As the Edinburgh Fringe winds down this coming long weekend, the best reporter and critic on the events north of the border Lyn Gardner has asked aloud earlier this week if theatregoers are being priced out of the fringe.
I’ve often addressed the rising ticket inflation of the West End (with tickets for The Book of Mormon and The Audience earlier this year reaching £125 – from the box office, never mind the touts) and the rampant one of Broadway, but now it seems that Edinburgh has caught the disease, too. As Lyn writes, theatregoers can
easily be paying £15 each for an hour-long show. Do that four times in a day and you will have spent £60 on theatre tickets: about the price of a good full price seat in the West End.
But, as a couple from London I was talking to in a queue pointed out, while they regularly come to Edinburgh for five days every summer, they would never spend five days on the trot going to see shows in the West End, because if they spent £600 a week between them they wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage. Like many others at Edinburgh this year, they had cut back on the number of paid shows they were seeing this year, and spending more time at the free fringe.
At least Edinburgh now has that option (and premium prices have not yet been introduced as far as I know there, though it can’t be far away that some fringe venue or other will start offering a premium, queue-jump reserved seat). There is no free West End – or even free fringe – in London (unless you sign up for a subscription with one of the seat filling services like Play by Play or The Audience Club.) Or, of course, weather permitting you can head over the Scoop, in the shadow of City Hall near Tower Bridge, for their annual free theatre season, now in its 11th year.
But it isn’t just theatregoers being hit by the ever-escalating prices of tickets. At least if a ticket isn’t available tonight or this week, you may be able to secure a ticket later in the run, and it always worth asking the box office. But for gigs, it’s another story: most acts only play one or two night residencies, and that’s it. So the inventory is strictly finite, and access to it has become a matter of high exclusivity. The problem seems to be that most big gigs sell out within minutes of going on sale – and a disproportionate number of them end up in the hands of the touts (to give them their old-fashioned name) or the ‘secondary resale market’, as it is more politely called. And it’s created a problem all of its own. It has led to suggestions that gig prices are, in fact, simply too cheap – and that the mark-up is then born by the fans who have to buy them from the secondary market, instead of being earned by the artists.
In an interesting debate in the Observer last weekend, Tim Ingham, editor of Music Week, argued the point with music writer Jude Rogers. As Ingham put it,
It’s never going to be a popular opinion to suggest that something currently affordable by music fans isn’t expensive enough – but hear me out. The problem is, the “price” we see on the tickets to today’s biggest concerts is essentially a myth: for every one of these gigs, thousands of tickets (sometimes more than 50%) are being bought then sold for huge profits via online resale platforms. This “secondary market” has become its very own parasitic industry: technologically endowed racketeers snap up all the best seats, freezing genuine music lovers out of any chance of paying face value… Selling the most sought-after seats at a higher price in the first place would force touting scumbags to flog tickets for even more exorbitant amounts to make a profit – upping their risk and ultimately killing their so-called business.
This is precisely the same argument that Matthew Byam Shaw, producer of The Audience, used to justify his £125 premium ticket. People were clearly willing to pay higher prices to see it – so he felt he should offer them himself, rather than handing the profit to the touts instead.
Of course, it could simply increase the tout value – the touts may have to buy the £125 ticket and mark that up instead. But it also suggested that there is an upper limit to how much fans might pay, from any source.
Ingham cites the example of the Rolling Stones on their recent tour:
The Rolling Stones recently earned criticism for pricing their tickets very high (£300+) for the best seats/view in the house at the O2 Arena and Hyde Park. But crooked dealers desperate to turn a decent profit were in turn forced to price their Stones tickets at truly laughable levels (£500+). Surprise surprise, many went unsold or eventually had to be sold at a loss – and the resellers suffered. There’s a limit to the price tag commanded even by the Greatest Rock’n'Roll Band in the World – and Mick Jagger, a former economics student, knows it better than anyone. I would rather he profited heavily from his own gigs than some greedy third party with no interest in his fans.
So the touts are duly destabilised. But like tarts, the world’s second oldest-profession is probably not going to go away that easily. As Jude Rogers in turn replies,
This still doesn’t stop the non-cash-rich fan from being out of pocket, or out of luck. Perhaps only regulation can stop online resale working in the way that it does.
There can and must be a different way to sell tickets that doesn’t involve penalising fans to prevent others from profiting. And it applies to sought-after theatre tickets just much as it does to gigs.