No question about it, 2022 was a curious year in live music. On the one hand, pop stars such as Elton John, Harry Styles and Ed Sheeran piled up outrageous statistics. According to Billboard Boxscore, the top 10 tours grossed a total of US$2.2-billion in ticket sales, representing a 36-per-cent increase over the numbers from prepandemic 2019.
But if 2022 was a feeding frenzy on the road, it was only the top of the food chain that ate well. Mid-level artists struggled to turn profits as touring costs skyrocketed because of inflation and equipment scarcity. Small concert promoters in Canada who spoke to The Globe and Mail say their ticket sales have dropped perilously because hesitant fans have not returned to their pre-COVID levels of live-music consumption.
Meanwhile, though concert promotion leader Live Nation Entertainment, Inc. said it enjoyed its biggest summer concert season in history, the company also experienced a public-relations nightmare this fall when an unprecedented demand to attend Taylor Swift’s coming Eras Tour crashed the website of ticket merchant Ticketmaster.
Because of that fiasco and because of complaints by fans about expensive seats and service charges, Ticketmaster’s parent company Live Nation has drawn the attention of some U.S. Congress members, who accuse it of monopolistic practices.
Never has a great year felt so bad. What’s worse, we can probably expect more of the same problems for 2023. Industry experts, however, have suggestions on how to change the system.
Rein in Ticketmaster
Oklahoma country artist Zach Bryan is a U.S. Navy veteran who is firing all torpedoes at Ticketmaster these days. After posting a statement on social media last month drawing attention to a “massive issue with fair ticket prices to live shows lately,” he released an album called All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster (Live at Red Rocks).
Ticketmaster, which merged with Live Nation to form Live Nation Entertainment in 2010, is taking a lot of broadsides. John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, strongly admonished the company last spring for its “horrible” business practices, and, this fall, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted a “daily reminder that Ticketmaster is a monopoly, its merger with Live Nation should never have been approved, and they need to be reined in.”
However, despite, what Bryan and his homies apparently believe, Ticketmaster shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. It is the artist who sets the face value of their tickets – not the promoter, venue or any ticket platform.
“Fans never, ever want to blame their favourite artists,” says veteran Canadian music publicist Eric Alper. “But the villain is not Ticketmaster or Live Nation.”
The artists receive the lion’s share of the money from ticket sales. If they were willing to accept less guaranteed money from their promoter – as Bryan says he will on a future tour – ticket prices would theoretically go down. But while Swift has some wiggle room on how much she charges, the smaller-fish artists and independent concert promoters don’t have that luxury at a time when road costs are spiralling out of control.
“Touring has never been more expensive,” says Jon Weisz, founder of Indie Montreal, a music management and promotion company. “When you look at gas prices, van rentals and hotels, everything has gone up.”
One of the revenue streams enjoyed by promoters and venues is the service fees and handling charges tacked onto the ticket price, which typically increase the final cost of the ticket by double-digit percentages. The sticker shock is a bane to music fans, and it should be dealt with, says Dean Budnick, co-author of the 2011 book Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped. “I believe that people should be made fully aware when they purchase the ticket exactly how much the end cost is going to be.”
More and more, those extra charges are being revealed up front. A sample ticket to see Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage next summer is listed on Ticketmaster’s website at a final cost of $126 ($104 for the seat and $22 for fees, including taxes.)
Budnick believes the extra charges are out of control. “I think there should be a hard cap on service fees, and I think there should be some transparency on where that money is going,” he says. “That would make things a little more palatable for consumers, I believe.”
That transparency could involve a breakdown of what the extra charges cover (order processing fees, facility charges, delivery price, taxes) and who exactly is getting the money (venues, promoters, ticket processors).
Stop dynamic pricing and scalp the scalpers
Because of inflation and supply-chain issues, the cost of putting on concerts has increased notably since 2019. Those costs are typically passed onto the consumer. What’s annoying those consumers, though, is scalping (tickets sold at prices above face value on secondary markets such as StubHub, by street hawkers and Ticketmaster’s own verified resale program) and something called “dynamic pricing,” based on the supply and demand at the moment of purchase. It’s also known as “surge pricing,” familiar to anyone who buys airline tickets and uses ride services such as Uber.
