Keen to see Rosalía at London’s O2? Tickets start at £66 and top out at £105. Stoked by the buzz surrounding Sugababes’ already-legendary Glastonbury set but couldn’t get anywhere near their rammed tent? Check ’em out at Eventim Apollo in West London, but get ready to spill anything from £74 to £140. Kendrick Lamar at The O2 – unmissable, right? The cheapest seat is £80, though Ticketmaster’s in-house price-hyping system, Platinum Tickets, will happily bump that price up to over £200.
Yes, we know there’s a cost of living crisis. Everything from heating to butter and beer is pricier than ever. But still, even in the current climate, going to a live show has become ruinously expensive. And at a time when we need gigs more than ever.
“Live music is escapism,” insists Archie Blagden of alt-pop duo Sad Night Dynamite. “It’s so important, because people need that escapism,” the musician adds – particularly after you-know-what. Following two anxiety-inducing years of Covid restrictions and a government that’s mining new lows on a daily basis, everyday life is a gruelling prospect.
So, with ticket prices on the rise, the cost of just getting to a venue becoming eye-wateringly expensive and the hefty price tag attached to drinks once you’re inside, you’d be forgiven for sacking it all off and just sticking on Love Island instead.
But according to music industry insiders, this isn’t necessarily because promoters and artists are stuffing their pockets off the backs of already-overburdened fans.
“Your ticket price includes the electricity needed to put on the show, the price of trucking the production to the venue and the cost of staffing the event,” explains Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust. “The margins that the live music industry works on are extremely tight. Even on some of these very high-value tickets, it would probably be surprising to people to know how little profit margin there actually is. When you see a three-digit ticket price, you probably assume somebody’s making a lot of money. But that usually isn’t the case, because the production costs are getting insane.”
Those increased costs are partly because of – and you may have seen this one coming – Brexit.
“Trucking has become particularly expensive because we’ve lost access to a lot of workers,” says Davyd, by which he means: most trucking industry workers are sticking to operating in continental Europe, where they don’t have to deal with the extra paperwork and long delays that now come with driving in and out of the UK. Ultimately, with every aspect of putting on a gig becoming more expensive, he fears there’s a real danger the industry will price out a generation of kids from working class or low-income backgrounds from attending those big arena spectacles.
But this isn’t just a problem at the arena level. Smaller venues are struggling as well. Keith Miller is the co-founder of Brockwell Park’s Wide Awake Festival and puts on shows at venues like North London’s Shacklewell Arms, MOTH Club and the 120-capacity Waiting Room.
“Every venue has put up their hire fees, every production company is charging more,” he says. “A sound engineer who used to charge £100 now charges £150 because they’re so in-demand, as a lot of workers left the industry due to Brexit and Covid. There’s a massive pinch point.” That, he believes, will cause a number of festival cancellations next year. And that’s long before we consider how the rising costs in energy are going to hurt venues’ running costs this autumn and winter.
“Most venues are trying to keep their drink and ticket prices as low as possible but it’s not really viable, especially with fewer people attending gigs,” adds Miller. Equally, in his view, as a result of tours being repeatedly rescheduled or cancelled, punters’ trust in live music hasn’t fully returned post-pandemic – a situation exacerbated by high-profile, last-minute cancellations like The Strokes pulling out of their headline slot at the first week of Primavera last month due to Covid. Likewise, both Red Hot Chili Peppers and Guns N’ Roses recently cancelled shows in Glasgow at the eleventh hour due to “illness”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, show organisers are doing their best to make their gigs economically viable. As Miller points out, “if a venue can only get 150 people into a 200-capacity show, we might as well try and charge a little bit more to make up the difference.”
That’s because, on average, a promoter only makes a profit after 75 per cent of the tickets for a show are sold. And the issue of low turnouts is likely only going to worsen. “With practically every band touring over the next nine months,” he says, highlighting the logjam of Covid-delayed tours all coming down the pipe at once, “the market is going to be totally saturated.”
Again, this is a top-to-bottom problem – and an international one. In North America, it’s now commonplace for sites like Ticketmaster to sell tickets using “surge pricing” – meaning, like booking an Uber, if there’s a lot of interest, prices go up. Just last week, those Platinum Tickets pushed up the price of Drake’s Young Money reunion show in Toronto on 1st August, featuring Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj, from between CA$100 and CA$300 to a shocking minimum of CA$500 and a horrifying peak of CA$1400.
