Local Current Blog

Stings of convenience: Ticket fees and the rising cost of concerts in the Twin Cities

Credit: Publicity photo

It’s an experience most music fans know all too well. 

An artist announces that they’re coming to town — say, Morrissey, who will be at the Orpheum Theatre on October 29. Plans are made, friends are called and money for the advertised $75 ticket price is earmarked in anticipation of the on-sale date. 

When that date arrives, fans scurry to the venue’s website in droves. For the Morrissey show, the Orpheum’s website redirects web users to Ticketmaster to select their seats and finish the sale with only a few clicks.

But as soon as the screen loads, seats start disappearing from Ticketmaster’s site faster than Moz can whip off one of his sweat-drenched shirts. And once a set of seats are secured and the transaction nears completion, the price suddenly shoots up to $91.29 per ticket, adding almost 22% to the total ticket cost. Argh! Sadly, a 22% increase is actually a modest fee compared to many modern-day ticket sales; extra charges tacked on by companies like the behemoth Ticketmaster corporation can be as high as 60% of the cost of the ticket.

What’s that about? Why does the cost of attending a show seem to be rising at such a steep rate? And where is all that money going?

Sticker shock: Fans react to the climbing cost of concerts

To get a handle on today’s concert ticketing trends, I surveyed 60 music fans ranging from casual consumers to avid show-goers and asked them to reflect on their past decade of concert experiences in the Twin Cities. The survey question that received the most impassioned responses was also the most straightforward: Have concert ticket prices increased over the past five to 10 years?

“They’ve skyrocketed,” more than one responder noted emphatically, citing the cost of some of the Twin Cities’ recent big-name shows like David Byrne & St. Vincent and Bruce Springsteen. Julie Strahan, a music teacher from Roseville, agreed — she says she’s skipped concerts by banner acts like U2 because of the $150+ ticket price. “It’s gone way up,” she says. “[Tickets] for at least two, if not four people — that adds up to a house payment.”

Survey respondents were asked to review their ticket stubs from the past decade to see if they could spot noticeable changes. Matt Pekarek, also of Roseville, found one particular artifact that reminded him of what he had paid for past shows: “I have a framed poster from an Ike Reilly show at First Avenue from almost exactly 10 years ago,” he says. “$6 in advance, $10.50 at the door — that sounds like a pure bargain now.” (For comparison, Ike Reilly’s upcoming show at First Ave is $15, regardless of whether the ticket is purchased in advance.) He also noted only paying $25-$30 to attend multi-day festivals like Edgefest and X-Fest, while weekend festivals can now easily run upwards of $100.

But many of the fans who believed ticket prices were rising also included a big caveat: While  prices at arenas and other large venues were increasing at a dramatic rate, smaller club shows and especially shows featuring local artists seem to have plateaued.

“Most local music, on a scale of something like Dreamcrusher or Demographics, is almost always free or $5,” notes Minneapolis audio engineer and photographer Eric Elvendahl. “That’s less than it used to be. I remember paying $7 for most shows when I was younger.”

Minnetonka resident Mark Potter agrees. “I remember paying $3-$4 covers at the Foxfire, 7th St. and Triple Rock years ago. Considering how expensive everything else has gotten by comparison, I would say smaller local bands’ prices have stayed pretty flat.”

With the problem area isolated — most fans are fine with paying modest cover charges but bristle at tickets in the $25-plus range, and are especially alarmed by big-name acts charging closer to $100 with fees — I called industry representatives to get their take on the rising cost of national acts in the Twin Cities.

Where’s your money really going?

While more than a third of the fans polled in the survey were either unsure or doubtful that ticket prices had risen significantly over the past 10 years, all three of the ticket specialists I spoke with answered with a resounding “yes.”

“The average ticket price has gone up,” says First Avenue general manager Nate Kranz. A ticket at First Avenue now goes for about $20-$25, he says, whereas the same shows would have had a $10-$15 ticket price a decade prior.

But Kranz also points out that costs have risen across the board for venues, artists and promoters as they work together to put on shows.

“The ticket price is most often dictated by the band,” he says. “It’s more expensive to tour, so with gas prices and all that, they need to make money to be out on the road, and consequently the only way is to raise the ticket price. They’re not selling as many records as before, so it’s more important to get on the road, play the shows, sell merch, things like that.”

