This started with a Facebook post I made on my personal wall:
The cheap seats are $171 for The Rolling Stones at Oracle. $660 for the top price level (not including VIP which costs GKHM). Makes Prince look like a bargain.
To that, my friend and fellow blogger John Marcher of A Beast in a Jungle responded with a long post that started with the line, “Gordon, I want to debate this with you.” So over the next few days, we sent some emails back and forth doing just that, and getting into deep topics like whether career artists are truly artists. I promised him the last word, and he’ll have it between us. We do invite you, however, to post your thoughts in the comments.
Gordon, I want to debate this with you. The prices are what they are, and they are fair. Is $250 too much to see Prince in a small venue? Absolutely not. He and his band deserve to paid for the show. The people setting up and tearing down the show deserve to get paid. They have to eat on the road and stay in hotels- and do you think Prince and his band are going to eat at fucking Mel’s Diner and stay at the Holiday Inn? The alternative is to hold the concerts at an arena- and the prices would be lower and it would be a very different experience. And then people wouild say “I would love to see Prince in a small club and I would pay whatever I could afford to do so.”
Is $150 to $600 too much for the Stones? For an indoor gig? No fucking way. You must have an idea of how large an undertaking this is, right? 100s of people are involved- everyone should get paid, and fairly, right? Do I begrudge Prince and the Stones the money they’ll make off those shows? Not a dime, and for two reasons- first these people aren’t touring for the money, and second, no one else can do what they do- otherwise we’d all be happy to just venture down to the Red Devil Lounge and pay $20 to hear a tribute band. But who the hell wants to do that?
By the same logic, $35 for Sparks tickets, when it’s only a two-man show with one instrument onstage, is outrageously expensive!
Does that mean it sucks for people who can’t afford the tickets- sure it does. But who said it was the responsibility of the artist to ameliorate the personal decisions and budget restrictions of its audience?
While I agree that Prince has every right to charge $250 to play, and the Rolling Stones $600, that doesn’t make it any less worthy of criticism. Whether they can get these prices is not the point. What’s disturbing is the accelerating trend of older, established musicians charging more and more for their tickets, guaranteeing that the younger, less wealthy audiences that would like to support them are unable to do so. Who is their audience of the future? They don’t care because there is no future for them, and they’re dragging the concert industry down with them.
The younger audiences have given up on going to individual rock shows because they know they can get more value from a festival. A 3-day Outside Lands pass goes on sale for $250 or so tomorrow, and with that you get dozens of acts in several genres. You can go the Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas for less than $300, and that event has the highest production value I’ve ever seen. AEG and The Rolling Stones are cashing in, and cashing in hard. Good for them, but what about the middle-class father who just wants to take his son to see his favorite band, to make someone a fan of live music for life? It’s not happening, and the experience will die. Symphonies have rush tickets to get students through the doors; who’s getting anyone through the doors to see an arena show? (Bon Jovi tickets are on Goldstar, FWIW.) Why do you think they’re getting rarer with time?
On Saturday, June 10, 1972, The Rolling Stones played The Long Beach Arena. The tickets were $6.50 each. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $35.19 today. Was the band starving in 1972? Would they starve today if the tickets in the back row behind the stage were only $60? I don’t think so. Would the crew get paid? Probably.
As for Sparks, they still see themselves as artists. They didn’t retire after “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” and make themselves a nostalgia act. They went through a disco phase, an experimental cover-song phase, an orchestral pop phase, recorded an album in Swedish, and now embark on a tour with, as you said, two people and one instrument. They are wise older artists touring for the people who have loved them for years, and have also recently discovered them. They deserve both our praise and respect.
As for artists being responsible for the budgetary restrictions of their audience, of course they are. If they’re true artists, and want their art to be seen and heard, they would absolutely make it reasonable for anyone who wants to experience it to do so. They would care about growing their audience, their influence, and their place in culture. What the Rolling Stones and Prince have become are businesspeople who have ceased being artists.
