It's not as simple as you think
Vicky Greer
16:20 2nd February 2023

On a shelf in my bedroom, I have a stack of concert tickets, now repurposed as bookmarks. The oldest is from 2016 when I saw Biffy Clyro play the SSE Arena in Belfast, formerly known as The Odyssey. It was my first ever standing gig, and according to the price printed on the bottom of the ticket, it cost me £34.50.

I haven’t actually been back to the venue since; the sound quality there is average at best. But when blink-182 announced they’d be playing the same stage, I went browsing on Ticketmaster, nostalgic for my teenage years. On the venue website, it claimed that a seat at the gig will set you back between £50 and £80. But if you follow the Ticketmaster link, you’re looking at up to £220 if you go through the site's resale system.

What the hell happened?

If you’ve tried to get tickets to see Harry Styles, Coldplay or Bruce Springsteen, then you already know the answer: Ticketmaster’s new dynamic pricing system. The live music equivalent of Uber’s surge pricing when you’re trying to get home from a night out, it increases ticket prices based on demand. In the most extreme case, tickets for Bruce Springsteen’s US tour were selling for $5000.

This convoluted new system comes with a total lack of transparency. With purposefully vague phrases like “dynamic pricing” “official platinum tickets” and “fan-to-fan resale”, it’s becoming more and more difficult to know what you’re actually getting. Here’s how Ticketmaster describes their Platinum Tickets:

“These tickets vary in price driven by demand from fans, similar to airline tickets and hotel rooms. By using this dynamic pricing, we give fans an opportunity to safely buy official tickets for the events they love right up to the date of the show.”

Although they sound special, these platinum tickets don’t include any VIP treatment. It’s essentially an alternative to Viagogo or StubHub, without actually saving the consumer any money. On the Ticketmaster resale system, fans “cannot resell a ticket for more than they originally paid on our Ticket Exchange”. But since these are fetching up to £250 at the aforementioned blink show, it’s proof that face value is pricing out more and more people.

"...bad news, your favourite artist takes at least some of the responsibility for these decisions"

Ticketmaster themselves claim that these high prices discourage scalpers and touts, meaning that more money goes to them and the artist. But in this war against touts, fans are getting caught in the crossfire. Instead of buying overpriced tickets from resale sites, they’re buying overpriced tickets from the source. And with that, the live music industry becomes less and less accessible. Yes, we have the argument that boosting the prices helps to recover the loss of income during lockdowns, but really, how much damage did the pandemic do to the bank accounts of artists like Harry Styles, Coldplay or Bruce Springsteen?

The gut reaction is to place the blame firmly on corporations like Ticketmaster and Live Nation, or on record labels and management. But bad news, your favourite artist takes at least some of the responsibility for these decisions. After all, there are plenty of examples of artists who have capped their ticket prices to keep their concerts accessible to as many people as possible. This exists across the live music industry, from smaller independent venues to massive arenas.

Up-and-coming artist Caity Baser made a recent statement on Twitter about capping her ticket prices at £15 for her UK tour this Spring. In a video, she said: “I know times are hard for all of us right now and I don’t want a gig to be something that people can’t afford to go to.”

On the other side of the spectrum, it was revealed that The Cure’s Robert Smith was personally involved with ticket pricing for their recent 46-date arena tour which took them across Europe. In an interview with their time for IQ, several promoters spoke about Smith’s insistence that ticket prices should be lowered  as well as “neatly structured rather than appearing to be haphazard from the fans’ point of view.”

Independent, grassroots venues offer a break from this money-centred attitude that’s dominating the live music industry, but it’s costing them. Gigwise spoke to Ricky, the head of booking and promotions at The Joiners in Southampton since 2012. The Joiners is one of the UK’s oldest independent venues, celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. Ricky books and promotes shows across 6 venues in the city.

In my time going to Joiners-run events in Southampton, I’ve never been charged more than £20. “We work with the agents, the management and the record label closely,” he says of their ticket prices. “I try to keep it as low as we can, especially now because people don’t have the money.” In fact, they’ve even started setting tickets aside at each show to give out free for NHS workers. “We’re on the ground, working-class people, so I just wanted to help people out.”

Everyone lost money during the pandemic. But the difference between independent venues like The Joiners and huge corporations like Ticketmaster is that the grassroots venues are still putting the customers first. Even though the cost of living crisis has increased their bills by 400%, they’re doing everything in their power to keep twenty quid the absolute maximum that you’ll pay for a night’s entertainment.

In an ideal world, the greed that we’re seeing from these huge corporations would turn more people towards smaller venues to get their live music fix. However, Ricky explains, this trend is having a much more negative knock-on effect on grassroots venues: “If you buy a surged ticket for £100 then you have no money as a gig-goer to go to your local show in Southampton. The knock-on effect of that happening in every city means it’s another thing that diminishes our shows.”

“The big bands and the big promoters do not care about anything beneath them,” he adds.

For people to put their money into independent venues, there needs to be a culture shift in our mindset towards live music. That’s where Independent Venue Week comes into play, says Ricky: “We’re trying to shine a light on these smaller bands and these smaller shows but also shine a light that that band could be the next 1975.”

"Drawing attention to this growing inaccessibility will encourage more artists to take responsibility for their concerts and opt out of profit-pushing surge pricing systems..."

Indeed, 10 years before they were At Their Very Best, The 1975 played a 200-capacity gig at the Joiners. As did Ed Sheeran, Green Day, PJ Harvey and Arctic Monkeys. Simply put, if we don’t invest in our small venues, there won’t be anyone to play in the arenas.

There’s no quick fix for the ticketing crisis that we’re seeing across the country these days. It’s a lot to expect fans to boycott large-scale gigs entirely, and the responsibility should be placed on the people in charge of ticket prices. Drawing attention to this growing inaccessibility will encourage more artists to take responsibility for their concerts and opt out of profit-pushing surge pricing systems. In the meantime, give your local venues a chance; you’ll save a fortune and support more ethical practices - and there’s a decent chance you’ll discover the Next Big Thing.

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