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Music

Born to run riot with surge pricing – ticket agencies have become the ticket touts

“Dynamic pricing” on gig tickets is cruel and greedy, and denies all but the wealthiest music lovers a chance to see their favourite artists

Can you remember how much your first proper gig ticket cost? I can remember mine precisely: £28.50. It was for a show at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium in 1997 by a certain overearnest Irish rock band who I was obsessed with at the time, although they do my head in now.

I can vividly recall staring at the elaborately designed paper ticket incessantly for months leading up to the concert, studying and memorising every detail, both colourful and mundane, including the price tag. A lofty, but not unaffordable sum for a 15-year-old with a paper round. And a not unreasonable price in the grand scheme of things to see one of the biggest bands in the world. Around £50 today, adjusted for inflation. Money very well spent. 

Gig tickets cost a lot more now, because of course, everything costs a lot more now. But especially gig tickets it seems, as giant, faceless promoters and ticketing agencies such as Live Nation and its subsidiary Ticketmaster invent ever greedier, crueller and more intricate ways to leech upon people’s love of live music. Their latest contrivance, creeping its way into the industry, may be the greediest and cruellest of all and it’s called “dynamic pricing” – basically surge pricing by another, stealthier name.  

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It works just like Uber, whereby, if demand is low then prices remain low, but if demand is high – as is far more often the case, especially for the biggest of acts – then prices can quickly shoot upwards, practically without limit.

Case in point: another gig at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium, coming up in 2023, which went on sale in mid-July – Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, part of the Boss’s first UK tour in seven years. Front standing tickets were originally priced at £155. But as the surge took hold on a show which all but sold out in a matter of minutes, prices jumped to between £400 and £500. At time of writing, some scattered seating tickets were still available, for between £357 and an eye-watering £610 each. Surge price tickets for some of Springsteen’s US shows have spiked at several thousands of dollars. 

Live Nation and Ticketmaster claim it’s all about taking on ticket touts, by preventing them from buying up loads of face-value tickets and reselling them at inflated prices at no profit to the artist nor anyone else involved with the show. But in doing so, they’ve effectively become the ticket touts themselves.  

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Gig tickets are purchases of passion – they come from the heart, and the heart has a habit of writing blank cheques in the heat of the moment. Big promoters and ticketing agencies know that, and they grow ever more devious about exploiting it.

Some artists are pushing back – Crowded House earlier this year insisted that Ticketmaster refund fans the excess they’d paid on surge-priced tickets. I’ve no doubt that working-man’s champion Springsteen would prefer not to see his loyal followers fleeced in such a way. And yet, neither he nor any other superstars seem to be loudly disavowing the practice.

Even Pearl Jam, who famously went to war with Ticketmaster back in the Nineties over sky-high service fees, have made their peace with the multinational conglomerate. Surge tickets for their upcoming US tour have been selling via Ticketmaster for hundreds of dollars above original value. 

You can of course choose to spend your money elsewhere on other, cheaper shows, and have just as enriching an experience, if not more so. It remains relatively inexpensive to see gigs by up-and-coming and even established artists who choose to work with smaller independent venues, promoters and ticketing platforms, or who indeed choose to self-promote shows and entire tours.

The grossest price-inflation tactics seems reserved for the big heritage acts, on the assumption that their older and more invested fans can afford to cough up the readies (truer for some more than others, no doubt). But it risks making these shows the drably unvaried domain of the well off, and leaving a lot of people unfairly missing out – including young people, like 15-year-old me. 

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Which is significant, I think. Because teenage music tastes tend to start simple and evolve. The big choruses and primary-coloured emotions of arena and stadium bands, including heritage acts (typically as a legacy of parental influence), are often a gateway to a future of exploring other, more nuanced things. I loved U2 and Pearl Jam at different times in my teens, and I still love Springsteen; I’m grateful to them all for helping me figure myself out over time. To rephrase the Boss, most of us are born to walk before we can run. 

When I look back, I realise that my 15-year-old self didn’t sit in his bedroom every night obsessing simply over a £28.50 ticket for some pretentious Dubliners in their ill-advised techno phase, but something much more fundamental: a ticket to the adult world. To a lifetime of gig going, and experiences which, little did I realise it back then, would help shape me and make me the person I am now. Young people of today and tomorrow may grow up not even knowing what they’re missing. 

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member.You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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