The Magic of the Front Row
There are two things everyone in the music industry needs to embrace: a concert is all about the fans, and the fans the artist can see and hear set the tone for their performance. Accept this dictum and all is fine.
Producing a concert is all about managing the complexities of fan-to-artist relations before, during, and after the performance. Ticketing the event is a critical first step in that relationship. It’s the gateway to the concert experience, and can have profound effects. Key questions need to be answered.
How do you ensure the venue’s tickets land in the hands of the people you want to have them? Scalping has always been a problem, so should it be addressed? How do you ensure the best deal has been struck with the artist, while balancing out the financial potential of the local market? How do you factor the fan into this equation?
Promoters and artists have devised and implemented a wide variety of ticketing strategies over the years with these particular questions in mind. Today, aggressive house scaling, where the closer you are to the stage, the more you pay, has become the most popular system. The problem with this system of ticketing is that it can create economic barriers to some of an artist’s fans, while taking advantage of the hard-core fan with money to spend. It can prevent others from having any hope for experiencing their favourite artist up close and intimate simply because they can’t afford the top ticket.
You see, generally the demographic make up of a concert can be drawn as a triangle. At the top are the ‘evangelists’. These are the fans that are going to come to a show no matter what. They will find a ticket any way they can and pay as much as it takes. Evangelist fans are what drive aggressive house scalings and fan club initiatives. They are also the fodder that feeds scalpers.
At the middle, are the ‘disciples’. These fans will buy a ticket based on an optimum set of conditions – is there room on the credit card, can they get off work, is the price right, etc. Disciple fans are the key to a successful show. Making sure all conditions are met provides them with incentives to commit to buying a ticket to a concert.
At the bottom, and widest part of the triangle are the ‘great unwashed’ fans (industry term… not mine). They represent the final 20% of a concert’s ticket sales. These fans consist of the friend who might go, the late-to-the-table fan, or the ones that make a last minute decision to attend. They also consist of fans that simply have been out priced from the concert experience.
Concert promoters are constantly being squeezed. As artists negotiate larger guarantees, capturing the final 20% of the house, the ‘great unwashed’ fans, becomes ever more important. The problem is as a promoter searches for more revenue, the easy answer becomes an increase in the cost of premium tickets. The gap from top price to lowest price widens significantly. Now the concert promoter runs the risk of pissing off evangelists. Further, by creating too much of a gap between top-tier, and middle tier prices, the concert promoter is impeded from converting disciples into evangelists. Why? Because it becomes apparent to all that getting up close to the artist is for the connected, or rich only. You create fan apathy, making long-term growth impossible.
Artists and concert producers can address this dilemma through defining the criteria by which ticketing in a venue is scaled and carved up:
1. Recognize the centrality of the fan – first and foremost, the fan needs to be recognized as central to the event. Fan club sites are good, but not all fans are engaged with them. Artists and promoters need to make sure that a fair allotment of tickets is accessible to all fans. Pricing from top to bottom needs to be fair.
2. Ensure that the rights of corporate partners (alliance partners, title sponsor, VIP initiatives) don’t completely trump those of the fan – it’s great having marketing partners, don’t get me wrong, but should real fans be bumped out of the running for the chance to buy premium tickets by some viewed as queue jumpers?
3. Keep price scalings reasonable – there has been a move to push top price tickets available for the evangelists to higher and higher levels. This is a huge mistake. It’s easy to say, better us than the scalpers, but as a long-term strategy, it’s a killer. Just ask Live Nation how that’s working on the Def Leppard and Rod Stewart tours.
A band’s fan can only be tested so many times. At some point, a fan will choose not to go due to economics, or disillusionment. If scalping is the concern, no fan in the world will ever have a problem with paperless ticketing, if it ensures those in the premium seats are real fans like them.
From the announcement of a concert date, a fan needs to have hope for engagement with the artist. They have to have hope of getting a great seat. They should never be of the mind that scalpers, or sponsors would already have all the great seats, so why bother. They should be thinking this is their chance to sit in the front row.
Some artists like Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen really understand the importance of this philosophy. They take great efforts to ensure scalings are equitable throughout the house, and that sponsor and fan club holds are evenly distributed with publicly available tickets. They also take great effort to ensure that fans in the back of the house, for whatever reason, can have a chance at a ‘miracle’, which is the practice of relocating fans from throughout the venue to held seats in the front row tickets or space close to the stage.
My personal favourite example was a Britney Spears show in Calgary on her first tour. I found an older gent in a solo seat at the furthest reaches of the Saddledome in Calgary. As he was two decades older than anyone else in the venue, I asked him what brought him to the show. He explained that he had promised his two daughters if they got A’s on their report cards he would take them to the show. They got A’s.
He’d lined up to buy tickets (10th from the front of the line), but by time he made it the box office outlet, the show was nearly sold out. The best he could do was his solo seat, and 2 tickets for his girls 2 rows in front of him in the very last rows of the arena. They were perfect candidates for a miracle.
Suffice to say, the girls and the dad were absolutely beside themselves as we escorted them to the front row. The girls had a great night, and definitely raised the bar for energy on the front row. So what were the costs and what were the benefits? Did those girls go to every subsequent Britney show to come to town? Did the dad attend a concert for himself?
For an artist, the front row is the immediate connection with the rest of the room. The energy created there sets the tone for the band, and eventually the whole room. For the fan, it can be the closest they will get to their favourite artist. This can be a profound moment. Getting front row tickets is like winning the lottery.
Giving hope for an upgrade, or access to the best seat in the house cultivates the bond between artist and fan. The dictum that a concert is all about the fan has to be the core tenet. Ignoring this basic truth is a risk only for the foolish. If artists and concert promoters continue to produce shows that discriminate against the ‘have not’s’ in favour of the ‘haves’, they risk greater peril for our industry.