According to Ticketmaster, both artist and event organisers agree to this model – and it’s slowly being introduced in the UK as well, with Travis Scott’s two August gigs at The O2 offering “in demand” tickets at inflated prices. It’s not all easy money for the organisers, though, with big shows also facing crippling pinch points.
“There is profit to be made when you get to those big venues, but there’s also a high level of risk,” Miller adds. “A promoter putting on a gig at Brixton Academy or Alexandra Palace can easily lose £10,000. That’s been happening a lot lately, with established bands you’d expect to sell 5000 tickets only selling 2000. That’s really alarming.” Case in point: a certain legendary indie band is currently punting half-price tickets for their upcoming show at a London arena.
Because of course, it’s also a struggle for artists. In April, Little Simz postponed an 11-date US tour, with the musician being upfront on social media about her reasoning. “I take my live shows seriously,” she tweeted, “and would only want to give you guys nothing but the best of me. Being an independent artist, I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket and touring the US for a month would leave me in a huge deficit.”
Blagden has similar worries about Sad Night Dynamite’s upcoming tour of the UK, Europe and the US. “Live music is where most artists make their money now, but it’s definitely a stress. We want our shows to be as mad and theatrical as possible. But we also want as many people as possible, from all types of backgrounds, to come and see us.”
EFFY is a rapidly rising DJ who, earlier this month, released the urgent, acid-house techno of her debut EP Not What It Seems. It’s a record that’s seen international club and festival gig bookings rolling in – but it’s not quite all the champagne and caviar you might expect. In fact, it’s not even cider and crisps.
“You end up being a crusty little crab most of the time, on no sleep, stuck in airports,” she says on the phone to THE FACE, while looking at a half-packed suitcase. “It’s all worth it, but it is hard work.” And it’s only getting harder, as anyone unlucky enough to have recently passed through (or tried to) a British airport will attest. As EFFY points out, “flights are getting ludicrous and less frequent because of post-Covid staff shortages”. A few hours after we speak, she’s flying to Ibiza to play a show. Her one-way ticket – which she’s had to pay for herself, another mark of the tougher new financial practicalities of live music – cost north of £600. “I can’t really afford that. But I have to, because it’s my job.”
Frequent flight cancellations only add to the financial burden, especially since her fees haven’t increased at the same rate. “Some of my friends have even had to take fee reductions for certain things. Everyone’s struggling.”
Closer to home, the Blackpool-born artist had plans to launch an inclusive, accessible club night called Not Yours in London, “because being able to experience music with other people is essential for everyone’s mental health”. But with the raging unpredictability surrounding every aspect of the live market, she’s had to press pause on that idea. Indeed, a quarter of all nightclubs in London have shut over the past three years. Only this past week, news emerged that beloved dance venue Printworks is set to be bulldozed and turned into yet more offices and co-working spaces.
These challenges are facing every facet of the live scene. Even if you’re well-established and, to all intents and purposes, smashing it, the problems don’t go away. They’re simply different in scale. Over the past three years, Gen Z favourite Yungblud has gone from playing Camden’s 1500-capacity Electric Ballroom to selling out the 10,000-capacity Alexandra Palace.
“I will never charge an obscene amount of money for a ticket unless it’s a charity gig,” he tells THE FACE. In a few weeks, he’s set to finally bring his Life On Mars tour to Australia. Prices start at $69; The Strokes are charging nearly double for the same venue. “When you get to those bigger venues, things are done a certain way. I know that as the venues go up, the prices go up – but I fight with everyone to keep my ticket prices as low as possible. I lose money sometimes because I know tickets can’t be ridiculous. I am not appealing to middle-class businessmen with money.
“I know how important being able to get to gigs is because I’m from Doncaster. I needed that escape, but I couldn’t get it,” continues Yungblud, highlighting a key motivating factor for him: to make sure the next generation doesn’t feel as trapped as he once did.
So what can be done?
Keith Miller thinks that, for a start, our elected representatives could, and should, do more.
“There’s absolutely no government help. For a while [during the pandemic], VAT on tickets was reduced to five per cent, which was a lifesaver.” Now it’s back up to 20 per cent, which quite often is the difference between a profit and a loss.
An exasperated Mark Davyd agrees.
“I really don’t know what the government is doing in regards to ticket prices. We were [warned] repeatedly that Brexit would cause an impact on the music industry but [reassured that] they would find benefits. But we can’t get any answers on what those benefits are. VAT on ticketing in the UK is one of the three highest in the world, and it’s nine per cent higher than it is on average across Europe. Who is benefiting from these high ticket prices [and the tax on top] is the British government. Fans need to be writing to their MPs to question this.”
