[24 July 2013]
PopMatters Music Reviews Editor
It was 6:30PM and the car’s thermometer read 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I was pulling into a parking lot at one of the preeminent outdoor venues in America, Wolf Trap, located right outside Washington, D.C. The plan was to get there, walk up to the box office, buy a ticket to see Jill Scott perform that evening, and then grab an extra pair of tickets to see Robert Plant perform a week later.
I had kept a religious eye on the venue’s website in the days leading up to the show. I would have to drive to the place directly from work—donning a suit coat, button-up shirt and slacks—pray that a heat wave wouldn’t grip an area famous for being gripped by heat waves, and battle D.C. rush hour traffic. If the box office didn’t have any tickets left, I would find someone selling extras in surrounding parking lots. I’ve seen hundreds of artists perform live before and been to what has to be a triple digit figure of concerts. Not once had I ever been to a show where I at least once didn’t hear somebody repeat loudly over a gathering crowd the word “Tickets!” or the phrase “Need one?” I had checked Wolf Trap’s website one final time, three hours before curtain, and was told the night was not sold out. This would be easy, I thought.
“So, what do we have left for tonight?” I asked the guy working the box office.
“Actually, sir,” he responded, “we’re completely out of everything for tonight.”
Fair enough. Scott typically draws well in the D.C. area, so I’ll scour the grounds for someone looking to unload an extra ticket, right? Wrong. Two hours and countless laps in 100-degree heat around a national park, nobody had anything to offer (I would later find out that Michelle Obama was in the house that night, which explained tightened security and possibly even the lack of tickets on short notice—I would imagine that if the First Lady wants to check out a show, an infinite amount of shuffling and accommodating would take precedent over offering some fat, balding white dude one more lawn seat 20 minutes before the opening act hits the stage). Dripping wet and sweating through my clothes, I began the trek back down the hill and to my car. I was angry. I was sad. I was disappointed.
Here’s the thing: I waited and waited and waited to get tickets for that show for one reason only. That reason? From the minute I found out she was coming to the area, I looked into how much tickets cost. What I found was absurd. For whatever reason, Wolf Trap’s website was not offering lawn tickets—typically the cheapest at any outdoor venue. As for the ones under the canopy, they ran from $75 to ... get ready for it ... $250. Factor in service fees (which, to be fair, aren’t nearly as bad at this place as they are elsewhere), and you’re looking at a $100 night ... as your cheapest option. Plus, I had been to Wolf Trap multiple times before, and I know how disappointing the sound quality can be from certain areas. The last thing I wanted to do, then, was blow triple digits on a ticket for a seat where the whole experience would be overshadowed by sub-par audio (and no, I’m not some type of high-brow audiophile elitist—it’s just that there really are these strange positions in that place where even someone with acutely sensitive hearing would complain about how quiet and unprofessional the music can sound).
I’ve had some luck with scalpers and venues releasing tickets late in past experiences. Just showing up is about 60 percent of the battle when it comes to live music, I’ve found. More often than not, you can find a way in, you can find a way to get your hands on a piece of paper that will allow you through the gate. Not here, though. Not this time. That night was destined for failure, and it was all because I was apprehensive about spending loads of money I don’t have for the ability to see one of my favorite singers stand in front of thousands of people and sing. I can’t imagine there being a bigger, more loyal and impassioned Jill Scott fan than I.
But ... $250 for an orchestra ticket? Come on, man.
Turns out, this is only one in a plethora of tales that live music enthusiasts have lived to share recently as ticket prices have skyrocketed and the amount of money it takes to actually go enjoy an artist perform his or her songs in the flesh has grown to unbearable heights. And it’s not just mature audiences who have to struggle with this reality. As CNN’s Lisa Respers France discovered earlier this month, even teeny-bopping babysitters have been forced to endure the high-cost craze.
“If someone in your house is mad for One Direction, get ready to lay out some serious cash,” she wrote. “The boy band tops the list of most expensive concert tickets with the average ticket costing $674.23… Acts such as the Rolling Stones price their tickets high in the primary market (Companies such as TicketMaster, Live Nation and your venue’s box office) so that the secondary ticket market (those brokers/companies that resell those tickets) can’t make as much money off of their show. So while an upper level ticket for One Direction may have originally been as inexpensive as $29.50 from a primary seller, those prices rise much higher when they are scarce and being sold in a secondary market.” (“Summer concert tickets scarce and expensive”, CNN, 11 July 2013)
I don’t buy it. Scalpers, brokers and other second-hand outlets have been around since the dawn of microphones. These are excuses, not reasons. Yeah, inflation and an evolving market had pushed the numbers upward before the advent of StubHub or Tickestub or Ticketliquidator, but that doesn’t justify asking people to pay hundreds of dollars for the ability to simply see and hear a few hours of music performance, especially for acts who aren’t even high-demand names. Again, you can’t find a more passionate Jill Scott fan than I, but let’s be honest: She’s not the Beatles.
