Monday, March 31, 2014

Live Music, And The Lost Art Of Going To A Rock & Roll Show

The Fillmore East had a capacity of approximately 3,000 seats, yet I must have met 14,000 people in the last 40 years who said they were at Hendrix's Band Of Gypsys shows in 1969.

I was not there, but for those reading who really were, I have a question if your memories will serve you.

Would you consider Jimi Hendrix at his peak when those shows were announced?

What I'm really trying to understand, and this is for everyone to play along, is this--

when did going to see live music make the transition from a simple decision and a few bucks to an event that requires a Swiss bank account and a whole lotta luck?

I have a memory of reading the New York Times one Sunday morning in 1978, seeing an ad for David Bowie at Madison Square Garden, casually getting dressed and taking a subway to the box office (which was open on Sunday) and buying a pair of tickets for $9.50 each, hassle and stress free.

Today, an artist like Neil Finn (a fave of mine) plays Town Hall for $100 and a minute after tickets go on sale, you are offered seats in the upper balcony.  Neil Finn.

Or what about Billy Joel? The guy is sold out at MSG through December even though he announced he'd be playing once a month forever.

Now we have Ticketmaster crashes, lotteries, $1,000 meet and greets, a Kate Bush picnic for £750. You need wristbands, fan club memberships, and gold-status credit cards just for a no-guarantee opportunity to purchase tickets.  Or you need a friend of a friend who knows a guy.

I don't quite get the insanity.

What artist's popularity now would be the equivalent to Hendrix's popularity in 1969 and could we just decide to go see that artist the way everyone just decided to go to the Fillmore or the Academy Of Music, or MSG 40 years ago?

I think not.

I don't recall anyone I know ever saying, "I tried to get tickets for the Stones at Forest Hills (Or Jimi at the Fillmore, or anyone/anywhere) but could not get in." My understanding is, there was a time when someone played a venue and if you wanted to go, you'd just go.

Today that is an impossibility without every star aligning.

People tend to offer this-

"There's a lot of free music out there, or much smaller shows you can see for $5 or $10."

And I say, "Yes. You are correct, except...I don't necessarily want to see those people and chances are, I don't even know those artists, what?"

What went wrong? Why? And when?


Anonymous said...

It's no different from anything else.
Try going to a baseball game. Or filling your tank with gas. Or renting an apartment in NYC. Everything is skewed to favor the already-successful. Once you've got it made in this country ... well, then you've got it made. You can then bleed the rest of us dry. The rock concert scene is just a very narrow manifestation of our warped priorities. Not to belittle your aggravation - it is aggravating! But it's much worse than what you've described.


Anonymous said...

Hello all…no, please remain seated,

Well, I imagine that an economist would characterize the current state of expensive concert tickets as one of simple supply and demand. Back in the day (1960’s, early 1970’s) a concert go-er was only competing for tickets with a relatively small slice of the population – his or her own age bracket. And, within that bracket, you’d be competing for tickets only with those who happened to read that morning’s Times, or Voice, or whatever. A sub-set of a sub-set. And that sub-set’s disposable income was pretty modest. As demand grew, prices rose…classic micro economics.

When exactly did that start? Don’t know, but I can tell you that I was absolutely crushed that I didn’t get a ticket to the Stones ’72 MSG shows. Jeez…wasn’t it a mail lottery? On the other hand, I scored front row tickets to see the Allman Brothers first tour after the deaths; Zeppelin on the night after they recorder “Song Remains…”, the Who’s mini-tour, where they played Quadrophrenia, Bowie’s Diamond Dog tour and a bunch of others. All on the wages I got as a clerk in the local drug store.

Hell…didn’t the cheap seats used to cost $3.50 for the Schaefer Music festival in Central Park (NYC)? Then the size of the audience and their income grew. I would hazard a guess that hip hop fans had a very similar arc of experience, from the late seventies to the early eighties. Hell, I’ve read that you could see Afrika Bombaata and other rap pioneers at house parties. Try getting tix to a top hip hop act now.

Net-net…live attendance at popular music is a victim of its own success. For myself, my live music experiences these days tend to be much more low key – can’t stand the hassle or the expense of seeing big acts. Over the last year or so, I’ve seen Pink Martini, Cowboy Junkies, John Prine and Richard Thompson…all at small venues. You really should check out the Tarrytown Music Hall…it’s small, easy to get tix and…wait a minute…ummm, no…it totally sucks there, you guys would hate it. Nevermind.


William Repsher said...

Nothing went wrong. What you're witnessing is the death of arena-level rock that was second nature to us through the 80's. There are a few acts that have come along since that merit those kind of ticket prices and "buzz" ... but not many. Much less than the standard issue arena-sized shows that were part and parcel of growing up in the 70's and 80's.

