Fleece your children

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's $200 tickets are just the start of new highs in rock-concert prices.

Published April 12, 2000 4:30PM (EDT)

Forget "Dij` vu" -- fans of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young will be experiencing sticker shock this summer as they buy tickets for the quartet's reunion shows.

The top ticket price is $201 for shows currently on sale in Chicago and Hartford, Conn.

Under so-called "golden circle" pricing, the vogue in the rock-concert industry, a small number of up-close-and-center prime seats have been selling in the three figures for years. But the practice has now expanded from a few rows to a few thousand tickets.

While it's difficult to find out exactly -- promoters are mum on the subject -- a few passes on the Ticketmaster Web site suggests that most of the floor seats and a hefty chunk of the side, perhaps as many as 5,000 seats in all, are going for the top price in the CSNY shows.

"The 'golden circle' has gotten pretty wide," says Pollstar editor Gary Bongiovanni.

Explains another industry veteran, who didn't want his name used: "It's the Rod Stewart philosophy: You might not sell out the house, but you'll sell the 3,000 to 4,000 higher-price tickets. And CSNY is doing very well. In every case the public has embraced the higher ticket prices and service fees. The top tickets are the first ones gobbled up."

The practice has put receipts in the rock-concert biz into the stratosphere. Bongionvanni, who's watched concert-industry developments at Pollstar for nearly 20 years, notes that overall grosses from the top 50 tours increased by an extraordinary 30 percent last year. The average ticket prices skyrocketed to $44 on average from about $33 in 1998.

CSNY's $200 ducat is not even unique, he noted. The Rolling Stones had some tickets with a top price of $300 on their recent tour, he said. Diana Ross has $250 tickets at her Madison Square Garden shows. Dates for the recently announced Who tour should hit similar benchmarks this summer.

The $201 CSNY charge is exclusive of Ticketmaster's ever-escalating service fees. For CSNY, they are $12.50 per ticket. A couple purchasing seats on the side of the arena for the show would pay some $427, plus another $3.25 for something called a Ticketmaster service fee, or $433 and change total.

In the early 1990s, bands like Pearl Jam used their commercial clout to try to call attention to the Ticketmaster service fees, which despite the name mostly serve to create a revenue stream that the company uses to shore up deals with venues and artists. The campaign ultimately failed. Says the other industry vet: "1994 seems like the Ice Age. Back then people were complaining about $3.50 service fees. Yet nobody squawks today on ticket prices and nobody squawks on service fees."

Not everyone's on the high-price gravy train. Bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Foo Fighters and Korn have top prices of about $30. The highest prices for some adult-oriented artists, Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana among them, are in the $50 to $70 range.

But increasingly, acts with a baby boomer fan base are cashing in. The high prices are due to the conflation of two phenomena. The first is that rock-concert ticket prices are, in the strictly economic sense, highly undervalued. Scalpers regularly sell $30 and $40 tickets for many times their face value.

The second is the rise of a company called SFX, which over the past few years has taken over a major chunk of the U.S. concert industry and energetically moved to exploit as much of the true economic value as possible of the concerts it promotes. (SFX was just acquired by Clear Channel, the country's largest radio conglomerate.)

"The public had deemed the true market value was much higher than face value," Bongiovanni said. "The artists and facilities and promoters were feeling like schmucks for not getting a piece of that pie. The old countercultural stigma against the high prices has pretty much evaporated. Today [the audience] is driving BMWs, not protesting the Vietnam War. You're not going to alienate your audience, because they were paying it anyway [to scalpers]."

By Bill Wyman

Bill Wyman is the former arts editor of Salon and National Public Radio.

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