Bruce Springsteen, the “tramps like us” superstar considered to be a man of the people, upset his fanbase by employing dynamic pricing for his upcoming tour. When tickets went on sale this summer, choice seats fetched upwards of US$5,000. In response to the furor over the rollout, Ticketmaster issued a statement clarifying that only a small percentage of seats were subject to variable pricing, and that 88.2 per cent of the tickets were sold at set prices ranging from US$59.50 to US$399.
Critics see dynamic pricing as exploitative and decidedly unfriendly to true blue fans who can barely afford a head of lettuce, let alone $568.26 ($495.00 plus $73.26 in fees) for a high-end seat to see Shania Twain at Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome in May. Proponents say that dynamic pricing is simply a supply-and-demand proposition, and that if the artists don’t take that cash from ticket buyers, the secondary markets – essentially legalized scalping – will.
Secondary markets have thrived because of the internet. No longer is scalping the domain of the street-corner dude selling Steely Dan seats on the sly. Instead, an average Joe from Moose Jaw can buy a ticket online to a Toronto show for the sole purpose of flipping it. Worse, sophisticated computer programs – known as bots – scoop up prime seats instantaneously.
Ticketmaster has pledged to battle the bots, but as long as authorities show an unwillingness to crack down on scalping, there’s only so much that can be done. Budnick, who calls the online resellers “invaders,” suggests geo-blocking the distribution of tickets, which means limiting sales based on geographic location, using the ticket-buyer’s IP address. “It might lessen the pressure on the system, and lessen the mania when it comes to Taylor Swift concerts.”
One way to make concerts more accessible would be to stream more performances live. We saw a lot of it during the early stages of the pandemic (ranging from Justin Beiber streaming a Paris concert free on YouTube to Gordon Lightfoot performing a virtual concert from Toronto’s El Mocambo for US$49.99), but the frequency dropped off with the return of in-person concerts.
Still, there’s been an uptick lately when it comes to marquee artists. Last year, Adele performed on NBC, a Taylor Hawkins tribute event was shown live from London’s Wembley Stadium on Paramount+ and MTV’s YouTube channel, and Elton John’s farewell concert from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles was livestreamed on Disney+.
Building on the streaming model, concerts could be beamed into bars and theatres – not just computer screens and Smart TVs – for a more communal experience. “You’d want to put the shows on as many screens as possible,” says Cisco Adler, founder and CEO of the concert streamer NoCap.
Coachella promoter Goldenvoice has partnered with NoCap to present live events to a global audience, and Amazon Prime Video recently introduced a new weekly livestreamed concert series called Amazon Music Live.
Adler is bullish on beamed-in concerts but predicts the growth of the medium will be slow. “The pillars of the music industry are overly protective of the status quo.”
Taking things local
According to concert data provider Pollstar, Latin rapper Bad Bunny’s shows grossed US$393.3-million worldwide in 2022. Mid-level musicians, however, were happy to break even on the road. “Artists had accepted offers from the year before at a certain price, not knowing touring costs were going to skyrocket,” says Kingston, Ont., promoter Virginia Clark.
While Live Nation prospered with its arena concerts and amphitheatre shows, smaller independent venues and promoters, particularly outside of major cities, took the hit. “Ticket sales are way, way down from what they were before the pandemic,” says Indie Montreal’s Weisz.
Clark and Weisz estimate a decrease of 25 per cent in ticket sales for smaller shows in 2022, which doesn’t count the alarming number of no-shows by people who did purchase tickets. And that affects a venue’s bottom line in more ways than one: “If they don’t actually make it to the venue, they’re not drinking beer and they’re not eating nachos,” Weisz says.
If the situation doesn’t change, artists will be forced to tour less and play more locally – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The hope is that local scenes will thrive, and cheaper, unconventional performance spaces will be utilized.
Industry leaders in that area are indie musician Dan Mangan and Halifax-based music industry veteran Laura Simpson. They are the founders of Side Door Access Inc., a platform that connects artists with alternative venue spaces – churches, libraries, even condo common spaces – for self-promoted shows with low overhead and a higher return of investment for the musicians.
For Simpson, the trend to go small and local can’t catch on too soon. “I think there’s a huge threat to how artists can survive now,” she says. “I just don’t see the revenue streams.”
Government grants during the pandemic have been instrumental in the survival of venues but it is not a long-term solution, according to Clark, who manages The Grad Club in Kingston. “What’s happening now is going to have an effect on us for quite a while. It’s a scary situation.”