Greed Killed the Music Business

By Rob Patterson

The popular music business is a mess. For too many years, the recorded music segment of it has been in turmoil, plagued by declining sales. Yet at the same time, the live concert industry continued to thrive, especially the lucrative summer season.

That is, until this summer.

The boom has finally fallen boom for live shows. Touring acts that enjoyed strong draws are having trouble pulling in fans this summer. The Lillith Fair traveling festival of female artists that was so successful in the late 1990s had to cancel numerous dates this year as it returned after a decade.

Making it worse is how ticket prices have been dramatically dropping as the show dates approach and promoters try to fill empty seats. Hence the person who bought a pair early for $100 or even more finds that later these same tickets are discounted to two for one or even lower. Now there’s a way to really alienate your early adopting consumers.

One could look at the wreckage and say, well, it’s the economy, stupid. With many millions out of work, discretionary spending on treats like concerts is certainly more limited this year. But the recession has just brought to the forefront what was a building issue already.

And behind the problems is that eternal old bugaboo: greed. Add to that the national consolidation of concert promotion into the giant Live Nation, which also recently merged with Ticketmaster, the largest delivery system for ducats. It’s that bad old plague known as rapacious corporate capitalism. And a decline in local and regional promoters who know their markets and what they can bear.

These days a night out to see a name artist can run into scores of dollars if not hundreds when one factors in gas and parking and other costs to the high price of tickets. Who’s willing to pay that when other entertainment options are readily available in the comfort of the home?

Add to that the concert fees some artists demand, and the fact that many have gone out on tour summer after summer to rake in regular bucks and have oversaturated their presence. Yes, it’s not cheap to tour when one factors in the costs of travel, lodging, crews and production of a stage show. But just like Live Nation/Ticketmaster needs to keep the bucks coming in to satisfy the investment community, musical acts had relied on concerts to make their money as record sales became slimmer.

But now all involved have finally killed this golden goose as well. It’s not totally bleak out there in the live music world. The festivals that have proliferated over the last decade or so continue to draw well, and why not? For little more than what it might cost for one evening with a headliner and opening act, consumers can catch scores of artists over the course of a weekend. That’s because these events remain a bargain while too many artists and bands tour at ticket prices that make the music fan think twice about shelling out the money.

The above cluster of factors and more are all affecting this precipitous drop in business this summer, cited by some as a drop-off of nearly 20% from last years. But it’s not just unduly high prices, a flagging economy and increased competitive entertainment options that are hurting the concert business. I believe that it’s also a strain in the relationship between musical acts and their fans.

This contention is backed up artists who haven’t seen a large decline, like the band Widespread Panic who have built the fan base through delivering strong live shows rather than record and radio exposure. Their loyal followers know that this act will deliver the goods in concert.

When your favorite artists want $25 to $30 or more for a t-shirt, that purchase no longer feels like a gesture of loyalty to wear on your chest. When a 90-minute show lacks genuine dynamism and the promise of something truly exciting and new, why would anyone but devotees want to leave the house to attend a show?

Sure, a business model broken by greed and the primary goal of making money rather than offering value entertainment are a large part of the problem. But just as I believe it’s been with record sales, when too many artists no longer create a musical experience so compelling that you have to hear it, that personal bond between an act and music fans declines and frays.

And let’s not forget that it all begins and ends with the music. Great musical artistry that speaks to listeners and delivers the goods at a fair price will always survive. Musicians need to offer quality music that matters. And all involved must refocus from the profit motive and remember that sustained and ongoing success comes from serving consumers first and foremost.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2010

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