Are concert tickets suddenly getting a little less expensive, or a lot, lot, lot pricier? The answer is... both.
We'll explain. For tickets sold during the month of June, Live Nation is waiving those always controversial "service fees" at the venues it owns and operates, which the company estimates will slice about $12-13 off the average ticket price this month, or about 20 percent off the tally of the average reserved seat. Nothing but good news there. But if you want to sit in the front rows for a big tour, expect to spend hundred of dollars more than ever before, thanks to the onset of "premium" ticket packages.
Last summer, Live Nation did a similar promotion, offering "no service fee Wednesdays" that gave the entertainment behemoth a significant boost in sales one day a week. They say it was successful in drawing back patrons who'd been turned off to concertgoing by all the additional charges that get tacked on during the checkout process—enough so that devoting an entire month to fee-lessness seemed like an even smarter way to sell out all those lawn seats this summer.
But let the buyer beware. You still have to make sure you're buying tickets for a Live Nation venue to avoid the fees. If you want to go see, for example, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine, California, you'll find that all service fees have been canceled, including the charge to print out your tickets. But if you use the Live Nation site to buy a $75 ticket for Petty at the Hollywood Bowl, which is not a Live Nation-owned venue, you'll still pay a $14 "convenience fee" and another $2.50 to print out your ticket.
So while Live Nation's list of artists included in the fee cut includes everyone from Adam Lambert to the Zac Brown Band, along with John Mayer, Tim McGraw, the Dave Matthews Band, Rihanna, the American Idol tour, Ozzfest, and hundreds of others, you still have to make sure you're buying tickets for those acts at one of the affected venues.
Is Live Nation's no-fee June for in-house shows represent panic in the concert industry, or just a good promotion? The discounting move comes too late to save some tours that have already been cancelled, like Christina Aguilera's and Limp Bizkit's, or to prevent the cancellation of individual dates on some other big outings, like the Eagles/Dixie Chicks stadium tour. But a no-service-fee promotion may give a boost some road shows that are known to have been struggling to sell advance tickets, like the Lilith Fair revival.
How can Live Nation (which merged with Ticketmaster in January) and all the major touring acts survive this act of generosity, you ask? Don't cry for them yet, Argentina. In this economy, if someone is sacrificing some profit on the low end of the ticketing scale, you can be sure they're finding new ways to make up on the higher end.
Bells and whistles aren't just for automobiles anymore. Nowadays, concertgoers are being asked to splurge for super-deluxe extras, too. Almost every major touring act is now offering mega-priced VIP ticketing, with front-of-the-house seating offers gussied up with swag like bonus posters, T-shirts, backstage buffets, and even photo ops with the stars. But at these prices, you might feel justified in wanting leather seats.
"Premium packages" span the demographic range, from upcoming tours by Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, and the Black Eyed Peas to boomer favorites like Roger Waters and Paul McCartney. Some allow you to meet the star before the show, while other packages ask you to be content with merely sitting in on the soundcheck. What they all have in common is trying to steal the high-roller market back from scalpers. And the sky's-the-limit ticket prices are justified by something ticket brokers can't throw in: Swag. Lots and lots of swag.
At some of Shakira's upcoming arena shows, for a mere $649.50 (plus service fees), you can take part in the "Shakira Meet & Greet Experience." Sounds like a theme park ride, right? What it actually entails, though, is a chance to have some sort of quick backstage contact with the star, as well as participate in a "group photograph" with her-how large a group is anyone's guess. You'll also get a laminated pass, T-shirt, numbered lithograph, unspecified "exclusive tour gift," and a $25 coupon good at her online store. And, not incidentally, a ticket in the first five rows.
That sounds like a pretty good deal compared to some even higher priced packages that offer no promise of brushes with celebrity. The $755 VIP package for Roger Waters' upcoming Wall tour does not include a meeting with the great man. (You didn't really think a guy who wrote an entire double album about walling himself off from his fans would have had that big a change of heart on mingling, did you?) However, that price does include a "first class buffet with drinks." And Shakira isn't offering to feed you, now, is she? No, she is not! The Pink Floyd frontman is only guaranteeing a ticket somewhere within the first 15 rows, but you also get a parking pass, T-shirt, numbered poster, program, and collectible pin set. This promise of a full stomach and armful of trinkets only costs about three times the normal top ticket price of $255. Come on—collectible pins, people!
