Image via Under Face Value/Twitter

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Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

A couple of months ago, a few friends reluctantly revealed that they paid $400 for Olivia Rodrigo tickets on StubHub. It was an already absurd financial decision, but I was further flabbergasted when they told me those prices were for the nosebleeds.

The Rodrigo show took place in Chicago, where the 21-year old pop phenomenon took over the Bulls’ home arena for two nights. With Taylor Swift spending 2024 mostly abroad and Beyoncé holding back on announcing Cowboy Carter dates, Rodrigo has largely run away with the prize of 2024’s hottest American concert ticket.

The Black Keys will not share the trophy. Two months ago, the Nashille-via-Akron blues rock duo released their twelfth studio album and announced a supporting North American tour for the fall. They were also slated to play the United Center in November – before they went and canceled the entire jaunt.. The band did not make it explicit, but the reason was evident in their assurance that they would reschedule the tour in more intimate venues. If that and the abundance of seating still available before the cancellation did not make it clear, they abandoned the tour due to low sales.

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It would be easy to poke fun at the Black Keys or criticize their management’s misperception of the band’s current cultural capital. But they’re anything but an outlier. You can find many a Twitter thread or fan subreddit about musicians overplaying their hands by mistakenly booking arenas for their latest outing. There are a glut of tickets available for artists as wide-ranging as Charli XCX, Nicki Minaj, Porter Robinson, and Justin Timberlake – and a new victim is spotted each week.

Most recently we had Jennifer Lopez, who was already in the midst of a particularly low year with an egregious cinematic flop and faltering marriage. She then suffered the public humiliation of having to rebrand her tour from “This Is Me…Now” to “This Is Me… Live | The Greatest Hits.” Ultimately, she called off the whole trek under the thinly veiled excuse of spending time with “her children, family, and close friends.”

There’s clearly a popularity chasm between the Rodrigos and Lopez’ of the world, which should have been obvious to promoters and booking agencies packaging these tours in the first place. But bad forecasts persist, and are often exacerbated by Ticketmaster’s hellish dynamic pricing models, which set the cost to see a modern juggernaut like Olivia and a post-peak name like JLo at the same price. The result is the former’s tickets wind up going for three to four times face value on resale, while the artists who overestimate demand see their seats go for embarrassingly cheap (check the Twitter account @UnderFaceValue for some of the most extreme cases).

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This is not just an issue for slightly past-their-prime artists, but one for all live music fans – who are bearing the brunt of our whole concert infrastructure getting shittier. Demand for shows had been so consistently high post-Covid that artists egregiously squeezed fans, while letting Ticketmaster, take the heat as the big bad corporate entity.

Live Nation Entertainment Inc. – which wholly owns Ticketmaster after a 2010 merger – deserves to be taken to court over their monopoly power and blatant anti-consumer practices. Through their consolidation and exclusionary practices, they have cornered artists into playing their venues and forced fans into purchasing from their systems, leaving both helpless to their dominance of the industry. Larger artists, however, have enabled the company to move further and further over this line throughout the years.

Bruce Springsteen infamously allowed Ticketmaster’s “Platinum” seat system to charge fans up to $5000 for a single ticket, which led one of his oldest fanzines to disband themselves in outrage. Bad Bunny fans learned the hard way during his “Most Wanted Tour” that the more eager you are the more likely you are to pay; those who bought tickets right at onsale ended up paying the most for seats that were ultimately brought down closer to show day to help clear inventory. Besides thinking they could sell out the same space where the Celtics play, The Black Keys’ biggest mistake was making even their cheapest seats cost over $100 at minimum. These were not simply reasonable tickets overloaded with Ticketmaster’s junk fees; they were exorbitantly priced at baseline.

A willingness to gouge your audience inevitably hurts an artist’s relationship with their fanbase, but if they can sell out those shows then the high prices can be retroactively justified as the realities of the market. If fans decide they are unwilling to pony up – as is becoming harder to justify with rising costs across the economy eating into discretionary spending – the performer is left looking worse, especially when newer generations of artists like Billie Eilish are taking real steps to make it harder for resale sites to exploit their popularity.

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A band like the Black Keys would have done better to play smaller rooms in the first place. Highly simplified mathematics makes it easy to see that selling 6000 tickets (~⅓rd of a typical American arena capacity) at an average of $75 would gross just as much as selling only 3000 tickets (a mid-sized venue) at $150. The smaller the venue, the more fans are likely to pay for the “special” experience to be closer to the artist – think the recent André 3000 run, in which the legendary rapper sold out multiple nights of flute music for $125 a pop. If the Black Keys had announced three shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco, a 1200-cap venue they haven’t played since 2008, they could have easily justified the per ticket price they failed to sell as platinum seats at the Chase Center. The smaller space would also allow the band to get by on a lighter production, saving them on one of the most expensive costs of touring. The artist makes more money playing better venues for more devoted fans. Is everyone not made happier here?

