On Christmas Day, when many readers may have missed it, the Sun-Times’ Commentary section published a guest perspective column by Joel Carlson, the head of our copy desk, entitled “Why those Hannah Montana tickets cost so much.” Friendly and reliable colleague or not — and I have to say that he’s never left my participles dangling — I’m afraid I have to tell you that Joel is a complete and utter bonehead, at least on this issue.
The gist of Joel’s “all is fair with supply and demand” argument — and I’ll link to it a second time here in the interest of fairness so you can read it for yourself — is summed up in the final paragraph: “Outrage [for the high price of secondary-market/scalped tickets] should be directed at the Hannah creators for making the show so popular that an impossible number of fans want to see it.”
The fact is that for any major live arts event — from a Hannah concert to the Beatles’ “Love” in Las Vegas to a holiday evening showing of the current smash hit on Broadway — there are always more people seeking to gain admittance than there are seats in the house. This is what makes live performances so special: They happen in the moment, in front of a crowd limited in number to provide the best experience possible. The viewers’ energy stimulates the performers, who in turn give more to the spectators, and this is why a live event is so much better than watching the same spectacle on TV or the Net. If that crowd gets too big, that magic is lost — seeing the Rolling Stones from the top tier of Soldier Field is still more exciting than watching a concert DVD, but just barely, since at that distance, you’re unlikely to be able to distinguish Mick from one of the roadies, much less figure out what the heck he’s singing in “Rocks Off.”
So, how is the price of concert tickets set? In the case of the Hannah show, her creators and handlers, the insidious and ever-greedy Disney Empire, and the tour’s national concert promoters, AEG Live, studied the market, discerned how many fans in each city would want to see the singer live, balanced that with how many nights the 15-year-old could realistically perform over the course of the tour given all of her other obligations and then determined what the median price should be. Every concert promoter worthy of the name, whether they’re booking a punk band at a VFW Hall or the Police at a giant stadium, does business exactly the same way. Sure, the median price means that many people can afford to pay much more, and therefore they’re getting a bargain. But in the case of the Hannah show, with ticket prices set at $21 to $66 plus those egregious Ticketmaster service fees, it also meant that many members of the singer’s fan base instantly were shut out. Many kids simply do not have a mom or a dad who can blow more than $100 on 70 minutes of entertainment, no matter how much they love their kid and regardless of how much their kid loves Hannah.
The reason Disney and AEG didn’t set the ticket prices higher had nothing to do with their concern that, to quote Joel again, “[They] would appear horribly elitist.” Or at least that wasn’t enough of a worry to make them write off millions of dollars in potential revenue. They set what they could mathematically prove was a fair price for the tickets — so long as the tickets were sold in a fair and open way.
Unfortunately, they weren’t, Many of them were stolen.
This is the way it was supposed to work: One parent sitting in front of one phone and/or logged on to one computer had as good a chance to score tickets as any other parent, regardless of whether Parent A was in the trash hauling industry and Parent B was a billionaire, or vice versa. Yes, there’s something nice and democratic about that. But it’s also unfettered capitalism: A car dealer will cheerfully sell a Rolls Royce Phantom to anyone who wants one, even a trash hauler, so long as the trash hauler has the $333,350 available to purchase said wheels. (I had to look that up, by the way — I don’t drive anything so snazzy.)
Here is where that nice, neat transaction fell apart: A split second before Parent A or Parent B could connect via phone or Internet with Ticketmaster to buy those prized Hannah seats, a ticket broker/scalper swooped in thanks to a computer program of dubious legality that enabled him or her to place thousands of phone calls and/or send thousands of Internet requests per second as a form of virtual bullying, if not metaphorical assault. Think of the trash hauler preparing to give his check to the Rolls Royce dealer when the billionaire barges in, shoves the trash hauler out of the way, breaks his or her knees with a baseball bat and buys the last Phantom in the showroom while the first unlucky customer is rolling around on the floor, screaming in pain. That’s certainly unsportsmanlike and, as I said, probably illegal, even without the damaged kneecaps.
That’s what the secondary brokers/ scalpers did with the Hannah tickets, and that’s what they do all the time, because they have powerful lobbies in Springfield and Washington that continually convince politicians to look the other way instead of passing anti-scalping legislation that would limit the amount of profit they could make when they resell tickets. Mind you, no one is advocating some Communist law prohibiting people from selling tickets they bought fair and square; the legislation would just restrict how much money they could make from pure speculation, setting a reasonable resale price scaled to the face value. They might be limited to reselling that $66 Hannah ticket for $100, which is a nice chunk of change, given the fact that they didn’t create the Hannah phenomenon, they didn’t book the tour and they aren’t singing the songs. In fact, they didn’t do anything for anybody but themselves, diving in and grabbing up all the tickets, then reselling them at hundreds of dollars above the price that the creators set to score a fair and already sizable profit.
I don’t expect to change Joel’s mind with this post; he seems dedicated to the black-and-white Capitalist argument of supply and demand, whereby those are the only two factors to consider when determining price. But even if we set aside the ethical and legal questions I’ve posed above, do we really want to live in a world where art — and yes, I know that’s a relative term when talking about Miley Cyrus — is accessible only to the fraction of society that is the most priveleged? What would concerts look like if that was the case?
As John Lennon famously cracked at the Royal Command Performance in 1963: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap their hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry.”