The Truth About Ticketing

By  Steve Warden

Stephen Warden 2
STEVE WARDEN has been in music for more than 40 years, as a writer, broadcaster, artist manager and producer.

I promoted my first concert when I was 14. It was my junior high school dance, and as co-president of our student council, booked (for I believe $250) future CBS Records act Harlequin, led by bass player Ralph James, who’d later become (and still is) Nickelback’s bombastic booking agent.

A few years later, as (mis)manager of one of Canada’s first new wave bands, the Fuse, we were selling out clubs and auditoriums and curling rinks all over Western Canada. Even though we didn’t – criminally, I contend – have a record deal. So, I learned a few things about selling tickets, including the fact that not everyone who wanted one got one.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m writing and radio-ing about music, and I start to meet all kinds of movers and shakers who know a bit about touring and the music business: Bruce Allen, legendary manager of BTO, Loverboy, Bryan Adams and later Michael Bublé. Peter Grant. The Peter Grant, who broke all the rules (and maybe a few noses) as manager of Led Zeppelin. A few of us prairie boys telephoned (or did we fax?) U2 manager Paul McGuinness in Dublin when their first album came out, and we wanted to know what he and the band were planning. Turned out it was only world domination.

Then came a period of travelling around and interviewing pretty much a who’s who of rock, producing a behind-the-scenes series on a U2 tour, and eventually some (actual) artist management. I signed a super-talented soul/R&B artist named Remy Shand to Universal/Motown. He made a timeless album that went platinum and got four Grammy nominations (and is actually being reissued on vinyl any day now), and we toured all over Canada, the U.S. and Europe. After that I made a music TV series called “Spectacle.” Elvis Costello was the host, Elton John was our producing partner, and it featured an incredible, eclectic line-up of guests, from Norah Jones and the Police to Springsteen and Smokey Robinson. The point of all this shameless name-dropping is that I have been around the block in the music biz, privileged to work with the best of the best, and see up close what it takes to make it on that level, put on extraordinary live shows and sustain a career over time. In brief? It’s fucking hard.

So when I see – on what is now a daily, if not hourly, basis – screed after misinformed screed about how unfair concert tickets and the procuring of them has become, I feel like some context might be helpful.

The refrain of the howls usually comes down to this: “Why can’t I get a ticket to any show I want and why are they so expensive?”

Well, babes – and I realize this will not come as a revelation to some of you, but apparently it needs amplification – there’s this economic concept known as supply and demand, and also this system we live in called capitalism.

When a superstar music act comes to town it’s like the Super Bowl for fans of that artist. That’s how special a big-time concert is, especially in these post-pandemic times. Not every fan is going to get in. Just as not every football fan actually gets to go to the Super Bowl. That’s just math. And market forces are going to come into play when it comes to the price of the tickets. They’re going to start relatively expensive and get even more so when speculators get their hands on them. It’s not nefarious or mystifying. (OK, maybe when it comes to bots and scalpers it is.) But mostly It’s how things work in a free market predicated on profit.

Is it frustrating? Of course. (By the way, devices and technology add a particularly infuriating layer of rage when you don’t get what you want – ever notice that? Maybe instead of surfing the web at home in our pajamas, we’d prefer to go back to camping on the concrete outside arenas in the rain, queuing for paper tickets?) Top tier entertainment and sports events are luxury experiences, and sadly we’re not all entitled to enjoy them whenever we want. Just as most of us are not in a position to book a suite at the Four Seasons or fly first class to Dubai or buy a Bentley on a whim. Is it fair? I don’t know. What is fair? (Read a book on behavioural economics sometime – the intersection of money and human psychology is a fascinating corner.) The reality is there are 8 billion people on the planet and when Taylor Swift or the Rolling Stones or Beyoncé goes on tour, demand easily exceeds supply by a factor of 100-1 or more. There is no mechanism – or algorithm  – known to man (or woman) that can solve that equation, never mind make things “fair.”

I’ve never met a great artist who doesn’t want to get paid. Well. And so they should. Because the greats are rare. Special. Amazing at what they do. They’re the LeBrons, Messis and Mickelsons of music. And those guys make, what – $50-100 million a year? Plus endorsements. With very little overhead to worry about. No trucks full of expensive gear and production, and no crews of 100 or more to feed and move around the world in hotels and planes. None of that. Just show up in a private jet and put on a cap, a jersey, maybe some sponsored sneakers. Doesn’t work like that in music.