In an article in the Guardian last weekend Paul Morley succinctly explained much of my perspective on what’s happened to pop/rock music in general in the last 30 years which I think is the all important back-story to this conversation, because the truth of the matter is that pop culture became trapped in its own reflection sometime in the 70s. It would be absurd to think that the boomers, especially the ones born in the mid 50s and later, would have been much interested in the popular music of their parents and grandparents’ generation, much less make it their own. There are exceptions- as they aged many people embraced elder statesman like Sinatra, etc. but people who grew up partying to the Stones, Zeppelin, Hendrix and the Beatles were not going to embrace the Leslie Gores and Elvises, no matter how much influence they actually had. I bring this up because the longevity of pop and rock performers has become an absurd contradiction of the rebellious “youth culture” which rock music was the chief flag-bearer for for years.
But as Morley points out, that’s no longer the case, and it hasn’t been for decades now. Who is to blame? The audience? The corporations who sell the music? Or the “artists” themselves? My take is that the audience, complacent and happy to remain unchallenged, are the problem. That you’re a lazy, boring asshole if you’re still listening to the same music you did in junior high school- I don’t care if it’s the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Styx (god forbid), The Clash, Depeche Mode or Nirvana. Why stay stuck in a moment in time and have that moment define who you are? That was a bill of goods that was sold to an entire culture.
For the most part, with a few exceptions, I usually regret seeing concerts by bands I once enjoyed in my youth because as you point out, it isn’t “art”- it’s really little more than a job. There are some people who are really good at the job of “pop musician/performer”- Tom Petty comes to mind, as does Three Dog Night and George Clinton, but they really have nothing new to say. They’re just doing what they’ve always done because they’ve always done and really, what else would they do? Take up golf like Alice Cooper did?
Then there are the few, the very few, who have somehow managed to create very long and vital careers for themselves long after their inital heyday has passed, but they’re still interested in growing in new directions, even at a slow pace. Joni Mitchell, David Byrne, Rickie Lee Jones, U2 and Sparks are some examples. I might even include Dylan in that group.
And then there’s this other group- and it is very, very small. The legends who really changed things and have nothing to prove to anyone except themselves. If you want to come along for the ride, they’re happy to have you along, but they don’t cater to the audience- they created the audience- and in this group sit The Stones, Zeppelin (when it reforms), Prince, Michael Jackson had he lived, perhaps Madonna, and Springsteen. And each of these artists- and they are artists, even ones as commercially successful as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and the Stones I believe carry on not because they have to, but because they need to as artists. Otherwise they’d just die. But they’re saddled with their own artistic history, and no one more so than the Stones (except for Paul McCartney). In their case the shows became these gargantuan carnivals, and part of the legend in their own right- of the music and yet distinct from the music, like the culture that grew up around Dead shows, and it’s been that way since the 70’s- even since Altamont perhaps. And the demand for this circus far outweighs what they could ever actually supply, no matter how big the venue (think the million+ at the Rio concert). It doesn’t matter what they charge- people need to partake in the ritual- and it is a ritual- a ritual that is being handed down, and all the Stones can do is keep it afloat by going out on the road every few years. Are they still artists? Yes, and on multiple levels. A Bigger Bang is a great album and so what if Exile was 40 years ago? Richards has long made the case that he just wants to play, and why is it ok for old blues and jazz musicians to keep playing into old age but not the Stones? Is the artistry defined by the song craft or is it in the musicianship? Both? Who gets to decide?
I was skeptical the Stones still had it when I reluctantly went to the Bridges to Babylon tour and it was the best show of theirs I’ve ever seen, and my first show was back in ’78. Will the 50th anniversary tour be any good? Who knows- anyone who has seen the Stones or watched their clips on YouTube know it changes from night to night, even if the songs remain the same.