As for people paying $100 to see Neil Finn in a small venue ... hats off. But that's a number of issues. A, playing one or two major cities in the U.S., and only playing in one place with limited seating. It creates an artificial buzz, when the reality is there's probably about 3,000 people who would pay to see him now in any major urban area ... so let's book him in a place that holds less than 1,000 and charge three figures. I can guarantee you, if he played a 30-city tour, there's be empty seats in the back rows when he rolled through places like Kansas City and Pittsburgh.

And he's done pretty well for that kind of artist -- most times you go see Graham Parker, he's playing solo in a small club for much less. (Which is great for hardcore fans.)

This all started with that first reunion tour for the Eagles back in the 90s, that first wave of nostalgia coupling with hype and the possibility that this would be the "last time" you'd see the group play live like this. The Stones have been running that number for decades now.

I don't think it's a bad thing. And I don't think this phenomenon will exist a decade from now as so many of these guys pulling major bucks for arena tours are going to be either dead or too old to tour extensively.

Compared to dropping under $20 to see these legendary acts in their prime? I know whereof the downer you write! You can't blame the acts for shaking the money tree as hard as they can -- most of them are well aware their time to do this is almost up. There's so much more tied into this stuff now than the simple act of kids going to see a rock show as it was back then.

buzzbabyjesus said...

It's complicated. I'm not even going to try. In the past I think bands went on tour to promote album sales, which is where the money was. The tours just needed to break even. At some point people stopped buying albums, so now the tour and merchandise are where they make their money.
I think the shows have become much more expensive to put on. It's not just a band onstage anymore, it's practically a Broadway production. This is my armchair view, anyway.

peabody nobis said...

My guess is that, since the artists make the real money from live performances, they chose to jack up the ticket prices to enhance their "prestige". Seems to me that the Eagles started it all with their comeback tour.
Can't blame them, I suppose. The Labels suck in all the money on recordings. But I do recall paying reasonable prices for acts like Zeppelin in '77($12.50 per) and McCartney in '92($25.00 per). It's doubtful we'll see those prices again.

Sal Nunziato said...

Okay, I get the money issues. I'm not happy about it, but I understand.

I'm more interested in "supply and demand" and as William Repsher says the "artificial buzz."

So there's more of a demand NOW for artists 20-30 years past their prime? And is it simply that well-off people just don't care of the cost or the quality of the experience as long as it reminds them of the good old days?

Recently, Neko Case played Radio City Music Hall. I'm a fan, but how does this cult figure whose last live gig was in a room that held 550 people with a ticket cost of $30 jump to a room that holds 6,000? Nothing happened between her last record and this record. No appearance on "Glee." No hit single in a Disney film.

John P Lightning said...


For those of us 'age enhanced' enough to have spent quality time at venues such as the Fillmore East, the age of caring about any artist enough to shell out a spectacular sum of money, are long gone.

Indeed they ended 40 plus years ago for me! Second Mortgage requiring ticket prices, facilities fees!, and convenience charges (not for me!), leave me wholly disinterested in attending any major concert venues, with the occasional exception (as in being comped for a seat or getting a real deal). And even then, I find huge crowds, lousy sight lines, and arena sound systems to not be for me.

These days, I take in acts I like that play small local venues in and around the Isle of Manhattan. While many of those are also ridiculously priced (been to BB Kings lately?), I am not opposed to paying a reasonable dollar for an act or artist I think highly of.

But the rush of seeing an act relatively up close and personal, and caring enough began to wane but a few short years after the Fillmore East expired. I shall never forget my first show there. Sly and the Family were the headliner (three acts, back then, still only 3-4- and 5 dollars top price). Sly wrapped the show with “I Want to Take You Higher'. He and the band came down an aisle singing, lead us out onto second avenue, still singing 'I Want to Take You Higher', a few thousand crazies blocking off second avenue, until the singing ended and the crowd dispersed. My first show there, surely not my last!

These days, it is easier to sit by the big screen, and call up a nice YOUTUBE video of an act I love, preferably the amateur hand held type... second to bad concert venues are 'pro' videos where the camera shot changes every 2.3 milliseconds, and they always give you those wonderfully disposable behind the drums shots, and of course crowd shots... yeah that's why I go to a show, to look at the crowd during the music... hardly.

And yes, getting seats to most of the major acts of the day did not require connected friends or a day on hold with some ticket thieving outfit that always manages to 'find' a few (a few hundred) unsold seats upfront for a nice chunk of change, the day of the show, after telling you the show is sold out, or there is a seat available, but it is in the thin oxygen section of the arena... and only $150!