Many artists and promoters are taking things into their own hands, though. If Yungblud knows he needs to charge a certain amount for one item or event, he’ll find a cheaper alternative to offer alongside it, be it a simpler version of a T‑shirt or an intimate tour hosted by record stores. Similarly, Miller’s Wide Awake festival offers payment plans and cheaper tickets if you turn up before 2pm.
“Wide Awake is about the next generation of bands, but it’s also about inspiring the next generation of fans,” he explains of the South London event. “You go to a gig or a festival when you’re 16 and it’s really formative. You get a real rush of cultural importance and belonging. So trying to give as many people access to those experiences is really important.”
He points to the often astronomical cost of football tickets, making the people’s sport “really middle class”. In his view, guitar music in particular is going the same way. “The reason Oasis are having a third generation boom at the moment is because we still don’t have another band that represents the working class.”
In a bid to combat some of these issues, Aitch has teamed up with energy drink Relentless to give young people free train vouchers, to try and make gigs more accessible to those living outside of key cities. In a press release about “Aitch-S2”, the Manchester rapper said: “There’s so much amazing culture around the UK, but for young people to experience it, they need to break out of their city limits, which is hard to do when it’s so expensive to travel outside your hometown.”
But perhaps the most immediate solution is that offered by Los Campesinos!, the indie-pop band from Cardiff. Since 2018, they’ve set aside 10 per cent of their tickets for fans from low-income backgrounds, with no proof of income necessary. These tickets (£5 for UK shows, $10 in America) are offered alongside the regular, full-price tickets. And it seems that trust is rewarded by honesty – the band have seen “no evidence that people manipulate it. In fact, we’ve had situations where the full-price tickets have sold out and there’s been cheaper tickets still available,” says vocalist Gareth David.
And this isn’t difficult to do: if a band can set up a pre-sale, they have the ability to offer reduced-price tickets. Both Four Tet and slowthai have also rebelled against expensive gigs by selling tickets for £5. But as you can probably imagine, they sold out almost instantly in an online free-for-all.
That said, it’s probably not financially viable for bands playing 150-cap rooms to offer this (and anyway, ticket prices for those local gigs are already affordable), while such an initiative might be a logistical step too far for an arena band who already have to contend with touts. But this set-up works well for a band like Los Campesinos!, because of their staunch following and because they’ve spent the better part of 15 years “making ourselves unwelcoming to people who might try to take the piss or who we politically wouldn’t agree with”.
As the frontman sees it, “a lot of bands could make this happen just by speaking to their manager or booking agent. There are plenty of bands playing mid-sized venues that use social issues as a marketing tool and are quite happy to reap the rewards of being seen as a progressive, inclusive band, but who don’t take it as far as they could when it could impact their bottom line.”
Breaking down the financials, David explains that if Los Campesinos! are playing a 1000-cap room at £20 a ticket, they’re missing out on £1,500 by offering access to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it. “That’s £200 each in a seven-piece band. Which isn’t a small amount of money, but it’s less important than the values we hold dear,” says David. And it’s much-needed: 10 per cent of 18 – 24 year olds are currently unemployed in the UK, according to a report by the Resolution Foundation, with a solid third of 18 – 34-year-olds currently in “atypical, often insecure work” thanks to worker-hostile “initiatives” like zero-hour contracts. To them, a £20 ticket is a world away from one costing £5.
Only one venue has ever tried to stop their low-income tickets (he declines to name and shame), and Los Campesinos! simply booked a show elsewhere. “Artists really do have the power here. It’s just very seldom that people flex those muscles, challenge the status quo and force that change.”
Davyd believes that staying local is one way of ensuring access to the escape of live music. The 928 independent venues he represents still offer a great night out. By way of but one example, Brighton’s Chalk is charging just £15 for shows by the likes of Jamie T, Easy Life and Soccer Mommy. Also fighting the good fight are Banquet Records, a very proactive record shop in Kingston in the South London suburbs. They often put on big-name bands with tickets costing little more than the price of a CD.
But those initiatives are few and far between. So until something major changes – Spain, for example, is making all short and medium train journeys free from September until the end of the year – live music risks becoming an expense some just can’t afford. And that’s at a time when none of us can really afford to miss out on the long-awaited chance to come together and celebrate the music we love.