If you’ve been checking your bank account more than usual, you’re not alone. With inflation rising 8.5 percent for the first time in 40 years, everything is expensive. Groceries cost 10 percent more than they did last year, which can make a home-cooked meal pricier than dining out. Russia remains the world’s largest exporter of gas, and its invasion of Ukraine has caused fuel prices to surge over $4 across the country for the first time in over a decade.
The bare necessities aren’t the only things significantly less wallet-friendly than we remember. The cost of live music, which has already increased in recent years, is only getting more expensive. After two years of cancellations, 125,000 concertgoers returned to Empire Polo Club for the return of Coachella this year, even as the festival’s general admissions ticket prices increased from $429 in 2019 to $495 in 2022. According to a Pollstar study, music fans could see a show for about $26 in 1996, and that price tag had quadrupled to $95 by 2019. That total doesn’t account for either the return of live music post-COVID or inflation, but Festicket, a live music community that bundles fans with festival tickets and travel accommodations, reported last year that more customers have begun securing their trips through payment plans. Fans are spending three times more than they did on event packages three years ago.
Even prior to the current inflation crisis, the pandemic exposed the underbelly of an industry that is severely flawed. “Live music doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” said Mark Mulligan, managing director and founder of MIDIA Research, a U.K.-based firm that analyzes entertainment and media trends. “The entertainment industry as a whole is about to go through a bit of a shock.”
The rise in concert ticket prices is twofold: Expensive price points have become the bedrock of the ticketing industry, and inflation is reducing our purchasing power. By now, we all understand how capitalism works, but with big corporations like Ticketmaster upcharging concert prices (after already doing so in a healthy economy), it plays to the desperation of live music fans, many of whom are attending shows to feel a semblance of normalcy. These price hikes, along with the closure of small venues, don’t just affect the consumer. They also stand to create an entire ecosystem that only benefits top-selling artists while driving a wedge between these musicians and the fans who support them.
“If people have less money in their pockets because of inflation, the ticket industry could be forced to lower their prices,” Mulligan said. “It might come down in dollar terms, but in affordability terms, it might not change, because people’s wages wouldn’t be going as far.”
At the start of the pandemic, the music industry’s response to the shutdown put a Band-Aid on the problem instead of fixing the industry’s systemic issues. One month into social distancing, musicians attempted to do their part by finding innovative ways to reach their fanbase: D-Nice inspired DJs to stream their sets at home, and hip-hop veterans Swizz Beatz and Timbaland launched Verzuz, an Instagram Live event where millions of users livestreamed track-for-track battles between artists like Brandy and Monica or Jeezy and Gucci Mane.
While these broadcasts provide some escape from Zoom fatigue, it’s hard to ignore how inaccessible they are for the nearly half of Americans who lack high-speed internet access or a smartphone, and they don’t address many of the other issues plaguing musicians themselves. In a 2020 press release, Spotify revealed that artists who livestreamed their concerts experienced a boost in sales, but even a temporary spike in plays doesn’t come close to making up for loss of touring income. Spotify reportedly pays between $0.003 and $0.005 per stream. That half a penny is split between the rights holders and distributors before artists actually see a profit.
Many of these issues are not a product of COVID-19 alone. At the risk of sounding like an off-brand economics professor, market dynamics are responsible for the inflation of ticket prices, a phenomenon that has affected customers long before the pandemic. Simply put, market dynamics suggest that prices will fluctuate based on supply and demand.
Ticket companies like Live Nation and Ticketmaster have capitalized off of the consumers’ willingness to return to shows, by embracing jargon like “improved pricing” and “dynamic pricing” as part of their corporate revenue streams. Live Nation’s 2021 third-quarter report boasts, “In addition to increased attendance, strong demand also enabled improved pricing, with average amphitheater and major festival pricing up double-digits versus 2019.”
Ticketmaster more diplomatically explains its pricing system as a reflection of the market. “Ticket and fee prices may adjust over time based on demand,” the company’s website reads. These phenomena operate like airline pricing: Those who can afford to travel will pay the surge fees, and those who can spend over $100 for a show will attend.
These businesses came under fire even before the pandemic over how they exploit consumer demand. When Ticketmaster and Live Nation merged in 2010, the deal faced criticism from music fans for creating a near-monopoly on live music. In 2017, Billboard reported that Live Nation profited off that power by transferring tickets to the resale market, causing consumers to purchase them at as much as 40 percent more than the original price. The following year, a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that ticketing fees, which largely profit the seller, typically average about 27 percent of the ticket’s original value. A $250 Guns N’ Roses ticket came out to $300 after service and processing fees, along with facility charges and delivery, according to a separate study from Consumer Report in 2016.