Prime seats for David Byrne & St. Vincent were $79 before fees; photo by Ben Clark

Tamsen Preston, who works as Director of Operations for one of the Cities’ largest independent promotion companies, Sue McLean and Associates, confirms that the ticket price is calculated after receiving the minimum amount, or “guarantee,” that the artist expects to earn at the show, and then adding up the different expenses that can be incurred while putting the concert together.

“From the customer side, as a music fan, they don’t see what is behind the scenes and who needs to get paid and all the expenses that go into it — so definitely, ticket prices are going to reflect how [much] that show is going to cost a promoter,” she says.

The list of additional expenses can number in the dozens, and covers everything from the salaries of the staff working the room during the show to miscellaneous fees paid to companies like ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, who collect royalties from venues that allow bands to play covers or pipe recorded music over the PA between sets.

As soon as the cash for the concert ticket leaves a fan’s hand, it can be used to cover any number of these various costs:

  • Rental of the space
  • Additional sound equipment
  • Additional lighting equipment
  • Stage labor (techs and roadies)
  • Ushers
  • Ticket takers
  • Insurance
  • Advertising
  • Marketing
  • Security
  • Catering
  • Backline (drum kits and amps shared between bands)
  • Royalty fees
  • Taxes on any of the above 

All of those expenses need to be covered before a single dollar actually leaves the venue with the artist, who historically enjoy profiting from playing a show. Kim King, who recently started working as the talent buyer at the Cabooze after years of working in a similar role at the Fine Line, says that the artist is responsible for covering many of the costs “until the show breaks even — and that is when either one of us makes any money on the show. But not until then. Not until all of those costs are paid.”

There’s a reason why all three industry professionals referred to their trade as “gambling” — when they’re setting the price for a concert, they’re not only crunching numbers to figure out how to make the artist happy and cover their own costs, but they’re betting on the hope that enough people will attend the show to make the whole thing worthwhile.

“At the end of the day? It’s a crapshoot,” laughs King. “I mean, we could have a snowstorm and nobody shows up. It’s all a gamble. And if you like to gamble, then this is the business to be in.”

What makes a show worth the price?

So with prices for the big-name shows going nowhere but up, what makes it worth the splurge on a higher-than-average price ticket?

“Venue is a huge consideration,” says music fan Amanda Novak. “I think the sound system at Roy Wilkins is horrible, so we tend to not spend a lot of money on tickets there. We also don’t go to stadium shows typically (the Xcel, Target Center, etc.) because part of the experience of connecting to the music and those around you is completely lost. I would rather pay more and see a good band in a smaller venue.”

Not surprisingly, the intimacy and quality of the venue ranked high among reasons for spending extra money on a pricey show — almost as high as love for the artist that is performing. It makes sense. Why pay more than $100 to see your favorite act if you can’t even see them from your seat?

“I’ve spent too many earlier years paying low prices for nose-bleed seats,” says Colin Sokolowski of Vadnais Heights. “When I was in high school, a friend of mine got kicked in the face by the lead singer of Ratt at the same show I attended. I remember being upset because I wished I could’ve been kicked in the face. Now, if I go to a show, I’ll pay the top price for the best seats available. It’s not enough to simply be in the room with Eddie Van Halen or Sting — I want to be able to see their expressions and smiles up close.”

Most fans are able to justify the occasional big-buck ticket, especially when they know their money is going toward their favorite artist or a flashy stage and lighting show. But the real deal breaker for fans across the board is that extra ticket cost that most definitely isn’t making its way into the hands of the artists — those pesky, ever-higher fees.

Why do fees exist? Whyyyyyy???

As much as we love to hate fees, First Ave’s Nate Kranz says he doesn’t expect them to go away anytime soon. As we migrate even further into the digital world, fees are a necessary part of keeping the concert-going experience as convenient as possible for fans.

“Like any other business, there are these companies and they need to be able to make money on the service they provide,” Kranz says. “The fact is, even though it seems easy, the reason there are ticket companies that rise to the top is, in the business of ticketing, oftentimes all the demand is at once. And if you don’t have the ability to handle it — I mean, even more frustrating than paying a fee is to have your favorite band come through and get locked out because the ticket server crashes. That’s why you have to find a company that’s big enough to handle on-sales and not screw that up.”

