Scalping Hannah Montana

[12 October 2007]

By Rob Horning

Is the culture industry responsible for democratizing better access to the celebrities it manufactures in the mass media? Or to put that more plainly, should every kid have just as much of a chance of seeing Hannah Montana live as they do of seeing her on the Disney channel or hearing her sing on the radio? In the Financial Times yesterday, John Gapper analyzed the problem of ticket brokers cornering the market in Hannah Montana tickets, which are apparently as highly demanded as Tickle Me Elmos and Cabbage Patch Dolls were in their day.

So popular is the show with tweens that the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus tour is a red-hot ticket. Tickets with a face value of up to $64 each are selling for an average of $232 on StubHub, an internet trading site. That is higher even than average secondary prices for the Bruce Springsteen and The Police tours, although the latter charged up to $250 per ticket.
Fair enough, you may think. Companies such as Google initially set the price for shares in IPOs and from then on the secondary market decides. When demand outstrips supply, prices rise. The same goes for bands: they sell tickets at face value through a distributor (in this case Ticketmaster). Prices then fluctuate on secondary sites such as StubHub.
But thousands of parents who failed to snag Hannah Montana tickets from Ticketmaster are not so phlegmatic. Nor are the attorneys-general of Arkansas, Connecticut, Missouri and Pennsylvania. They are apoplectic.

Is equal access to a pop star who appeals across the classes to children of all income brackets a standard of fairness that mass media generates, along with the illusion of equality that the quasi-egalitarian nature of wide distribution evokes? Because so many have access to celebrities in the media, consumers may develop the expectation that access to them is an entitlement, and ever more intrusive coverage of celebrities would seem to only enhance that expectation. In line with that expectation, promoters set the prices at a rate that they think demonstrates their intentions of making them affordable for middle-class fans (whom they don’t want to alienate), but this only prompts ticket brokers to buy as many as they can and resell them. As Gapper explains, “The courts have not yet decided whether these tactics are illegal or merely unpleasant. It clearly puts Ticketmaster at a disadvantage to banks that allocate shares to investors in IPOs because it has lost control of who gets scarce tickets.”

The notion of fairness embedded in free-market economics would require that we let markets determine the value of things by letting prices rise in order to find the equilibrium between supply and demand. This rids us of “artificial” constraints, and lets whoever wants something badly enough (desire being measured by a willingness to spend) get it. But when you don’t have money to spend, you can’t express desire through a willingness to spend it. Instead, you have to express it by either (a) working hard to get more money, or (2) complaining to authorities who might then intervene in markets on your behalf. Thus, parents want to force tour promoters to restrict access to tickets, so that more non-brokers have the ability to buy them at face value, which the secondary market proves are far too low.

Markets are often regarded as inherently democratic in the way they bring goods to more and more consumers and allow consumer-citizens to feel they have the same rights because they shop in the same store. But the prevalence of abundant,  quasi-democratically distributed goods tends to make the demand even more fierce for positional goods, and what the frenzy over Hannah Montana tickets suggests is that they have become, essentially, as much a positional good as oceanfront property. What makes them valuable is the very fact that not every kid can have one, and kids may be learning very early not merely the hard lesson of scarcity’s effect on prices, as Gapper suggests, but the peculiar excitement of winning the snob game of having something other people want—as well as the corollary notion that it’s more important to have something others envy than something you personally enjoy. In fact, kids may not be too young to absorb the cynical idea that they should condition their own preferences in accordance to those of their peers. It’s never too early to learn that only the very naive can believe that their tastes are wholly their own.

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