And what about those prices? Well, who are we to decide what the Stones should make and how much they should pay the hundreds of people involved in putting on the less than 2 dozen shows in North America? Do you want someone to tell you what you should make? The Stones aren’t making you go- and they could lower the ticket prices, and play somewhere where 100s of 1000s of people could show up, and it would suck for everyone for the most part but then people could say they went, and that the Stones generously played a gig for the people (as in Rio). But this idea that they should perform for “the real fans” at a lower -priced ticket is just total bullshit. What, do they owe you or me because we bought an album or two of theirs? Because they wrote a song that meant something to us? Should they just work their asses off and say “No thanks, I have enough money- this one’s on me” as they’re filmed by everyone’s IPhone? When did being a rock musician become a charity gig? I thought people picked up guitars for – that’s right- money and women. People pick up violins for art- not electric guitars.
Which leads me to Prince’s $250 shows. There are plenty of people I know who love Prince who won’t go sit in an arena with 10,000 or 15,000 other people. They don’t go see shows all the time- and for them, something like the DNA shows are a once in a lifetime event that’s worth every dime because it’s an experience. I know 2 people who will be seeing him for the first time at these gigs and they are ecstatic about finally getting to see him, and they would have paid even more if they had to, though they are far from wealthy. It doesn’t make them a douche just because they saved up an extra couple of hundred dollars and they think these shows are worth spending it on. Yeah, I’m sure there will be an asshole or four at each gig, but what show is asshole-free? In Prince’s case the roadies, techs and yes, the band, could be making a much bigger payday on a real tour, but this isn’t one. Shouldn’t it still be worth their while, to get paid for allowing Prince to do his thing with a band? Otherwise, we could pay $20 bucks to go hear him play an acoustic all by himself in a coffee shop- which would still easily be worth $100 a ticket because he’s fucking Prince and Prince is probably the greatest living pop musician alive
Here’s the link to the Guardian article I mentioned-
I agree with most of what you’re saying here, but where I don’t agree is that The Rolling Stones and the other examples you gave are carrying on because they have to “as artists.” I think they’re addicted to performing, to being on stage in front of wild, screaming fans. I’ve played in front of 50 people, and that was a pretty big high. So 20,000 must be spectacular. It’s that feeling that’s being kept alive for these musicians. I don’t imagine they’re being driven by the ART of it, with some exceptions.
One of the exceptions you’ve mentioned is Madonna, and having seen her most recent concert tour (paid $40), I can tell you that she is still trying new things and pissing off even her own audience. There weren’t a ton of “greatest hits” played, and those that appeared in the set were often in wildly different forms than the originals. I found it refreshing, but others complained. It’s almost as if the audience doesn’t want people to grow; they want them to stay the same. Which if I’m reading you correctly was a main point of your last email.
Led Zeppelin is an interesting case. That reunion hasn’t happened mainly because Robert Plant hasn’t felt like it. He was off doing a fantastic record with T. Bone Burnett and Allison Krauss which led to an even better tour. It’s just not something he’s interested in doing. They keep offering him more and more money for it, and he keeps turning them down. When he finally accepts, is he doing it for art or commerce? It simply must be the latter.
There’s a place for people who want to stop taking risks, and simply put their past glories on display for a wealthy audience. It’s Vegas. Look at Cher, Celine Dion, Elton John, Garth Brooks, etc. These “artists” are taking a big paycheck to do the same show over and over again to musical tourists who just want to sit in a room with their heroes, and sigh nostalgically. From all reports, each of these shows are fantastic, but it’s a commercial decision. And it’s the ticket pricing that tells me so. Garth Brooks used to be proud of charging $30 or less for his tickets, touring in giant arenas with a full band; now it’s over $200 to see him play alone, acoustically. Art? Commerce? Was there ever a difference?
As for Prince, who I agree is among the best performers and musicians in pop music, I’m more disappointed in these friends of yours than anything else. What’s taken them so long to see him? Was the DNA Lounge in 1993 too big for them? The Fillmore? San Jose State Performing Arts Center? HP Pavilion? Oracle Arena? I’m amazed they would only choose to stand in a crowded club for $275 when the joy of seeing an amazing performer like Prince is seeing how a great song can engage so many people. Your friends have completely missed the boat, and I’m not going to call the douches without knowing them, but they’re clearly not hardcore Prince fans.
