‘Grit and Gravel’ is a Glass column that delivers you the daily dialogue you hear circling around your social cliques. Alike friendly discussion, it offers holistic opinions to better understand this strange life that we live.
This edition is about the deliberation of concert ticket purchases and what determines a ‘good’ concert experience.
It’s been hard to avoid the open floodgates of the last week of June. The lady next to me at the hairdressers had her phone in her lap, loading the queue screen. Instagram accounts I follow reported their utter hatred for their five desktop Ticketek waiting screens, that seem to show no signs of refreshing. Two girls in the changeroom beside me discussed the dilemma of having to sell one of their tickets.
Taylor Swift has been a star for longer than most current high school students have been alive. Fans will go through every pocket in their wardrobe in hopes of finding loose change and will even throw crystals at their loading screens for luck (yes, this is an actual account from a friend of mine) for a chance to see the global musician. They did with Harry Styles. BLACKPINK. Billie Eilish. Swift is not the only one to put an expensive price tag on their concert tickets – and she certainly won’t be the last.
Concert experiences have drastically changed the way we interact with artists and their discographies. They’ve manoeuvred in a direction that focuses more on lavish shows and spectaculars that feel somewhat exclusive. But with that comes a price – and what do you exactly get from $1249.90? Searching through the VIP packages, I found they were all relatively the same except for an allocated section of the arena.
This, dear reader, leads me to ask: what makes a concert worth thousands of dollars in some scenarios, and are we truly receiving an experience that could possibly match that value?
Let’s go back in time. Concert tickets have not always been expensive, but many musical events historically catered to the wealthy. The 1800s saw tours showcasing the best there was at piano solos, orchestral groups, and operas. These events were reserved for aristocrats and the emerging middle class from the Industrial Revolution. The higher the ticket prices, the less likely working-class citizens were able to purchase a chance to hear live music. By catering to affluent patrons, concerts became an avenue for artists to support themselves financially. These musicians were considered the first superstars of music; Jayson Kerr Dobney, curator of musical instruments at The Metropolitain Museum of Art, described this transformation of status as a transition “from servant to demigod.”
More recently, ticket prices have soared. A study conducted by Terrance Tompkins in his 2018 analysis of Ticket Pricing in the Primary and Secondary Concert Marketplace found that concert tickets since 1975 have risen faster than inflation, increasing at an all-time 88% between 2005-2017. These dramatically increasing prices have created a lack of accessibility, and further division between social classes. It begs the question, if we can’t afford to see our favourite artists perform, is the concert experience returning to a form of social gatekeeping?
This cannot be said for all artists though. Singers who have smaller followings keep to their obtainable prices due to small audiences and venues. I paid $80 to see Arlo Parks and Wolf Alice in two separate performances at The Tivoli in 2022; both were intimate experiences where the artists took centre-stage and led their audience with their small music crew.
Maybe this is a factor as to why, while wanting their favourite small artist to ‘blow up’, fans hope their new discovery doesn’t make it mainstream – because they will lose their accessibility. What comes to mind is the 1993 interview with Nirvana, where the band find out that in comparison to their $17 charge for tickets (worth $52 AUD nowadays), other artists at the time were asking for anywhere between $50 to $75 ($158 to $236 AUD).
While ticket prices aren’t always up to the artists themselves, their name is being used as branding; ‘Taylor Swift’ as an act is the product being sold for hundreds, or sometimes thousands, of dollars.
One of the leading causes of skyrocketing prices is the increase of scalpers and secondary market resellers. The infamous Ticketmaster crash in the U.S. last year resulted in scalpers charging up to $30,000 USD for a ticket to Swift’s Eras Tour, and we’ve experienced a similar situation back home. An Australia ticket reselling site, Viagogo, was found to be selling Eras Melbourne tickets for $3,114 – a 249% increase from our friendly $1249.90 VIP package. These dealers significantly increase the price and fans willingly pay those prices. This means that artists level the pricing to what fans are actually willing to pay. It’s an attempt to avoid exploitation from fraud accounts that will resell tickets for a profit.
Of course, artists make a profit from all ticket sales – usually about half the sale price. But this also gets split with the other costs that incur with touring. We must also remember that Swift makes her money in USD, and with the weakness of the Australian dollar, the prices of tickets will often be raised to compensate for their revenue; a not-so-small price to literally pay.
So, by asking for cheaper tickets, does that mean we are also asking for less theatrics? What I believe gets swept under the rug is the cost of everything that makes up the show –visuals, sound, technology, additional performers. For an artist performing 44 songs in three and a half hours with ten costume changes, it’s a pretty good show for what you’re paying. It’s the creative intention of the artist’s show that we are paying for, and along with that is set design.
Traveling internationally with huge set pieces isn’t cheap and doesn’t always go to plan. This was evident in the stage design of The 1975’s Australian leg. From the hill of the Riverstage, my friends and I could see that what should’ve been a set depicting a two-story house built on to the stage was now just one-story, possibly due to expenses or trouble with transportation. From the looks of the Sydney and Melbourne floor plans, however, Swift seems to be bringing all the elements that make up the physical build of her tour.
Is anyone doing something about affordability though? To some degree, yes. Artists themselves have helped to decrease prices. Pearl Jam once partnered with Ticketmaster to create an online marketplace for fans to resell tickets with no additional fees and without profit. But nothing lasting seems to have altered prices to become more affordable and accessible.
At the end of the day, what fans are paying for is a piece of valuable time with their favourite artist, and an opportunity many feel is worth experiencing. But not everyone can afford the privilege. Spending thousands of dollars on tickets may not be the best expense to pay at a time of economic instability, rising cost of living, and the ever-growing inflation crisis. And simply put, obtaining Taylor Swift tickets is overwhelming. My unsuccessful attempt of claiming a seat or standing section at either Sydney or Melbourne might mean putting $1000 back in the pockets of jackets found in my wardrobe, but what I’ve lost is not in money but in an experience.
In recent years we have learned a new appreciation for concerts and performances – one of which has been there from the very beginning. An acoustic rendition of your favourite song; the introductory visuals and set coming to life before the artists you’ve listened to since adolescent years steps out on to stage; intimate moments with musicians conversing with a whole stadium that feels like a conversation only you will get to truly experience out of every fan in the entire world – these moments are what I am reminded and speak to the importance of live music. It is the reason that I, like everyone, love live gigs – to hear songs and artists in their purest and rawest form.
Even considering the costs, thousands of fans have flocked to Ticketek and resellers regardless of price. So obviously there is something worth considering with live music. And it is without a doubt that the concert scene in Australia will be altered once again after February 2024. While a select few will hear Swift’s music in person, other fans will be blasting Cruel Summer in their homes in a state of delirium. What we are now left to question is what the future of ticket sales will cost, and as artists climb charts, will their tickets grow beyond what we can afford?
Matilda Lees is a writer and filmmaker living on Yugambeh country (Gold Coast) studying film and creative writing at Queensland University of Technology. Tending to think too much about society and the way we live, her practice is influenced by just that and often explores the human experience, alignment and intimacy, and nostalgia in all its twisted being. If you require her attention, simply mention Greta Gerwig, Sally Rooney, Mona Awad, or Sylvia Plath in your conversations.