Waters' extravagantly priced deal is a mere hoi-polloi package compared to offers being made for Paul McCartney's tour, where $1800-2000 will get you not just a front row seat and some pre-show chow but an invitation to watch the soundcheck. (Somebody's got to pay Heather Mills' bills, and it turns out it's going to be you.)
A recent New York Times story on the phenomenon pegged the development back to Broadway's premium ticketing, which took off when the producers of, yes, The Producers saw brokers reselling tickets for more than five times their already pricey face value and decided to get in on that action themselves. Now it's suddenly become an industry standard in the music business, too. Throwing in all the extras and calling it a "package" lets image-conscious promoters and rockers still claim that their top ticket prices are hundreds of dollars less than they really are. If you're well-off and/or only have one favorite artist you're likely to see in a year, the promise of special treatment probably sits well with you. If neither of those applies, you have yet another more reason to grumble about privileged yuppies, TicketMaster, and the spoiled artistes you used to image were populists.
Let's look at what a few of the acts hitting the road this summer are offering for your hard-earned roll of hundred dollar bills:
* Lady Gaga is offering three levels of premium pricing. The top $400 "Gold Hot Seat" includes a "level 1 reserved seat," a "pre-show disco" (with cash bar), a mystery "exclusive Lady Gaga merchandise item" (here's hoping it isn't matchsticks), and, as with virtually all of these offers, a "collectible laminate" proving to your friends that you paid a lot of money to be very important. The $210 "Little Monster Zone" ticket includes the mystery souvenir, the laminate, and early admission for the general admission floor section-meaning you're paying extra to stand in front and be afraid to lose your spot by going to the bathroom.
* Justin Bieber has two premium tiers. What preteen girl wouldn't want to spend $350 of her allowance on "My World—The Ultimate VIP Experience," which includes a reserved floor seat, admittance to the soundcheck, a preshow party, an autographed program, a gift bag, separate VIP entrance, and a "commemorative souvenir concert ticket." (Some of us are old enough to remember when a commemorative souvenir concert ticket just came with normal admission.)
* The Eagles offer $895 "five-star" ticket packages that include a seat in the first four rows, a pre-show party with dinner and drinks, an "exclusive Eagles gift," "hassle-free entrance to venue," "crowd-free merchandise shopping," the inevitable laminate, and parking. Sounds like a lot of money to have access to a merchandise sales room with no lines. But the promise of "free" drinks guarantees a lot of boomers downing as much alcohol as possible to get their 900 dollars' worth, followed by them drowning out Don Henley as they sing "Hotel California" at the top of their lungs.
* The Jonas Brothers have introduced an unusual wrinkle into this scheme: VIP lawn seats. Yes, we know, "VIP lawn" is an oxymoron, but this is not a misprint. The top VIP package, with up-front reserved seats, costs $250, but for $150, you can have early entrance and grab the best spots on the general-admission lawn while listening to the soundcheck. (Guess it beats a "VIP Listening to the Show from the Parking Lot" package, which even smarter promoters would have offered to parents.)
* Tim McGraw doesn't have a set price on his top package. The sky really is the limit in bidding for the "VIP Experience Auction," where the winners get a pre-show VIP acoustic performance, along with two seats in the first five rows and—you guessed it—"an exclusive souvenir tour laminate"!
(Is this whole trend a godsend for the lamination industry, or what?)
* The Black Eyed Peas have four levels of premium packages, each one named for a song. Package 1, "Boom Boom Pow: The Ultimate VIP Experience," goes for $522 in the cities we looked up and includes an "escorted VIP backstage tour," autographed vinyl album, a DJ set, and a pre-show party "with guest appearances by select members of the Black Eyed Peas." (Surely that means Fergie, because you know Taboo's got too much pride to pimp himself out for this, right?) Package 3 goes for $212, and is called the "Meet Me Halfway Package." Maybe they should have picked a different song title for that one, because not every guy wants to tell his date, "Yeah, honey, I sprung for the VIP tickets... the halfway-to-being-a-real-VIP tickets."
