Ticket price shock and other misadventures in modern math

Meet the new math.

Last week I bought two $55 tickets for the James Blake show at the Orpheum in October. The total was $157. Call me nostalgic, but in earlier days when I had to pass math in school, two times 55 was 110.

Ticket prices and purchases today are a bit of a carnival mirror experience. I recently bought a $15 ticket to a show at the Fortune Sound Club and before I had checked out, presto, it was $26.

This magic routine extends into a disappearing act. At the split second of online availability, I tried to buy two of what were purportedly thousands of Tragically Hip tickets for their final tour. Poof. Gone. None.

Maybe, though, while we’re talking arcade, it’s more accurate to call this a Whack-a-Mole game, because the tickets don’t really vanish as much as pop up elsewhere within reach – in this case, nested within minutes mysteriously in the hands of what CBC euphemistically referred to recently as “ticket reselling experts,” people I’ve known as scalpers.

As the hours progressed, hundreds of Hip seats could be had at double and triple the prices. Until about six songs into their sets this July at Rogers Arena, when these reselling experts are starting to trickle a little sweat, the market rate will not be at face value.

It is thus for hundreds of events every year in our community.

As a music fan who started his career writing about that business, and as a consumer looking for transparency in understanding how value is embedded in what I buy, it has been obvious something has been desperately wrong pretty much since the advent of online ticket sales.

What was at first a convenient alternative to the lineup has become a hostage-taking of the seat and a ransom of the seated. Technology less serves the general public than enables insiders to find buyers at the outer end of price elasticity, and in any other industry we would squawk that the technique is anti-competitive.

I am old enough to remember when water was free and you paid for music.

If you were a good artist in those earlier days, you had to be an imbecile not to make a lot of money. Today you have to be a genius to make any.

Which is to say my sympathy rests with any artist struggling against the current to make us aware and have us pay for what she or he is producing.

What worries me increasingly, though, is how complicit the artist is in the ticket business – how many seats they are permitted to sell, and how their tours are part of a vertically integrated business between artist, label, promoter, venue and ticket seller – and I’d like some powerful entity to bring us into that tent.

I’d like to see more paperless tickets that let you in only by showing up with the credit card you used to buy – yay to Adele and Nick Cave for that, even if it means a slow entry to the show.

I’d like to see legislation that outlaws the use of technological bots to game the system and grab the tickets that those of us with mere fingers and keyboards cannot match. The creator of Hamilton, the Broadway play, expressed concern about this last week. I’d like to understand how much of the arena is truly ours to buy.

But mainly I’d like to understand why there are convenience charges, facility charges and transaction charges atop a ticket whose price presumably already compensates those conveniences and facilities as part of the transaction.

I don’t buy into the notion that this is victimless syndrome of market economics or an ephemeral outcome of basic business practices to find the best price for a service or a trivial matter of pop culture and sports undeserving of legal attention.

Sure, it’s a First World problem. But plenty of people are making money as the public is deceived, and that ought to worry us wherever it occurs.

We have demanded clarity on pricing for airlines, bank fees, telecom charges, even for cable costs. Isn’t it time for governments to intervene to help us understand why a $55 ticket becomes a $78 ticket, day upon day?

If this is the Hip’s farewell tour, let’s also make it the first step of saying farewell to some of the most distasteful elements of the music business. 

Kirk LaPointe is Business in Vancouver’s vice-president of audience and business development.