With the cost of living crisis comes the ongoing grumbling over why tickets to live events – especially big music acts – are also at an all-time high. Speaking to those in both the music and theatre worlds, Adam England finds out how we got here, and if we can ever go back.
It’s no secret that live music is becoming increasingly expensive. If you want to see an up-and-coming band at a smaller venue you might only be £10 out of pocket – if that – but for a stadium or arena concert you could be looking at paying even into the three figures.
In September, Harry Styles fans expressed disappointment over high ticket prices and criticised Ticketmaster’s dynamic pricing model, which sees the price of tickets changing based on demand. Platinum tickets jumped to an average of £330, while even ‘regular’ tickets could be over £100. In November, Blur announced a Wembley show for 2023, but if you want a standing ticket to see the Britpop icons you’d better be willing to cough up over £100.
In the midst of the cost-of-living crisis, it’s a lot to ask anyone to pay. And there are a lot of younger people in Styles’ fanbase: they may be studying or working part-time and they, or their parents, might find it tricky to afford tickets.
And you’ve not only got the ticket – which will often come with processing fees, maybe postage if it’s a physical ticket, and ticket insurance if you’d rather the peace of mind. Add the cost of petrol and parking or public transport, maybe a hotel if you’re staying over, and if you want a pint at the gig you could be looking at £6 or £7. Paying upwards of £100 in some cases for one night is simply too much for a lot of people.
It’s the same with festivals, too. Tickets for Glastonbury rose from £265 to £335, an increase of over 25%. Granted, Glastonbury is a huge festival with some of the world’s biggest names: among the favourites to headline in 2023 are Arctic Monkeys, Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, Eminem, and Rihanna. Is £335 really bad value for three of these artists, plus myriad other big names, across a long weekend?
But while many artists and companies have been criticised, external factors like Covid-19 and Brexit have played a part in ticket prices rising.
“I think Covid has definitely played a part in price increases,” says Matt Blumberg, co-founder of Mack Events, who run popular tribute festival GlastonBARRY. “Not being able to work, run events or earn any income for nearly two years was very difficult for us and many others in the events and entertainment industry. I personally had to resort to other means of work and dipping into my savings to support the business through these times and if the lockdown had continued, eventually it wouldn’t have been viable to continue.” Mack Events, he says, was only able to survive with “very careful financial planning”, but that they aren’t out of the woods yet.
As difficult as the pandemic was, the rising price of gigs is an issue that’s been raging before COVID. Everyone knows someone older with a story about how they saw a now-legendary artist for 50p before they blew up, and indeed a 2018 report by the BBC indicated that gig ticket prices had doubled since the 1990s.
Tickets for Oasis’ legendary Knebworth show in 1996 were £22.50 – expensive for the time – and, according to the Bank Of England’s inflation calculator, equivalent to £38.93 in June 2022, when Liam Gallagher returned to Knebworth. A ticket for that cost £65 – and Robbie Williams even made a dig at the “cheap” price. Back in 2018, Arctic Monkeys fans took to social media to complain about some of their more expensive tickets being £80 each, but four years on that figure doesn’t sound too unreasonable – at least, when compared to the cost of seeing artists of a similar size at present.
Brexit is another contributing factor, with ongoing supply chain issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. People working in trucking, for example, might be more inclined to stay in continental Europe to avoid extra paperwork and delays – to the detriment of the UK’s live music industry.
Speaking to the Guardian in October, the Association Of Independent Festivals’ then-CEO Paul Reed said a reduction of VAT on tickets is needed, as is emergency support like the culture recovery fund from earlier in the pandemic.
“Venues and promoters are trying to recoup some of the money they lost throughout Covid,” says Blumberg; “that may play a part. But primarily, costs have just rocketed across the board and everything needs paying for. Fuel prices have pushed delivery charges up for all suppliers, staffing costs have gone up significantly, and just about everything that we need to run a successful festival has increased by at least around 10% over the past few years with some elements increasing significantly more than that. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make it financially viable to run a large event unless the ticket prices increase.”
Those Harry Styles fans struggling to afford tickets aren’t alone – there’s a very real danger that more people are becoming priced out of live music. “I would say that [Glastonbury tickets] are already too expensive for a lot of people to consider,” says Matt. “Even our tribute festival will be too expensive for some, especially with the cost of living increasing.”
For musicians, this is their job. Touring costs money, and the profit margin can be smaller than we might think. If we take into account the rise of streaming – less lucrative than physical album sales – it’s not surprising that gig tickets are becoming more expensive. After all, money needs to be made somewhere. Little Simz, for instance, might be the reigning Mercury Prize winner with a top five album but even she had to cancel an American tour earlier this year for financial reasons.
It’s not just live music that’s seeing the prices of tickets rise, either. Stephan Stockton, Theatre Director at New Theatre, Cardiff, explains that a number of factors contribute to prices – “it’s not a one size fits all approach”.
He continues: “The main difference between theatre and standard music gigs is that theatre tends to offer a range of prices, depending upon seating position and day of the week, whereas music tends to be on flat price.” While they aim to be as affordable as possible, Stockton explains that as the costs of touring and running the building itself have increased “substantially”, which has been reflected in their current prices.
As Blumberg sees it, “People will always want to let their hair down, get away from the hustle and bustle of their busy lives and enjoy a beer and some live music at a festival.” He describes a careful balancing act between keeping the costs as low as possible for consumers but covering increasing costs to the company and making it possible to run GlastonBARRY again in the future.
“A lot of businesses and business owners I know, including myself, came very close to losing everything we’ve worked hard for. Lots of companies did sadly go under and it was a very difficult period for many in the business. For me, it was a very stressful and uncertain time, and it’s really made me appreciate how lucky I am to be doing something I love for a living.”
The bottom line is that artists and venues don’t really want to price out consumers. After all, they rely on them. But to keep things sustainable, particularly in light of a turbulent few years, price increases are a necessary evil if we want the live sector to remain afloat.
words ADAM ENGLAND
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