The hardcore Prince fans I know bought cheap seats to all three Oracle Arena shows, were then invited down to the unsold expensive seats (there were plenty of these), and danced and sang through 9 hours of Prince over three nights. That cost in the vicinity of $75 for all three nights combined. When Prince was announced, the discussion was “yeah let’s see Prince!” And then the story became the ticket prices. You say Prince would make more from a real tour. I disagree. The gross for four shows at the DNA Lounge at $250 a ticket is $800,000. The costs of putting on a club tour are much, much, much smaller than an arena tour. My guess is that Prince will do JUST fine. He could charge $100 and still eat at Gary Danko.
But what’s upsetting to the hardcore music nerds and live music addicts that make up most of our readers and most of my friends is that the “club show” has consistently been used by artists as a treat for their biggest fans, the ones who hustle to get in. Phoenix, a band that sells out Madison Square Garden, played The Indepdendent this week, in front of 500 people. Those tickets were $45. When Green Day played The Independent, soon after selling out Pac Bell Park, I paid $20 for the ticket. I was offered $1000 for a pair when going inside. Should Green Day have charged $500 because “they can get it?” No, that’s not the point.
These acts work to generate PR and buzz for themselves, and websites like mine are supposed to play along and talk about shows like this, but the truth is that the majority of our readers simply can’t drop $500 on a night out. We’re the music fans who fuel the live music scene in San Francisco, so when someone comes into town claiming to playing some fun club show but then asks $275 for the privilege, it feels like a slap in the face, and I’m going to speak up.
Your point about Madonna matches mine, and her ticket prices are even higher than the Stones’. (Editor’s Note: Madonna prices were $56-$361 in San Jose last year; The Rolling Stones are $168-$1500 at the same venue.) Since Plant was willing to do one-off Zeppelin sets in the past, I don’t think it’s the money that’s going to sway him to finally say yes- I think it’s pride in the music, as was evident if you caught his set the last time he appeared at HSB. He’ll want to go out and own that again, to feel that rush as you aptly put it. Is that artistry or addiction? Frankly I don’t know, but the level of craft, the dedication to making it as good as they possibly can separates them from the Vegas acts and always will, regardless of how good those Vegas shows are night after night And speaking of Vegas, some of those concerts don’t happen only in Vegas- take Leonard Cohen, for example, who’s touring for the money and has admitted as much, and I wouldn’t pay a single dollar to go see Leonard Cohen at this point. Cohen, Celine, Cher and Elton are now performers, and whether or not they were ever artists is another debate- but there is a difference between a performer and an artist, and I’m not willing to admit the Stones are mere performers. Maybe that’s my own boomer roots, but as Morley put it so aptly, “they are the archive” and watching them work is still fascinating.
As for Prince, I bought cheap seats to all three Oracle shows, but as a middle-aged White guy no one invited me down to the floor. Oh well- I saw Prince open for the Stones in 1981 and most of your friends probably did not. As for my friends, I can’t say what their reasons are for never having seen the Purple One before, but I don’t want to judge them for it. I know neither grew up in the Bay Area and came from very different backgrounds than mine, but I can assure you that $250 is not an amount they would casually spend on a ticket and they are people of modest incomes.
I totally get why your core audience is miffed at the prices of these tickets- but in the case of the Prince shows, it’s a set with a hired band, not a gig for the fan club set. And had you taken the $1000 for those Green Day tickets, you could have seen both Prince and the Stones, and still had money left over to go to Gary Danko. But I suspect you didn’t, because you still believe rock music has some kind of integrity left- some shred of its soul left, and that it actually means something culturally, especially for younger people. I’m not at all sure that’s the case anymore. In fact, I haven’t thought that to be true in a very, very long time.
You can read more of John Marcher on his website, A Beast in a Jungle