Of course, this would certainly pose a tax for the least well-off attendee, for whom cheap nosebleeds at arenas reduce the barrier to entry to get an experience with their favorite artists, even if it is a worse experience. These fans can at least get in the door compared to limited capacity runs starting at over three digits a pop. Stadiums and amphitheaters might be even better for those would-be attendees, where often lawn tickets or seats high in the stands go for a fraction of the rest of the sections. And while underselling clearly is not ideal for legacy artists, fans benefit from cheap resale options and promotions like Live Nation’s “Concert Week” that offer up spots to their worst selling shows for $25 – something Janet Jackson, Missy Elliott, and Maroon 5 all participated in. If there is any silver lining to the fuckery going on by venues and promoters, it’s that the more they mess up the more arbitrage opportunities they open up for fans.

Given the frequency of these mistakes, it makes sense artists are looking for alternatives to the traditional arena tour. More and more common as of late have been multi-night residencies. Harry Styles opted for such a system for his “Love On Tour” shows, moving across just a few coasts and countries, and playing a record-setting total of 15 dates at Madison Square Garden. It follows the long-popular Vegas residency model, which has become increasingly desired by artists still in their prime rather than those on the nostalgia circuit. On her last album cycle, Adele’s U.S. dates were exclusively weekend runs at Caesars Palace. The Sphere has attracted sure-thing live spectacles from U2, Dead & Company, Phish, and now the Eagles. The tradeoff is in the bands’ favor, making audiences do the work of trekking it to them rather than hauling their whole touring apparatus to their fans.

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Making audiences assume the burden of travel is proving to be a popular strategy for more than just the superstars. LCD Soundsystem has been running their post-reunion shows – a stubbornly static set for a number of years now – again and again for multi-night stints in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and L.A. And even relatively smaller acts like Clairo and Jeff Rosenstock are trying out the one-stop tour, seemingly to a great deal of fan interest (the latter’s “infinite shows” run is currently at seven nights and counting).

Cheaper production costs and less wear and tear on the performers makes residencies a no-brainer if they can meet sufficient demand, and the best selling dates on every artists’ treks are inevitably in the major cities. Charli XCX and Troye Sivan added second dates in LA and Denver, but there are blacked out sections and still more than half the tickets available for their show in Dallas. Save for the joy experienced by your fan in middle-American mid-sized towns, why bother?

Of course, how does one determine the line for which cities are worth visiting? I live in San Francisco, a place I would expect to be on any artist’s docket, except for the fact that it often isn’t. I can’t catch David Gilmour or The Babies this fall, and am now joining in on the envy-driven frustration fans across the country feel about New York and Los Angeles. If excessive prices were the first wave of anti-fan behavior by artists, forcing them to add to their expenditures by booking airfare and hotels seems to be the next. Coldplay, doing their best to continuously minimize their carbon footprint, will have to question if they can justify such a model since 70,000 fans flying to them per show is surely a higher emission-event than a small touring party navigating the globe.

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Wherever we go from here, it’s clear we have to go somewhere. No one likes arena shows. They’re less personal, more logistically challenging to attend, and exceedingly expensive than when your favorite artist visits your city’s cozier independent concert halls, But they are a necessary evil for artists where it would simply be infeasible to do underplays. Olivia Rodrigo is oft-quoted for saying she wants to “not skip any steps” in her career, but she surely would have broken ticketing systems and overrun box offices if she tried to perform at clubs before jumping straight to the theaters she took on for her first tour. Sometimes the bigger the show the better, and the more cities a tour hits the more equitable it is for fans.

Still, why is an artist like the Black Keys, who are far removed from their heyday of the Brothers and El Camino eras (their latest album Ohio Players peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard 200), attempting to share the same size of stages as current chart toppers? Where should they go instead, and how can they make it worthwhile for both themselves and their fans currently being short-changed? It’s the question the industry needs to consider, because audiences have caught up to their own extortion. Just take a look at the popular #paystowait hashtag to see attendees retaliating against being penalized for buying at presale, netting secondhand tickets like thrift store finds that fail to net any additional revenue for the artists.

Inflation, undue market power, and shady industry practices have all made live music more inaccessible and less enjoyable for audiences, and everyone but the main pop girls and rockstar septuagenarians are facing the backlash in undersold shows and online backlash. It’s a state of affairs that cannot hold for much longer, as evidenced by artists continuing to experiment away from the status quo. Dismantling Live Nation-Ticketmaster will open up competition for better actors to come up with fairer systems, and continuing artist and fan pressure will integrate those new systems faster.

We may see initiatives on the ticketing side, such as multiple providers offering seats for the same show. This would be like how with movies you can buy from Fandango or the theater directly, comparing fees and perks between options. Or things might change faster on the booking side, with venues scheduling more joint tours or mini-festivals to pool risk for any individual artist they worry won’t be able to sell the stage out on their own.

Whatever movements occur, what will result is likely a more fragmented live music landscape. It might be one that doubles down on existing grievances – try not to imagine AI-powered dynamic fees tailored to your previous purchasing data. If we’re lucky, it will instead open up new options for fans and artists that can restore some semblance of what was once and hopefully still can be a mutually beneficial relationship.

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