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Mark Shenton: Let’s consider the terrifying future of premium ticket prices

Hamilton. Photo: Joan Marcus A scene from Hamilton on Broadway. Photo: Joan Marcus
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They always say that the only things you can’t avoid are death and taxes (though Amazon, Google et al are doing a pretty good job of skipping the latter). The other inevitability, it seems, is the inexorable rise of premium pricing in the theatre.

It is the very model of capitalism at work: you charge what the market will bear. At the most basic level, a theatre ticket has to be priced in such a way that the producer can cover the cost of putting on the show. It should meet a recoupment schedule, or there’s no point – at least in commercial theatre terms. The producer also needs to build in profitability, partly for sustainability (not every show is going to recoup, so producers need to win on some to offset the losses on others), but also to lure backers, who will want to see a return on their investment.

You can rob the rich to subsidise the poor, but where does it stop?

But rising prices are threatening to close down some theatres to all but the most well-heeled (or well-connected) theatregoers. In an attempt to appease their consciences, many theatres reward those who are prepared to put in the work queueing for day seats, chancing their luck on daily lotteries or getting in early. The Old Vic releases half of all seats at £10 for the first five previews of every production, five weeks in advance of the first preview, but the same Old Vic is now charging £140 for premium seats for The Master Builder.

Like Robin Hood, you can rob the rich to subsidise the poor – so there’s something to be said for premium pricing when ventures such as the Michael Grandage Company commits to making a quarter of its inventory available for £10. The premium price tickets it sells to those too rich to care help offset that.

But where does it stop? On Broadway, it seems, the sky is truly the limit. There’s no difference at all now between the official ticketing channels (run or appointed by the theatres to sell their tickets) and the secondary ticket (resale) market. Hamilton is currently the hottest ticket on Broadway, but you can get tickets for it this week, via Ticketmaster, the official agency which handles ticketing for the Nederlander group, which owns the Richard Rodgers Theatre where it is playing, via its resale channel, which operates not in some shady alleyway beside the theatre, but alongside and in full public view on the show’s own live inventory online.

As of February 9, there were still 111 seats available for that Saturday evening’s performance (nearly 10% of the theatre’s 1,319 seats). But a centre orchestra (stalls) ticket will set you back $1,690, while a rear mezzanine ticket is $618. The site helpfully comments: “Note: Resale prices often exceed face value. Resale tickets are verified by Ticketmaster and available for instant delivery.”

Howard Sherman: Ticket bots are wreaking havoc on Broadway prices

One of the rationales for introducing premium pricing was to cut out the touts: if a mark-up was being made, it is the producers and creative team who should benefit. But now those theatres have become touts themselves, offering resale tickets publicly. At least there’s transparency to this — no one’s hiding what they’re doing — but the problem, as I see it, is one of perception: you’re also telling the world that this is entirely acceptable, and that you don’t care. In fact, you (or your ticketing representatives) are taking a slice of the action. In addition to that giddying price of $1,690 a ticket, the ‘service fee’ per ticket is $270.40. So a pair of tickets will set you back $3,920.80 — less than $80 shy of $4,000.

Meanwhile, the true lifeblood of the theatre — the fans who support it year in, year out — are being cut out. And so is the possibility to build future audiences. This sort of theatre will be a millionaire’s play thing. It’s a future I don’t want to see.

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