Justin Bieber’s rise to fame started on YouTube, where anyone could watch him. And watch him they did, in the pre-teen millions. Now he sells out huge arena concerts with hefty ticket prices, significantly restricting who can afford to see him. Many of the very fans who made him such a marketable live performer find themselves unable to attend their local Bieber tent revival but for the grace of God, or maybe mom. More generally the acts who saturate our airwaves and rise to the top of what still remains of the popular consciousness are incredibly exclusive in their live performances. It is particularly cruel when many of these acts are essentially promoted to children. It makes radio stations power playing the latest teen sensation about as ethical as toy companies running adverts for expensive toys during Saturday morning cartoons. It also has the effect of changing the audience at a concert from ‘fans of the band’ to ‘fans of the band with parents who can pay for tickets plus those parents.’
In the halcyon days of the 1970s, the Top 40 skewed a little older, and you could get a ticket to an arena show for about the same as the cost of a new album – maybe $15. A significant part of the change has to do with how the Baby Boomer generation grew up and settled down, brought rock and roll into the mainstream. Now it’s no longer just the kids who want to go along to concerts, but the kids’ parents as well. Rock and roll and mainstream entertainment belong to the baby boomers, and their pockets are significantly deeper than many of the young music fans out there. It is also true that with record sales in jeopardy, live music has become the most reliable source of income for the industry. But the main villains for many music fans are the large concert promoters. With the absence of significant competition in the market, promoters are left free to set prices as high as they like.
The rise of large promoters began in the 1960s when the industry began printing tickets by computer, revolutionizing sale and distribution. Now, thanks to the internet, people can buy and print off tickets at home. All this convenience is given to us for that familiar service charge appended to the face value of the ticket. The companies that began by offering their service to theatres, sports teams, and music venues eventually established dominance over the live entertainment industry itself. Standing out as the most successful is Evenko in much of Canada and Ticketmaster in the United States, which expanded into concert promotion with their merger with Live Nation in 2009.
With such a powerful monopoly in place it might seem that the pop music fan without much cash is stuck at home longingly watching concert footage on YouTube, back where Bieber himself started.
In Montreal, at least, there do seem to exist alternatives. And almost necessarily, they look very different to anything Ticketmaster or any of its subsidiaries will try and sell you.
The Daily talked to Matthew E Duffy, a Montreal based artist and musician, in his Mile End office for his perspective about his attempts to undercut this corporate culture. Having started by getting involved in the “psyche-noise” scene in Halifax, he comes from a venue of smaller backgrounds: “house shows and house parties are really important to the scene there because there isn’t a lot of venue space,” he explains. He since moved to Montreal, saw how local labels work, and along the way performed with other artists at large festivals, including Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes) at Fun Fun Fun in 2011.
The music events he organizes are somewhere between house party and small gig, with no entry price and unconventional locations. “I sometimes do performance pieces or ritualesque candlelight ceremonies,” he explains. “Meanwhile there is a band playing in the other room [where] I run what is basically a non profit bar. But I only serve relatively fancy drinks.”
He will freely admit to trying to create events and spaces where he feels artists can be more expressive and liberated from the corporate concert scene, though sometimes the expectations people have of live entertainment can be hard to avoid. “I asked [one person] ‘why are you here? you are obviously uncomfortable,’ and they [were] complaining, but they are still there complaining, and I’m like ‘the door is open, you didn’t pay anything to get here, no one is taking advantage. You can leave if you want.’”
Many in Montreal may be more at home with Duffy’s non-consumerist means of artistic production. “People in Montreal do not like paying $10, $15 – even [...] just that much – anything above that and you seem to have difficulty selling tickets… The Dream played here for POP Montreal and they had really poor attendance and it was primarily probably due to the ticket price issue. It was far downtown, an expensive show, like $40, which isn’t really too much in the grand scheme of some shows but people in Montreal just have less money.”
Duffy’s assumptions about the state of Montreal’s disposable income aside, there do seem to be there are real alternatives to homogenized live music and entertainment in the city. But does Duffy have any grievances against major concert providers? “I enjoy the satisfaction of buying a fancy coffee – I understand consumerism; I try to avoid it, but I can see why it can be damaging, and the over-commercialization of stuff is just bad.”
Duffy remains relatively philosophical about the failings of capitalism to make live music available to its fans. But it remains damning that the industry uses the huge fan base of its stars to charge the high ticket prices that denies access to the pop culture zeitgeist for so many young fans.