The Point of No Return?
There seems to be the same conversation on every announced tour.
Ticket prices come out. Some people complain that the prices are too
high. Others compare them to bands like the Rolling Stones and say
that they’re a bargain. This argument is practically a ritual these
days. Whenever I see a post on a forum complaining about ticket
prices, I can predict the next five or six responses. Finally
someone says, "More dancing room for me," and people argue about
The assumption about ticket prices is the same one about baseball
players salaries. Everyone always complains about them, but they
keep going up. New sources of revenue will be found to cover the
expenses and inflation will still happen. There’s only one
slight problem with that theory. It wasn’t true. As any player
unfortunate to have 2003 as his free agent year will tell you,
salaries are down. Revenue has gone about as far as it can for most
teams and salaries are dropping. Yes the Yankees still have money,
but just about every other team is shedding salary.
The same thing is starting to happen with ticket prices. Sure The
Stones can get away with charging insane prices but they are drawing
from a much larger fan base. Moreover, most of the fans there are
only seeing one show, making it easier to handle the increase. The
way most jambands make money is having fans see multiple shows on a
tour. A seemingly small ticket price increase becomes much larger
when multiplied by five or ten.
Ultimately the right price of a concert ticket is what the fanbase is
willing to pay. While established bands such as Phish and "The Dead"
still are drawing well, others are having more problems. String
Cheese Incident headlined a festival at the Gorge last year that drew
quite well. Now they’re having trouble selling out the 900 seat
Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver. Even the big name that is "The Dead"
has discovered that fans’ willingness to pay has a limit if the email
I received announcing that mail order for their $81 New Year’s Eve
tickets would, "remain open until further notice," is any indication.
Why should bands care really? Don’t they get the same amount of
money if 3000 people pay $60 or 9000 people pay $20? Not really.
Not only are t shirt sales a good secondary income for bands, many are
trying to make money by selling cds of their shows. This new model
is likely to become a significant source of income for bands, but only
if there are large numbers of people who come out and see them.
Outside of the diehards who order everything, most people gravitate
towards buying the shows that they saw. If you don’t get fans in the
seats, you don’t get the secondary sales.
Another problem with the higher ticket prices is that it changes the
band/fan dynamic. A lot of jambands are selling more than a ticket
to see a few hours of music; they’re selling a concept. How many
times have you heard fans of a band go on about how this band isn’t
like all of the other musicians in the world. They really care about
their fans. Having people with that attitude creates the diehards.
People are willing to put up with a bad tour or an expensive show or
two if they buy into the concept that the band and the fanbase are in
it together. When you destroy the illusion, you are only a few bad
shows away from losing your audience.
What jambands have to remember is that most of them owe their
popularity to word of mouth. Sure "The Dead" can sell the
memories of Jerry, Phish are the new late night talk show hosts
shorthand for hippies, and Widespread Panic own the south, but that’s
because they’ve already gone through this process. Newer bands need
to see how the older bands built their base. I saw Phish so many
times in the late 80s and early 90s because they were affordable.
Tickets were in the ten dollar range with the occasional free show
thrown in as a treat. It’s much easier to rationalize seeing a band
you’ve never heard of when it’s fairly cheap. I’ve blown off quite a
bit of music lately because I just can’t afford constantly spending
$20 on people I may or may not like.
One of the great pleasures of music is to go see some random band on
a whim with little clue about what they’re about and have your jaw
drop. This is my plea to the artists and upcoming bands in our
scene. Don’t focus on what the Rolling Stones charge and figure
that you’re a relative bargain. Look at what bands on your level
charged when you were just a music fan and aim for around there. Not
only will you get more fans, but those are you draw will be much more
charitable towards your music. Remember that the reason why you
became a musician in the first place was to write great songs and have
people love them. Pursue that first and the money will follow.
Concentrate on maximizing your revenues and you might not have the
revenues to worry about.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New
Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live
music at the Capitol Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His
Phish stats website is at www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html
He is the stats section editor for
The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at