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Tickets, please!

When I first started going to Italy with the intention of seeing a live band, I felt I had to buy a ticket beforehand. Navigating ticketing websites, even when there’s no version in English, is generally straightforward but I’ve learned that reserving a ticket for the sort of band I like to see is rarely strictly necessary nor necessarily advantageous, especially when your spoken Italian is as bad as mine and you have to rehearse what you say when you go to pick up the ticket. Just asking for a ticket is easy but I’ve had all sorts of problems when I’ve gone to collect a pre-ordered ticket, including picking up a receipt from one desk and then having to present that at another desk to get the ticket (when I went to see PFM at Genoa’s Teatro Carlo Felice) or having to register as a member of a club before I could pick up my ticket (Banco del Mutuo Soccorso at Circolo Colony in Brescia). It’s when staff respond, quite appropriately in their own language, that I have to resort to ‘lei parla inglese?’ It’s much less embarrassing when you stroll up to the ticket office and say ‘un biglietto per favore.’ Apart from a couple of nights at the Progressivamente 2017 festival in Rome which were crowded but entry was free, I’ve never had any worries about not getting in; on one occasion when I reserved a ticket before travelling, the Event ’16 performance at the Teatro Altrove in Genoa, a beautiful old theatre which could have seated somewhere between 100 and 200, the audience size was only just into double digits. However, I thought it was probably best to book for the PFM gig and I was right; there were only a few seats remaining with two weeks to go. Not willing to miss out yet again after procrastinating in Venice in 1980, receiving a email telling me the Manticore birthday show was cancelled in 2011 and heading off to Peru during their UK tour in 2016, I was happy to pay €51 for a seat in the front stalls which, with the booking fee, worked out at £51.

PFM, Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova 15th November 2017

A recent article in The Guardian by Rhian Jones points out how fans are being priced out of gigs now the UK is gripped by a cost of living crisis, with galloping inflation outstripping wage growth and soaring energy charges while BP profits hit an eight-year high of £9.45bn and Shell’s profits were even higher. Without a windfall tax on fossil fuel companies to help UK consumers, the music industry is going to take another hit as collateral. The creative arts sector has been at the mercy of a string of 10 useless and vindictive Secretaries of State over the last 12 years and needed more and better targeted help during the Covid pandemic, so Jones makes a valid point. I’ve had a look at ticket prices over the years I’ve been going to concerts and it’s plain to see that if a fan is financially squeezed, things like live music are going to be less essential than food and heat.

It’s not inappropriate to equate the Teatro Carlo Felice with the Barbican Hall or the Royal Festival Hall based on both function and architectural interest. Tickets for gigs at both the Barbican and the RFH are mostly very reasonably priced, with Camel at the Barbican in 2013 costing £25 for a balcony seat compared to the price of £37.50 for a first circle seat to see Genesis tribute band Musical Box at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire six months earlier; my Dweezil Zappa ticket for the performance at the Festival Hall in October 2017, admittedly for a seat at the very back of the stalls, only cost £24.50. Camel happen to be a band I’ve seen live on a number of occasions in different venues, starting off in 1979 at the Hammersmith Odeon when a ticket cost £3.75 and costing £4.50 and £5.50 at Croydon’s Fairfield Halls in 1982 and 1984 respectively. The most recent Camel gig cost me £75 for a seat with a view from behind the front of the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in 2018.

My first London concert was Yes at the Wembley Arena in October 1978 when the (matinee) ticket cost me £4; a year later my ticket for jazz great Dave Brubeck playing at the Royal Festival Hall was also £4. Taking inflation into account, the £4 Yes ticket should have cost £14.95 in 2004, which was the last time I saw Yes at Wembley; it set me back £35. My last attendance at a Yes concert was for their 50th anniversary tour in 2018 where a ticket for the performance at the London Palladium cost me £61.50 with booking fees on top. The average inflation between 1978 and 2018 was 4.4%, so the price for the Palladium ticket would have been around £22.50 if inflation had been the only factor affecting rising costs. Southbank prices stuck a bit closer to the official inflation level and my £4 Dave Brubeck ticket would have cost a little over £19 in 2017, though Dave Brubeck played in a quartet and Dweezil Zappa’s band was not only larger but was augmented by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble.

A large ensemble or the presence of accompanying musicians obviously has an impact on ticket prices but the one Barbican concert where I was genuinely surprised at the charge was for Keith Emerson in July 2015: £65 for what sadly turned out to be his final live appearance, performing the Three Fates Project with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Both the Barbican Centre and the Southbank Centre receive grants from Arts Council England (though the arts has been an easy target for the government during their pursuit of austerity meaning their share of the money has been slashed) and their importance as centres of culture attracts other funding streams, so I suspect that some of this money is used to subsidise ticket prices. The Van der Graaf Generator Royal Festival Hall reformation concert ticket from 2005 actually seems rather expensive at £30 though I’d describe this as one of the best gigs, if not the best I’ve ever attended and I certainly wasn’t worried about cost having procured my ticket as a return, where someone had ordered tickets but was unable to attend and offered them back to the venue. The next two VdGG shows I saw were when they’d been reduced to a trio following the departure of David Jackson, both at the Barbican in 2007 and 2013, and these seats cost £25 on each occasion, despite the six year interregnum.

It’s fortunate that I’m only interested in niche music, and I’ve managed to get what I’d regard as ‘hot tickets’ just days before a show. I was a little surprised that I got to see Steven Wilson at The Troxy shortly after the release of Hand.Cannot.Erase when I couldn’t make up my mind if I wanted to go or not. On another occasion I bagged one of three remaining seats for a rare appearance of Node at the Royal College of Music, a performance subsequently released on CD as Node Live. Fans of acts like Adele and Beyonce will be aware of the difficulty getting hold of tickets at the marked price, but when tickets for Kate Bush’s 22-night residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in 2014 sold out in 15 minutes and a standing ticket for one of Radiohead’s three Roundhouse shows in 2016 was allegedly on sale for £1200 through the secondary ticketing service Viagogo, perhaps the trouble-free days of access to prog shows will soon be over, too.

The problem appears to be with under-regulation of secondary ticketing sites, thanks to free-market zeal, and according to a report in The Guardian at the end of 2017, it’s putting the UK’s £4.5bn music industry, which supports around 142,000 jobs, under threat because fans’ cash is being diverted from their favourite acts into the pockets of touts who use methods of doubtful legality to acquire large numbers of tickets which can then be sold on to Viagogo and StubHub at mark-ups which on average nets them around 25% profit. A survey of gig-attendees found that two-thirds of respondents who had paid more than face value for a ticket on a resale site said they would attend fewer concerts in future, while half would spend less on recorded music.

It’s hardly a body blow to touting but my one experience of dealing with a character buying and selling tickets in the pedestrian subway leading out to the Hammersmith Odeon did result in a financial loss for the tout. I’d won two tickets to see Genesis in September 1982 but couldn’t persuade anyone to accompany me. I sold the spare ticket, at the back of the stalls and with a face value of £7.50 for £10 and was entirely satisfied that no one claimed the seat.

Though there seem to be fewer examples of physical touting outside concerts (and sporting occasions) there is a massive secondary ticketing industry, said to be worth around £1bn, fuelled by the internet and based on the simple fact that demand for live music and sports events outstrips supply; this is where substantial sums of money are made by armchair touts who target the most popular events. I can’t imagine ever paying twice the face value of a ticket but that’s because I tend to stick to esoteric gigs and pay €15 to see three bands somewhere out in the suburbs of Milano, or perhaps splash out on a two-day festival ticket on the Italian Riviera for €35.

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