If you're wondering what some of the packages that do offer a meet-'n'-greet with the stars are going for, here are some examples... NKOTB: $395. Megadeth: $250. Scorpions: $275. (The Scorpions seem to have a particularly virulent fan base, as pretty much every VIP package we looked up on the band was sold out.) REO Speedwagon: $275. Besides Shakira, Christina Aguilera is the biggest star currently offering meet-'n'-greet photo opportunities, which go for $800... oops; scratch that.
As the New York Times noted, Bon Jovi is at the pinnacle of the gouging scale, charging their most devout fans $1,750 for the chance to take home "a black metal folding chair with a gold and cherry-red Bon Jovi logo on the cushion." That's not all: fans also got a leather bag, dinner, and a photo op with... the band's instruments.
The Times also pointed out that Rick Springfield, for a $1000 contribution, generously makes himself available before and after the show and offers a seat right on stage. Imagine how much artists could charge if there were a way to actually put the fans inside their heads, Being John Malkovich-style.
Seeing second- and third-tier artists (and, very occasionally, top-flank ones) sell access to their meet-'n'-greets brings to mind those conventions where old-time TV stars or sports legends sell their autographs, if not their pride.
An essay on the phenomenon by industry blogger Bob Lefsetz brought in some angry letters from musicians. "Isn't paying a band a lot of money to meet them a lot like prostitution?" asked Gary Zoldos of the band the Pillagers. Steve Lukather, the former guitarist for Toto, wondered: "What's next, offering a chance to insert stool-softening suppositories to your favorite geriatric rock star? This is... stupid and a total rip-off, and talk about taking ANY mystique away from an artist. Just... play and get off the stage and make the money you were supposed to get for PLAYING!"
It's hard to begrudge fans for wanting to meet their heroes. It's just that this used to be a free, if somewhat random, perk of fandom. Country music remains the last bastion, apparently, of the gratis meet-'n'-greet, where radio contest winners or fan club members get to go backstage for a quick photo op. When country stars shuck the egalitarianism and start charging for this privilege, then we'll really know it's all over. Part of Garth Brooks' whole legend was how he stayed up until the dawn signing autographs at a Fan Fair, and Taylor Swift solidified her fan base as an opening act by signing and posing with every last person who stood in line, well after the headliner was off-stage. How much less devoted would their fans be if they'd had to pay $500 or more for those 15-second interactions?
And then there's the dilemma for the rock star: You can do the paid meet-'n'-greet and risk losing your mystique or seeming to prostitute yourself. Or you can offer a VIP package but don't include a meet-n'-greet and risk coming off as too good to mingle with your fans, even when they're paying ludicrous amounts for trinkets. Or you don't do VIP packages at all, and pass up the easy money everyone else is getting-at a time when there's little or no money to be had at all from record sales for most acts. No-win situation, or what?
Let's get back to cataloging the VIP packages of summer tours. Let's click on the Ticketmaster page for Phish... Hold on. What's this? An empty space where every other act has a box promoting their premium packages. Did the band forget to set up exclusive offers for their wealthiest fans? No offers of front-section seating and multi-hundred-dollar laminates? How negligent! Well, let's see what the range of tickets is, because surely they'll find a way to gouge their followers somehow. Let's see... Highest ticket price: $50. Lowest ticket price: $50. Has to be a mistake, right?
One-price-fits-all ticketing: What a revolutionary concept. So revolutionary that, if others followed Phish's lead, it could almost bring back some of the cynics who've sworn off concertgoing forever after feeling burned by all the price-tiering and VIP exclusivity. If only it had a chance of catching on.
What do you think of VIP packages? Does the guarantee of a good seat and a lot of extras—for a price—make you more or less likely to hit the concert trail this summer? And does a month free of service fees tempt you to rejoin the ranks of concertgoers, or just make you more resentful about the add-ons the rest of the year?