I'll stop now as this is a topic I can expound upon endlessly, suffice it to say, the thrill is gone, I have little desire to see most 'big' acts (those I love the best stopped playing, died, or quit touring years ago, and besides I do think I saw most all of them at their peak of powers)... last shows for me, Bill Kirchner, The Alabama Shakes, and about a dozen power pop bands doing brief but high octane sets... at righteous prices!... and usually with tickets available at the door!

John Lightning Radio NewYork International

Gene Oberto said...


soundsource said...

This is why with the very rare exception I only see music in clubs or very small theatre venues ie: Tarrytown Music Hall my neighborhood joint. The sound is usually great, the artists like playing there, the ticket prices are reasonable (usually under $60 for orchestra) and the vibe is great. Otherwise I'll wait for the DVD on netflix.
Oh and I was at the Fillmore East plenty of times but not for Band of Gypsies and I wasn't at Woodstock either.

soundsource said...

oh yeah no fees to speak of at the Tarrytown Music Hall

Anonymous said...

Hello, please remain seated,

Many good comments and observations. As BBJ and Peabody stated, the financial model has morphed from records to performances being the money maker for music acts...AND...the tours ARE much more like Broadway productions. I read that the Stones total entourage for their 1969 tour numbered 16 people. And that included the band themselves! Nowadays that's probably just the size of the hair-makeup-and wardrobe department. Neko Case. I think that the Radio City gig was the mark of a really good concert promoter. Take a look at the tour page on her web site. My guess would be that Radio City is the largest hall on her itinerary. A prestige venue like Radio City would enhance her stature among ticket buyers, building momentum for sales.

On supply and demand...there's now more than one generation interested in seeing this music live. The market for the music has grown exponentially. I had literally NO interest in seeing the perfofrmers my dad liked. My daughters have interest in seeing some of my bands. Bigger demand for a scarce resource equals rising prices.

Gene Oberto...greed? Well, maybe, but I think there are other forces at work. You might be able to make a case that scalpers shoulder some of the blame. If scalping at higher levels than list price is widepspread, wouldn't a reasonably smart band conclude that they priced themselves too cheaply? If the market will bear a price, why should a third party profit from the spread?

In any helps to live in or near a big city. Few summers ago, missus RichD and myself caught Raul Malo on a Hudson River music cruise fro about $45 bucks. Hot sweaty great music...Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn bridge sailing by. Hard to think of better concert value than that night.


dogbreath said...

So what would happen if we all refused to pay & stopped going? OK, so that's never gonna happen. I've just shelled out for tickets (including the ubiquitous how-can-that-be-reasonable handling fee)for a musical show plus travel plus hotel so I'm thinking of selling some organs to keep my bank manager happy. So I guess I'm as much to blame as anything for keeping the whole vicious circle going round.

Anonymous said...

There is a way to cut down on ticket prices and the Europeans have it mastered -- general admission.

expat Ed

itsok2beright said...

Oh, the days of opening the Wednesday Village Voice to see which tickets are going on sale that day. Then taking the D train to the MSG box office, or better yet calling (212-564-4400). Can't forget that number, called it many times for tickets.

Greed?? Supply and Demand?? Ticketron/Ticketmaster?? eBay?? Stub-Hub?? Extravagant shows?? MTV??

It seems like each of those excuses have conspired to raise the awareness and prices for live shows. Your recent posts about Kiss should remind us when live shows became as much about the production as the music. The MTV generation is also huge in this. Having choreographed dancers on stage??? Please!

You also touched upon one of the other issues, the longevity of some acts. In the 60's and 70's, how many self-repecting teens would go see a show that their parents would see. Today, there are at least three generations of fans chasing after the same tickets (Billy Joel for example).

So, who has cheap tickets for tonights Sabbath concert at Barclay's?

erik said...

OR, you could move to a smaller market, that seems to work! I know when I lived in SF practically everything would sell out instantly and that sucked, but it was partly because there are 8 millionish people live within an hour or so of there (and partly because people are just too hip). Whereas living in Austin in the last few years, I've seen Motorhead, Pavement, Bootsy Collins, Devo, Joanna Newsom, Jolie Holland, Roky Erickson, Daniel Johnston, the Meat Puppets opening for Butthole Surfers, all in sub-3000-capacity venues, and all for under $50. Many-to-most of those shows didn't sell out. Then again, we're not talking serious-classic-rock stuff here, and Radiohead and such do sell out instantly. I guess what I'm saying is, for even a generation after dudes-who-played-the-Fillmore, like Bootsy from my list, the situation is a lot more manageable, and it helps to not live in a metro area of 20 million or whatever.

mauijim said...