Jerry Nickelsburg, the director for UCLA Anderson Forecast, an organization that predicts economic trends, said ticket prices are becoming even more expensive now because it costs more to keep shows safe during the ongoing pandemic. Live shows now require more staff on hand to adhere to safety protocols, such as checking for proof of vaccines. Even as mask mandates drop across the country, the uncertain state of public health—along with rising case numbers as the Omicron BA.2 variant circulates—reinforces the need for additional staff.
“We don’t know if there’s another health crisis on the way,” Nickelsburg told VICE. “The support staff is now doing a job that is riskier because there wasn’t a health risk associated with the job. When there’s more risk, higher incomes are required to entice people to take those jobs and because wages are going up, so will ticket prices.”
If the price of experiencing live music becomes too high, musicians run the risk of alienating younger audiences who may not have as much disposable income. What happens if you’re an artist like Lil Uzi Vert or Lil Yachty, who tailored their concerts around youth culture?
Some musicians, like Ed Sheeran, are wielding their power to ensure their core fan base isn’t priced out. In 2017, Sheeran’s Divide Tour broke records, beating out Guns N’ Roses and U2 for the highest-grossing tour of all time. The tour sold 8.9 million tickets under $100, but there was one sacrifice to keeping his shows accessible: He was forced to tour for two years.
“You end up with this phenomenon where you’re sending live music in a direction it shouldn’t be going,” Mulligan said, referring to the potential age gap between the artist and the crowd if young fans aren’t able to access shows.
So what happens if your favorite act doesn’t have the machine behind them that someone like Beyoncé or Billie Eilish does? What happens to artists like Phabo or Victoria Monét, who put out promising projects during the pandemic, but aren’t household names yet? For musicians hoping to break through to the mainstream, the road ahead may be more difficult than ever, leading to massive oversaturation of the market. During the pandemic, more acts released music independently: TuneCore, a digital platform that allows artists to distribute and publish their music, boasted as much as a 40 percent user increase, and emerging artists are all vying for access to fewer venues, due to independent spaces shuttering across the country.
“Three to five years from now, we’re really going to feel the effects of the pandemic,” Mulligan said. “These artists will reach their peaks in terms of creativity and stream count, but it’s possible that they would have never developed as live artists because they weren’t able to put years into playing small sweaty clubs.”
Despite the economic pressures facing the music industry, some remain optimistic about its future: Live Nation reported in February that its concert attendance rate is on track with its record from 2019, with fewer no-show rates. In a statement provided by Live Nation, the company said it has roughly 40 tours slated for the first quarter of 2023. “Normally at this point a year earlier, we’d have a list of five to 10,” said Joe Berchtold, CFO of Live Nation, in an email. “So we have a lot of confidence that ’23 and beyond look very good. Because there is a lot of pent-up supply, there is a lot of pent-up demand, and we expect it’s a multi-year run.”
But Berchtold’s “confidence” comes at the expense of hundreds of employees and their livelihoods. Live Nation’s C-Suite received praise for taking pay cuts in 2020, slashing their hefty salaries in half—with CEO Michael Rapino claiming to forgo his $3 million pay altogether—but Rapino’s full salary was only waived from April to June, as Variety reported. The company lost more than half of its staff after three rounds of layoffs and furloughs.
So how do we save live music? I don’t know, and unfortunately, no one else does either. Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger created SaveLive in 2020 as a bailout fund to invest in independent venues by purchasing 51 percent equity in them, which would grant him ownership of the venues participating. While that sounds like a noble idea, it places the fate of many businesses in the hands of one company—which, as a model, doesn’t sound altogether that different from Live Nation or Ticketmaster.
Still, I’m wondering WWJD: What Would Jay-Z Do? All too often, the burdens caused by broken systems fall on those who are not responsible for fixing them and have the least power to do so. Fans shouldn’t have to pay for tickets on an installment plan. Live music workers should have job security. Emerging artists deserve the chance to grow with their audiences. If there was ever a time to assemble a gaggle of mega-rich artists to use their money to make the industry more equitable—à la the inaugural TIDAL call in 2015—it would be now. The future of music as we know it, in person and everywhere else, is on the line.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.