And neither are Matchbox Twenty or the Goo Goo Dolls. Ready for this? While there are still many orchestra-level tickets available for their summer joint-tour stop in Bristow, Virginia, the costs for those seats run from $289 to (take a breath) $420. Four hundred. And twenty. Dollars. To be fair, the seats are listed as part of some type of Gold/VIP package, but you’ve got to be kidding, right? The ability to greet a few guys who write some admittedly memorable pop songs and then go home with maybe a T-shirt, photo and some signed piece of paper is not worth, say, a monthly car payment and six weeks of groceries. And I’m a Matchbox Twenty guy (Goo Goo Dolls, not so much). I was the dude sending friends mixed CDs of the band’s earlier stuff, looking to remind people that they still existed, when 2012’s North was about to come out. Yet even I can’t fathom blowing half-a-grand to stand 50 feet from a performance of “You’re So Mean”.
The worst of the bunch are acts who still have staying power. The Jay-Z/Justin Timberlake Legends of Summer tour, for example, is, in a word, ludicrous. A ticket in section C, Row 3, Seat 20 at the 4 August Hershey, Pennsylvania, stop runs $283.35. And unlike the Matchbox Twenty deal, that’s a price void of all special VIP treatment. That’s not even logical. Oh, and here’s something else worth noting: An argument could be made that the most egregious prices in the building are actually for seats that sit the furthest away from the performer. Remember—this is a stadium tour. Grabbing the worst tickets available means you won’t be able to see a thing unless you bring binoculars. And in this case, the cheapest face value price the show offers still runs $57.70. That’s almost 60 bucks to watch a concert on a television screen and hear a mix that sounds like it’s run through a hot air balloon. What’s the point?
Actually, that question becomes more and more applicable with each extra fee and each $12 beer. Why venture out to deal with obnoxious traffic, jacked up food prices and the occasional annoyingly loud malcontent who everybody who’s ever seen a show has dealt with at least once just to… watch some people play some music? The older I get, the more I begin to question how outrageous this stuff is, especially in bigger venues. Not only are the prices higher, but oftentimes, the only affordable seat in the room is the one that really does lay a hinderance upon the entire concert-going experience (which is, ironically, a lesson I learned when I drove to see the aforementioned Scott at D.C’s Verizon Center a couple summers ago—going with the only price I could afford, the seats not only obstructed my view, but they also messed with, again, the quality of the audio projected through the sound system).
At the risk or sounding either too pragmatic or too cynical, don’t forget: these are just entertainers, guys. And this is just performance art. Now, don’t get me wrong—I’ve immersed myself in music for nearly 30 years now. Everything I’ve ever done both personally and professionally, I’ve leaned on music. I’ve been in bands. I ran a record label. I’ve helped street teams. I collect vinyl. I collect CDs. I’ve been lucky enough to carve out a career that allows me to stay connected to it through the written word. Of all the passions and hobbies a person could have, I can’t imagine someone being more enthralled in anything than I have been and will always be with music.
But expecting a regular, old low-to-middle-class person to throw down piles of money just for the “privilege” of seeing your band play live is exponentially unfair (and, truth be told, it should be a “privilege” for them to even have such a lucrative, lazy line of work, anyway). The gradual increase in concert ticket prices in recent years has become, in essence, a tax on the poor. You love music, live for music, and devote your waking hours to fandom, but you work a low-paying job and have a family to support? Too bad—no live music for you. Maybe there’s an artist out there who has helped you through some abnormally traumatic circumstances life has thrown in your direction? You better figure out a way to make some extra money or there’s no way you’ll be able to afford a night with one of the most influential figures your psyche has probably ever come across.
The trend compromises one’s ability to fully benefit from all the possibilities and positive affects music can provide. It single-handedly makes a large and significant element of the art’s consumerism an impossibility to acquire. And it’s sad. It’s sad that greed gets in the way of a fundamental piece of culture that everyone is entitled to enjoy. If there are people in this world who can cure diseases and lead entire nations for salaries that are minuscule when compared with what musicians can pull in after a summer tour, there needs to be serious reconsideration of the way the concert industry is structured; there needs to be serious reconsideration of how truly relevant some of the most successful artists truly are.
It’s fashionable to criticize the banking system or corporate America for their excesses and selfishness, but who’s to say the same problem isn’t crippling an already-fractured industry founded on the utter dominance of egotism (do people really need to go off stage if they know an encore is inevitable?) and an inflated sense of self-worth? Money-hungary criminals are everywhere, sure, but at what point will people start to strike back against those who are stealing a fan’s ability to see a concert? When the prices eclipse the four-figure mark? Five-figure mark? Who knows how high they could take it.
At about 8PM, I walked back to Wolf Trap’s front gate and stood to see if I could hear the opening act well enough to consider sticking around to listen to the night’s performances from outside the venue. I couldn’t. Unbeknownst to me, there was a small crowd of other hopeful attendees who were told that tickets were still available even when they weren’t. Almost instantaneously, a woman decked out in high fashion, what looked like an expensive haircut and ginormous-sized sunglasses walked past me, saying the following to her date, ticket in hand, ready to enter the facility: “I’m not even a real Jill Scott fan. I don’t even really like her.”
I had to chuckle at the irony of the situation, if only to hold back the tears that wanted to spill from my eyes. Then, before leaving for good, I did the only thing I could think of doing.
“So, what do you have for Robert Plant next week?” I asked the same box office attendant who turned me away about a couple hours beforehand. “What’s the cheapest you got?”