And don’t get me started on the tech bros and Silicon Valley VCs. They make the sports icons and entertainers look like paupers. Shall we compare Mark Zuckerberg or Marc Andreessen or Elon Musk’s net worth to Bruce Springsteen’s? Yes, the Boss might be rather rich now – but he’s 73! He’s been busting his ass on the road for half a century, and he’s one of the greatest live entertainers of all time! He’s written songs and made records that are literally the soundtracks to millions of people’s lives. And he’s probably only worth 1/100th of those tech dudes, who are all decades younger, by the way. Who’s made the more meaningful contribution to humanity? Or worked harder for his money? (The bulk of which, in Springsteen’s case, is from the recent sale of his entire life’s work – his songs and recordings.)

Where would we be without music and all the great artists who make it? Yet over the past 20 years we’ve been mostly just fine with music being utterly
devalued via digital. All the songs in the world are just floating out there in the ether to be downloaded, pirated or streamed on an app for a few measly dollars a month. To most people today, music has essentially been reduced to something that is or should be free. Relative to its place in our hearts, minds and culture, it deserves a much better shake. (As ubiquitous as music is, the book business is 3x recorded music and gaming utterly dwarfs it in overall revenues.)

Huge global concert tours are complicated, expensive and risky. And hard bloody work for all involved. I’m old enough to remember U2, Madonna and Rolling Stones tours that actually lost money or just scraped by, barely breaking even, or each member of the band getting a cheque for a few thousand dollars after 18 months on the road. If they were lucky. Paul McGuinness famously said that if not for T-shirt sales, Zoo TV – one of the greatest tours of all time – would have been a financial disaster.

In the current climate, this will not be a popular thing to say, but a case can be made that the big promoters and yes even, in some ways, the whipping boy that is Ticketmaster have made it possible for the most talented, beloved entertainers on the planet (and their amazing crews) to do what they do best at scale, get properly paid for their labor and deliver once-in-a-lifetime moments to the masses.

Absent the investments/gambles and innovations of the large players who now dominate the industry, it’s likely that many of the incredible live experiences millions of music fans have enjoyed and treasured in the last 25 years would never have happened. Would McCartney and the Stones, even U2 and Madonna, have continued to grind it out on the road if they were losing money or just breaking even, tour after tour, decade after decade? Especially when record sales had dried up? Can’t see it.

Promoters, venues and ticket-sellers make their money from things like parking, popcorn, fees and sponsorships. They also absorb most of the blows when it comes to consumer anger over ticket prices, even though those prices are ultimately decided by the artists – who keep almost all of the ticket revenue. Could the system be improved? Always. Have there been some own-goals when it comes to ticket fees and transparency? Definitely. Has the battle to reclaim revenues from scalpers been bloody, with some unfortunate collateral damage? Absolutely. Keep in mind, it’s scalping that is at the root of the explosion in concert ticket prices – which have been historically under-priced. (Classic rock superstars of the ‘70s sold tickets for as little as $5 back then, even less sometimes, content with the idea that touring promoted album sales, even though their record deals were usually a joke.)

Those money-losing tours I just mentioned? Many scalpers made more money than the superstars who headlined them. Think about that and then imagine you were Bruce or Madonna or Bono. I know what I’d think, which is – forgive me – Fuck That. If the actual market value of my tickets is thousands – which it sometimes is if there are enough people willing to pay that much – then let’s put that money in our pockets, not some parasite scalper’s with no skin in the game. I honestly don’t know how you can argue with that.

The point is, of course, nobody wants to get played for a fool, including artists. Not anymore. If brokers and dealers and tech scammers are going to get rich off  the hard work and rare talent of artists, then the artists deserve to get even richer. Again, it’s not even debatable.

This is not to say big-time sports and entertainment should be only for the rich. But we’re still in the relative early innings of trying to get a handle on the speculative/scalper conundrum – there’s a lot of experimenting going on (such as dynamic pricing) and it seems reasonable to believe more equitable/palatable solutions will evolve. That said, people will always live beyond their means when it comes to rare treats, whether they be luxury brand handbags, steaks on a Saturday, the new iPhone, or a ticket to see their favorite band (or hockey team). From what I can tell, the quest for improvement in the ticket+tour ecosystem is constant, ongoing and truly in the service of achieving an almost impossible balance: To give fans the greatest live music experiences imaginable, help artists produce those experiences all over the world, pay the acts most of the money – and make a reasonable profit while doing so.

Music. It’s a business. Like it or not. It’s a risky, complicated, even thankless business, one that most people have no understanding of.  Maybe it’s time they did.