Get out your wallet — or, better yet, don’t: The music subsidiary industries of live venue ticket sales and satellite radio are here to give you a lesson in economics. It was news recently when ticket agent monolith Ticketmaster shuttled consumers seeking Bruce Springsteen tour tickets immediately to a “secondary arm,” which in this case means aftermarket, or, to be more blunt, scalping. The turnaround from viable public sale to resale was an estimated 15 seconds, an impossible speed for the average concertgoer to have broken through to obtain tickets. The whiff of stink indicates that Ticketmaster concocted this scam to get the tickets immediately to the secondary market, where they could charge whatever the market would bear. 100 percent markup? 500 percent markup?
Springsteen wasn’t at all happy about it and made his displeasure public. Afterward, a whole raft of complaints came in, not just for the Springsteen incident but for Britney Spears tickets, summer festival tickets, and a whole host of gouged events. Wouldn’t any other company out there compete head-to-head with Ticketmaster to bring tickets back down to the common strata? Well, maybe LiveNation would be our savior! Well, sure, until it was announced that LiveNation was seeking to merge with Ticketmaster, forming what could only be described as a monopoly on the ticket agency market. Pre-merger, we have seen even modest summer events ticketed at a starting rate of $100 for nosebleed seating. What the post-merger business holds in store is just about unthinkable, and in a poor economy where such entertainment distractions would be welcomed, this seems like a suicidal business practice.
Well, if we can’t rely on businesses to be responsible, or at the very least realistic, we can expect the US government to intercede and not allow such shifty unions to take place, if only for the sake of the public trust, right? Think back to the days when our governance said things like, “We cannot allow XM Satellite Radio to merge with Sirius. They’re the only game in town. To wed them is to subject their customers to all manner of pricing abuses.” Not long thereafter, the two joined forces anyway because, in matters such as these, the merger almost always goes through. And now it looks like XM/Sirius is on the brink of bankruptcy. Are these events related?
Back in the infancy of satellite radio, there was a cry of disdain — how can you expect the public to buy into paying for radio after having free access for years? Signal quality is a selling point and, undeniably, digital radio sounds a lot better than standard airwave broadcasting. Censorship is another point, in that because you pay for the usage, you assume the liability of offense, so the codes of “morality and decency” are waived, much like cable television. This was a big plus for Howard Stern, one of the first truly big stars to gravitate to satellite. He famously berated the fans who refused to follow him over, calling them all manner of slurs now that the station he was on (being his very own) would never muzzle him.
The irony of this is that if XM/Sirius goes into protection, the company will continue, but they’ll have to sever the relationships with their expensive on-air talent, including a certain Howard Stern. So much for his fanbase being short-sighted and cheap. If protection can’t save the enterprise, both companies will go down as one, but it seems inevitable anyhow. The iPod can be jacked into every new model vehicle, providing an instant digital playlist with a one-time purchase cost. The Internet is fast becoming a car option too, and that could signal the ascendancy of Internet radio as the final rusty nail in the XM/Sirius coffin.
Could the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation do to ticketing what the merger of XM and Sirius has done for, and to, satellite radio? Possibly. Last year, movie theaters equipped with digital presentation struck gold with a little film called Hannah Montana: Best of Both Worlds Concert. A one-time filmed event, the movie was presold at theaters like a concert for a fraction of the cost of a standard live show. Disney, long known for going to the well seven times too many, will do it again this year with the Jonas Brothers. Last year found the Who, U2, and even the Metropolitan Opera dabbling with digital, and why not? With digital 3D technology, movies are coming closer to live events visually, only with better views of the stage, crystal-clear audio, and, one more time, at only a sliver of the cost. If you are an artist of stature, what sounds more appealing — touring the world and dealing with the expense, load-in and out, and the logistics of the rock ‘n’ roll caravan, or putting up a single show, focusing the budget on the best aspects, never having to go far from home and still “visiting” venues around the globe?
I personally have a love/hate relationship with live music. When the artist wants to be there, to put on a great show and the audience is receptive, the ticket price isn’t really an issue. Believe it or not, I would recommend a “Weird Al” Yankovic concert to anyone, even non-fans, for the amount of commitment he brings to every show. However, if the artist’s heart isn’t in it, the results can be disastrous. Compound that with poor audio presentation, lousy seating, the drunk behind you spitting beer on you has he “sings along,” the stoner with the “It’s 4:20 Somewhere!” t-shirt lighting his skunky bud next to you, and the air-guitar ass that won’t sit the hell down in front of you, even free tickets aren’t worth the trouble. In a depressed economy, the staging costs are much more likely to be scrimped on, the patrons may be more prone to numbing their conscious brain with weed and watery brew to forget the bills they’re jeopardizing to be there and, long and short, bad experiences may be more norm than exception this season. With that criteria in mind, my ticket-shopping experience this year will different; I might forego the concert scene altogether. Will others follow suit? We shall see.
For now, the methods of delivery for music are changing, and there isn’t much to change it. Musicians, facing diminished returns on music sales via the glut of illegal downloading, find it necessary to play out to continue, but if their shows are priced out of the realm of the reasonable, that pond will go dry just as soon. We will wait, watch, and wonder how much pull the Boss actually has in his chosen field. We’ll see if Howard Stern retires from his show or crawls back repentantly to the “cesspool of standard broadcasting.” Above all, whatever goes down, we’re certainly gonna pay through the nose for it.