from going, or in small venues that sell out quickly.
So the people the music business needs to maintain its base -- the young teens who are forming loyalties that will last for years -- simply don't go. They get their music, and they shape their taste, through MP3s and downloads and headphones and videos.
Something's being lost here, and it's not just ticket revenues. It's the group experience. It's the chance for a generation to define itself on the ground level -- sharing a feeling of self-importance that's very useful in the early teens. That feeling helps give kids the courage to figure out who they are and begin becoming part of society at large. As each crop of youngsters comes forward, music helps them feel a connection, and standing in a packed, loud, sweaty arena magnifies those feelings tenfold. There's nothing like looking around a sea of faces getting into the same song to convince you that maybe you do know a little about what you're doing after all. It's also an aspect of culture that has uncommon staying power.
Every generation has specific ways of defining itself, and in hindsight most of them look ridiculous. My generation came of age in the 1970s. It's very easy now to mock the big hair and our love of all things polyester, especially if it came in brown and orange. But during the '70s, we were too busy laughing at the 1950s poodle skirts and saddle shoes to imagine that our fashion was going to make an even bigger stink someday. Today's multi-pocket pants that ride way too low and shirts that ride way too high are going to look just as dumb in 20 years.
But music is different. From generation to generation, the good stuff holds up -- appreciated by those who heard it during the first go-round and still appealing to those who are just tuning in. You can listen at 40 to cuts you loved at 16, and you might be retro but you won't be hopelessly out of step. The Beatles dissolved more than 30 years ago, but their compilation album "One" was No. 1 for eight weeks a few years ago. It's not just that some of the music is that good. It's that something else gives music that staying power -- the shared experience.
Most of the time, I won't remember just a song: I remember where I was, whom I was with, what was going on, how it affected my life. A sudden refrain of Peter Frampton puts me right back in senior year of high school. One of my first dates was going to an Emerson, Lake & Palmer concert in 1975 at the newly built Capital Centre in Landover. I went with Karl Lundeberg, and the tickets cost $12 apiece -- $42 in today's dollars. Both of us were 15 and Karl's dad drove us, which in no way detracted from the sense of adventure and being able to do something grown-up. Karl was popular and dreamy (he's now a popular and dreamy jazz artist -- which only adds to the luster of the memory) and I was just as thrilled to be going out with him as I was about the concert. Sure, I had been to a few musicals and had heard live orchestras, but those had nothing to do with me, with my generation celebrating its own music en masse. Here we were all in this together. "Lucky Man" spoke to the pathos of dying young and "Still . . . You Turn Me On" gave some dates an excuse to hang all over each other. Karl and I held hands.
What Karl and I were doing, what everyone in that crowded arena was doing that night, was growing up, just a little, and defining for ourselves who we were and how we felt about ourselves. All of those cheers and applause were our way of saying, "You got that right," and "Hey, I'm not alone. There are a lot of other people who feel exactly the same way I do."
The teenage years are all about feeling alienated and yet interconnected, about trying to stand out from previous generations but in a way that your friends will like. Scared, hopeful, angry, happy and maybe a little in love, kids need to establish themselves as individuals and as part of a larger community. No moment achieves this so well as being at a rock concert.
Unfortunately, a lot of teenagers today just won't have that experience. Yes, some parents will pay to take their kids to some of the concerts, particularly the milder Hilary Duff and boy band types, but that puts those memories in the same category as going to an amusement park like Disney World. It's fun, but it's no way to check out the world without filters.
This summer there won't be many 15-year-old Karls who can afford to ask out a young Martha, allowing them to test out each other and their relationship to the wider world in a somewhat controlled atmosphere, with a parent driving. Usher or Prince, at the MCI Center in August, seem like a deal at $78 for the best seats (plus "processing" fees and taxes, things that used to be included in the basic price). But it's still a lot for a teenager to cough up, especially one who wants to take a friend.
It says something that when I called Karl up last week to talk, he remembered as much as I did about that long-ago concert. It was the only date we ever went on together, but the setting made the date magical. It was a rock concert, and a rock concert is a big deal.
I saw that that's still true when I took Louie to see the alternative rock band Fuel at the small Siegel Center on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University three years ago, when he was 13. He looked so fierce when he stood up with everyone else to sing along. Through the cotton balls I'd stuffed in my ears, it sounded like a shout-along, and I sat through most of it. Not because I was tired or disapproving, but because this wasn't my generation, my message of angst, my experience. It was Louie's and he was really into it, starting conversations with the mostly college students standing around him, doing that strange head-bop they like to do. "I liked being there, near the band, loud music, jumping up and down," he said later. The teenage male is a creature of few words, but I got it. He was among his people.
Louie's 16 now. He looked wistfully at promos for the Aerosmith concert in Virginia Beach, but tickets were going for more than $100, a figure way out of his reach. (The band canceled at the last minute.) "I can't afford to go to any of them," he laments about concerts. An informal survey of his friends shows the same trend. Most of them have never been to any kind of rock concert. They'd like to go, but they can't, and they know they won't be able to any time soon.
It's true that theater and other forms of live entertainment are becoming more expensive and increasingly out of reach for average Americans. But the prices of rock concerts mean kids today won't get what I had -- an early start on feeling powerful and connected, well before they head out to jobs or college.
And it's not just bad for the kids. Think of some of the biggest high-price tours this summer -- the Rolling Stones, Simon and Garfunkel. Their sold-out shows are packed with people who are old enough to pay what it takes. But these performers bought our loyalty cheap when we were 16. If today's rock stars and tour promoters don't get it, if they don't get past the MP3s and headphones and start playing venues where kids can feel personally connected with the band -- then, when they're as old as Mick Jagger there won't be crowds of middle-aged ticket buyers lining up to see them one more time. There just won't be enough people who remember what it was like to sing along with Karl Lundeberg and a few thousand of our friends.