Why Do Concerts Cost So Much?

Beatles Concert

Matt Yglesias dug up a great bit of data about The Beatles’ first tour of American 50 years ago: the tickets were really cheap. As you can see in the advertisement, tickets ranged from $2 to $4. Adjusted for inflation, this is $15 to $30.

This is really interesting. At that same time, movie ticket prices were about $1 (roughly $8 today). So seeing a live show was about twice the cost of seeing a movie. Intuitively, that seems about right. But today, a big headline show will cost you at least four times that much, and often much more than that.

The reason for this is that movie ticket prices have remained pretty flat in real dollars. The cost of a ticket in inflation adjusted dollars in 1967 was $8.38. In 2012, it was $7.96. In general, that is how things work: the cost of things decreases over time. Clearly, that’s not the case with live concerts.

Now, I can come up with numerous reasons for this. But the most obvious to me is that the big name music acts are already rich. They don’t need to perform live, so they charge a lot when they do. Going along with this idea is the fact that theater ticket prices don’t seem to have gone up. While it is true that Broadway shows are expensive, they always were.

Meanwhile, the price of recorded music has gone down. That’s largely because total volume has gone up. As much as I used to think that the music industry was becoming more open to mid-level acts, that’s not true. It is still a winner-take-all market, where a lot of professional quality bands have to work very hard just to survive.

What I find most interesting about this all is that live shows are no better now than they were when I was a kid. In fact, there is a nauseating trend in rock concerns to include video and other pre-recorded content. And while the shows may be live, they are entirely scripted—many acts might as well be lip-syncing. Of course, I’ve never cared for big shows. I feel like I would be better served by a disc or a concert film at a fraction of the cost. There is a certain magic to seeing great performers at little venues. Two concerts come to mind: Jane Siberry at the Cotati Cabaret and Steve Forbert at Mount Hood Lodge, where a snowstorm caused a total of ten people to be in attendance. Even a performance at a good venue like the Greek Theater can’t compete with that.

I think the reason that the public puts up with these ridiculous concert prices is that live concerts have come to be seen as events. The last big concert I went to was Kid Rock (who has some notion of the pricing problem, even if he puts on a ridiculous show). Watching the people, it was very much like the state fair. Everyone came very early and had picnics. And very few seemed all that involved in the concert. People shelling out hundreds of dollars to see The Rolling Stones are not doing it because they think it is going to be an awesome experience. They just want to be able to say that they saw Mick Jagger before he was confined to the wheelchair.

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