Ordering a ticket online may seem like a painless process, but Kim King points out that there are usually massive organizations of people and web servers working to make purchasing such a breeze. “One thing that people have to keep in mind when they complain about the fees is that somebody has to keep that website up and running. Somebody has to answer the phone when there are problems. Somebody has to answer our phone call when we have problems. Somebody has to provide us with the ticket stock that those tickets are printed on. There’s a lot of things that go into maintaining that infrastructure, so that they can just point, click, and buy their ticket,” she says. 

“Somebody has to build the app for their phone, that they can just go in and buy the ticket,” she continues. “They call them convenience fees — well, it is a convenience. You can literally point and click on your phone and buy a ticket to a show that you can then walk to in five minutes.”

But King, Kranz and Sue McLean & Associates’ Tamsen Preston agreed that some fees are more outrageous than others, and that an astronomically high fee doesn’t help anybody.

“I know that a lot of promoters are looking at other options, because they are concerned about the increased fees that do go back to the consumer, to the customer,” says Preston. “I think a lot of promoters are looking at other options because of how high the fees can get. At the end of the day, when you purchase a ticket and it’s $20 and you’re paying almost half in fees on top of that, it’s a little disgruntling to the promoters and the consumer.”

“I pay a lot of attention to the fees when I’m booking shows,” agrees Kranz. “And I just think to be competitive in the future — it’s coming sooner rather than later — that venues are going to have to keep their fees in line as there’s more options of places to play. More and more, people are realizing that their shows are suffering if the fans are getting priced out. You shouldn’t have to pay $50 for a $27 ticket.”

What can fans do?

Luckily, there is still a lot of power in the hands of concertgoers. Like most consumer industries, the concert market is based on supply and demand. Not only do promoters and venues notice when fans shy away from certain shows because of high ticket prices and fees, but now more than ever, there are options for not just where to see a show but how to purchase a ticket.

The easiest solution for avoiding fees is to go straight to the source — an alternative many of the music fans who took the survey were fond of employing. Computers and mobile devices make it easier than ever to buy tickets on the fly, but sometimes taking the extra time to drive to the venue’s box office or a participating ticket vendor (like one of our many area record stores) can eliminate almost all of the additional fees.

Secondly, there are now several different independent ticket sellers who are gunning for market space alongside Ticketmaster, and all of them have significantly lower fees. In the chart below, you can see the average cost of purchasing tickets through Ticketfly (used by the Varsity, Cabooze, Triple Rock, Amsterdam and Turf Club, among others), eTix (used by First Avenue) and TicketWeb (the Cedar Cultural Center, 400 Bar), alongside the once-much-more-dominant Ticketmaster (still used by the Hennepin Theatre Trust, Target Center, Xcel and Fine Line). The numbers were calculated based on a random sampling of tickets for upcoming shows.

There are still pros and cons; TicketWeb has by far the lowest fees, with the average fee hovering around $2-$3 regardless of the ticket price, but larger companies like eTix and Ticketmaster still have the best track record for sustaining large amounts of traffic over a short period of time without buckling under the demand. But the differences in price are apparent, and in some cases quite striking.

The good news is fans have not stopped going to shows all together. Even though fans are more hesitant to spring for a hefty ticket price, many of the survey respondents said they’ve simply replaced big-name shows with a smattering of more reasonably priced local dates.

Could this be one of the reasons why the local music scene has experienced such a boost in attendance over the past few years?

“You can see TONS of amazing music in this town in the $5-$10 price range, and also tons of great free music in the summer,” says active Minneapolis showgoer John Thwing, who estimates that he goes to as many as 100 concerts per year. “I find that I enjoy many $5-$10 shows as much as $35-$50 shows, so I don’t always mind missing the more expensive artists.”

“You can still catch great shows on a budget,” agrees Greg Michels. “Look at all the excellent local talent here that plays for next to nothing — you can catch Sleeping in the Aviary on the cheap if you pay attention, and Painted Saints and Katey Bellville. These are talented artists who would’ve been big time recording artists in a different decade. [There’s] lots of competition here, but it produces an excellent local scene.”

And respondent PJ Mudd sums it up nicely: “With so many venues to choose from, there’s not really an excuse to not see shows in the Twin Cities.”