Music

Gig ticket prices are extortionate now – but there's still hope for live music

Young people have been steadily priced out of gig tickets in recent times, but some acts are fighting back

Festival prices 2024 illustration

Got a spare £1511.20 (plus booking fees) for the biggest festivals this year? Illustration: Big Issue

A couple of years ago I wrote despairingly in this column about out-of-control gig ticket pricing in the post-Brexit/Covid 19/sky-high inflation era. One of the saddest things about it, I surmised, is that over time it will shut out large sections of people for whom live music is traditionally not merely a meaningful pastime, but key to shaping their entire identity. “Young people of today and tomorrow,” I concluded, “may grow up not even knowing what they’re missing.”

The situation seems to only get worse, with average gig ticket prices in the UK predicted to climb above £100 within the next few years. The pinch can be felt hardest around this time of year, as winter slowly abates and we dream of festival season.

Sitting here on a wet day in March, looking out the window at the grey and the rain, my heart soars at the thought of simply being outdoors in fair weather – to say nothing of being among friends, with a beer in my hand, watching a band I love. And I say that as a knackered early-fortysomething dad. For young people, the FOMO – “fear of missing out” – must be maddening.

And yet, how many will have had the readies required for Glastonbury tickets, at a whopping £355? Little wonder that over the last roughly 25 years, the average age of Glastonbury goers has risen from 26 to approaching 50. A standard weekend ticket for Wireless in London comes in at £258.25 before booking fees and add-ons, Reading and Leeds £325, Isle of Wight £269.95 and Latitude £308. I’m sure all these events have suffered increased running costs lately, and would argue that they still offer great value for money. But if they’re pricing out large sections of their should-be audience from live music, then something is fundamentally wrong.

With all this in mind, it was encouraging to see Big Issue cover star Yungblud announce Bludfest – his own festival aimed at “shaking up” the “too expensive” live music industry. Taking place at Milton Keynes Bowl on 11 August, the one-dayer will be headlined by the chart-topping punk-pop star, as well as feature the likes of Little Yachty, Soft Play, Lola Young and, in an “icons” slot, sexagenarian punk rock trailblazers The Damned. Tickets are priced just £49.50.

“I believe that the festivals, gigs and plans that are in motion aren’t representative of the people out there,” Yungblud told Sky News. “I believe that gigs are too expensive, festivals are too expensive, and I just wanted to work to create something that has been completely done by me and my team to show that, you know what? It can be done better. It can be more representative.”

Harrison added that he wants to start a “movement” towards “making music about people again”.

I really hope his movement grows. Although it bears mentioning that Yungblud isn’t trying anything new here. Artist-led and curated festivals have been a phenomenon in music for decades. Their history is somewhat chequered – the long-running All Tomorrow’s Parties alternative live music festival series was probably the most famous, but it collapsed spectacularly in 2012, millions of pounds in debt.

And yet, to my eye, they seem to be on a rise again. Perhaps symptomatically of a wider spirit of “indiefication” in the music industry, which is seeing artists at all levels assume increasing control of their affairs, whether by choice or by economic imperative.

Many artists self-release their music, or run their own labels, so why not stage a festival too? Done well, evidence suggests they can present a better deal for fans and musicians alike, both financially and in terms of the experience that everyone enjoys.

Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, who topped the UK album chart in 2021 with a self-released album, will on 29 June headline their inaugural self-curated festival in Queen’s Park in their native Glasgow. Titled Big City, it’ll feature the likes of Slowdive, Nadine Shah, Beak> and Michael Rother. Tickets are about £60.

The band have worked with a major Scottish promoter, Regular Music, on the festival but have been involved at all levels of decision making – including the ticket price. “It’s a balance,” says Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite, asked about the challenge of meeting their financial needs as a band without dipping too deeply into fans pockets. “I know as a musician that the costs to tour have never been higher,” he says. But if ticket prices for live music keep rising then he cautions “people just won’t be able to afford to come, which is obviously unsustainable”.

Mogwai were closely involved with All Tomorrow’s Parties in its heyday and have long been advocates for artists taking the reins more when it comes to steering festivals. “I think it can yield great events,” says Braithwaite, “but I also think that a lot of bookers for festivals are great at their jobs so there’s definitely room for both.”

Since 2019, BAFTA winning and Mercury Prize-nominated cult English alt-rock band Sea Power (formerly British Sea Power), have been running their own micro-festival at Muncaster Castle on the Cumbrian Coast – a bucolic-psychedelic mix of music, talks and nature walks titled Krankenhaus. Last year’s instalment was voted Festival of the Year by listeners of Steve Lamacq’s show on BBC 6 Music.

Practically all new festivals make a loss initially, and need several years to climb into the black. Krankenhaus did it in just three years, according to Sea Power’s manager David Taylor. “Other festival organisers look at me and gasp when I tell them that,” he says. Krankenhaus continues to grow modestly, year upon year, as more and more people come in search of an alternative and more intimate festival experience with a good heart and conscience. Tickets this year cost £190, for four days and around 30 acts.

Sea Power have always “ploughed our own furrow” as a band, says Taylor, and they count themselves lucky to have a loyal following which has stuck by them over more than 20 years and helped make Krankenhaus possible. The stress of organising the event is huge – “doing a four-month tour of America is an absolute stroll in the park compared to this,” Taylor laughs – but the rewards speak for themselves.

“It’s almost like having a fantastic huge extended family gathering in this beautiful location,” he says.

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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