Pop music does not tailgate. Dress Up. Line up. Maybe even pre-party. But there is no tailgating. This is very obvious to anyone who visited the parking lot of the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota, by far the smallest venue of the second leg of Britney Spears’ Circus tour. What is not so obvious is how this show nut-shells just about everything that’s wrong with the concert industry, from Ticketmaster’s monopoly and price gouging, to mildly corrupt, publicly-owned concert venues, to artists lip-syncing shows while they bleed their fans and pass the blame to us-the people who pay for such bullshit anyway. So, who wants to rock?
North Dakotans are timely. They line up exactly on time to see Britney’s opener, Jordin Sparks. The artists return the favor, with Britney hopping on stage as scheduled. The show’s over by 11 p.m. All ages have come, with the primary group skewing down to 12 and topping out at 45. And they are almost exclusively female, which is unsurprising. This area of the nation offers little of what might be considered “female” entertainment. Hockey, football, hunting, dirt track car racing and such are common and plentiful. Not to say women cannot be fans of these things; but these things are generally not fans of women.
The Alerus Center shares a lot in common with the classic Simpsons “Monorail” episode: Springfield decides against fixing up the existing downtown area in favor of a slick proposal for an unnecessary monorail system that promises civic fame and wild economic prosperity. Failure ensues. The center is of the Field of Dreams school of economic development: “Build it and They Will Come.” But they have not come. Spears promoters have agreed she appear in such a small location in part because of the $850,000 guarantee from the venue. The very successful 2002 Cher show is still spoken about here by taxpayers and Cher fans with equal reverence. But recent Neil Diamond and Fleetwood Mac shows were bombs. This essentially means that the taxpayers of Grand Forks promised to pay Spears even if ticket sales fall short. It cannot be overstated how apeshit this makes many residents. Add the fact that the center is in the hole more than $256,000 this year, when it is supposed to be in the black, and that its private management company has a dirty habit of hiding losses from public record. The Alerus Center is prone to a bad combination of over-optimism and mismanagement, the manner of which can be found under a variety of corporate names across smaller-citied America.
In the first six months of 2009, the top 100 tours took in over $1.1 billion, up nearly 11 percent over the same period in 2008. But the large arena concert industry is broken. Ticket sales are down and top acts are no longer selling out. And those that still manage sellouts, like U2, are forced to do it through ticket discounts. (For instance, the Grand Forks Spears show unloaded many $96 tickets at $20 “student” prices.) The comment boards of the industry’s trade sites are foul with blame and rants about “wake up moments.” The term “dinosaur” is used liberally.
The concert industry and health care are not so different. They are bloated systems that have found a way of delivering services in a way that would initially seem counter intuitive. The incentives could not be more backward .Profit motives hide behind high-minded rhetoric about delivering “art” and “health.” And, maybe most tellingly, many of those fed up with both systems blame the wrong parties. For health care, it’s illegal immigrants. For concerts, it’s Ticketmaster.
Generation X’s Boomer moment (i.e., being principled in youth when it’s easy, before growing old and lazy and selling out) was Ticketmaster. Over a ten year period, bookended by valiant stands by Pearl Jam and String Cheese Incident, fans had an opportunity to hold Ticketmaster back. We offered our support but only in words. The result? Pearl Jam in West Valley City, Utah on Sept. 28 via Ticketmaster: $62.00 + $11.60 Convenience Charge + $3 Building Facility Charge + $5.10 order processing fee + $2.50 TicketsNow fee = $84.20-or 35 percent higher than face.
Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and The New Yorker have all recently printed versions of the “concert industry sucks” article and they all basically blame Ticketmaster or Live Nation, or both, for conspiring to make your concert experience both expensive and shitty.
Even Bruce Springsteen has blamed his greed on Ticketmaster. After the ostensibly union-friendly Springsteen apologized for signing an exclusive album release deal with Wal-Mart, he blamed Ticketmaster for the lack of availability of his “affordable” $96 floor tickets. In fact, The Boss had held back over 1,000 seats, making only 108 of these “affordable” tickets even available. The move, at worst, may make Springsteen a criminal and at best confirms he’s a jerk. The scandal moved Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Joisey) to propose the toothless and stupidly named BOSS (Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing) Act. The true Boss Act should be Springsteen using his pull in the industry to push for changes in the way tickets are sold. But he won’t.
By leveraging a hard built populist reputation to screw the common man and profit handsomely while blaming somebody else, Springsteen finally confirmed he really is a true American institution. Congratulations, Boss.
Make no mistake, Ticketmaster is not your friend. Like all profit-driven businesses, it is interested in money, not once-in-a-lifetime experiences or whatever poncey copy its advertising uses. And by all accounts, including the American Anti-trust Institute’s, a Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger would not be better for you.