Blame Clear Channel 15 years ago, they decided the entertainment market was undervalued compared to sports and advised their clients to increase fees. Then the perfect storm hit, when the cd market dried up because of piracy and the availability to purchase a song over buying a whole album for a couple of songs.
Sal, this obviously affected you in the worse possible way.
The artists then had no choice but to tour and ask for outrageous fees.

ag said...

By God, I think he's (mauijim) got it! Decline in income from recorded music sales + artificially inflated charges from venue owners/operators = outrageously priced concert tickets. Greed all around, except for music fans who can longer afford to see their favorite acts perform.

William Repsher said...

Really not sure how much the decline in recorded music sales has genuinely affected recording artists. More often than not, they were getting shafted on royalties and such before the digital age. It's hard to say what level of artist would be hit by this: superstars have contracts that have any number of revenue streams, and indie bands tend to get paid hardly anything by their small labels ... just like in the pre-digital era. Medium-level artists with a fan base, think Wilco, tend to have such a fan base that they'll download stuff for free, buy the CD on release day AND go see the band play live. I'd wager the people hardest hit by the digital age are songwriters who depended on royalties as their main source of income. Bands and recording artists tend to have iron-clad contracts that are more like massive personal loans (disguised as advances) they spend the next few years paying off by touring.

Another big factor: travel costs. The price of gas has skyrocketed in the past few decades. It costs a lot more to put a band on an extensive tour for this reason alone. But, again, talk to most indie guys, and they have years logged sleeping in vans and on fans' floors to cut touring costs!

I should also point out most artists aren't charging an arm and a leg - only that top level of legendary acts and random Top 40 folks having their 15 minutes. It might be Miley Cyrus now, but she ought to go to a Hanson show to see her future. Most bands now seem to play smaller venues and charge under $60, which is tolerable. It's when you want to see "the legend" that the price creep kicks in. At least when you see a package tour, like REO Speedwagon/Styx/Journey style tours, you know exactly what you're getting and are most likely pleased as hell with the results.

Sal Nunziato said...

I guess you need to define "arm and a leg." No show at the Beacon Theatre is less than $100. John Hiatt at City Winery was $85.

This, of course, IS New York City where a cup of coffee and one macaroon is $12.

William Repsher said...

Yet, you could go see Graham Parker play any small club in the NYC area (more than likely a club in the suburbs as he seems to tour the northeast a lot) for half that or less.

City Winery seems like an odd place to me, where fans will get charged those higher prices to see more cult-following artist like Hiatt, or Parker for that matter. Supper Club was a lot like that, too (not sure if it's still around) ... you get the same runaround with Town Hall.

I think the venue thinks they're a "class joint" and charging accordingly. And fans pay it, which is why they keep charging as much! In the old days, both Hiatt and Parker would play the Bottom Line, usually with another artist or two on the bill, and you know we were paying much less than this.

As I pointed out, I'm not sure how much longer this will last. Look at how old Parker and Hiatt are, all these artists we're talking about. They're not going to be touring in 10 years. I know, I was saying this 10 years ago ... but really, these guys will be in their 70s and 80s, assuming they're still alive. It's really reaching that breaking point.

How many artists who made their bones in the 80s and 90s are touring at that level now? Not a lot -- most get themselves on package tours where they can team up with similar artists and play bigger venues. How many artists in the 00's and now? It remains to be seen, but it seems to me like this whole era of arena-sized shows is fading in general. Which is probably for the best as the venues tend to suck for hearing live music! Of course, that doesn't mean ticket prices are going to get any cheaper in the future. There are so many variables determining how much artists can charge their fans and still get people to come out and support them.

Chris Schmid said...

I just got a chance to catch up on this week's posts. Living out on LI I still get the occasional chance to see a good show at t a fair price. Jason Isbell/Holly Williams was $25 at The Space in Westbury. Ratdog was $65 and The Royal Southern Brotherhood was 45 at the 250 seat Boulton Center in Bayshore.

Btw that last show was a killer...Devon Allman/Mike Zito/Cyrill Neville/Charlie Wooten/Yonrico Scott. How more folks don't know about these guys escapes me. One of the most rockin' shows I have seen in a while. What a lead guitar duo playing some very tasty blues rock. This is also a band who knows what side its bread is buttered on...they did a pretty lengthy FREE meet and greet after the show and seemed genuinely happy that folks stayed.

The again there are the just far too expensive classic rock acts at the MSG's of the world. I can live without seeing Billy Joel or Fleetwood Mac again at those prices.

Hopefully I get my grades done and entered so I can make the record show on Sunday.