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5 July 2022

Corporate culture is ruining live music

The rise of tiered ticketing, VIP packages and cordoned-off areas is destroying concerts. Just look at the Rolling Stones.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Live music is getting more expensive. Prohibitively so: enough to make you think twice about booking tickets to see your favourite acts. But it’s been a long two years without gigs, and it’d be great to get the gang together again, you think. Plus you know that revenue from live shows is crucial to artists – while once upon a time, physical record sales might have kept a band afloat, streaming isn’t nearly so lucrative. And you want to support the artists that make the music you love.

So you splash out for a gig, and convince your mates to come along too. Then you add a bit more to your budget for transport, a possible overnight stay, drinks while you’re there. All this feels rather extravagant, but it’ll be worth it, you tell yourself, to see your favourite band in the flesh once again. And you’ve made sure to arrive nice and early, so you’ll get a great spot at the front.

But once you get there, you aren’t anywhere near the stage. Not because so many other fans have got there before you, but because you haven’t paid a premium to access the VIP area. So you stand behind the general admission barrier – as close as you’re allowed – and wait as, over the course of the several hours before the band comes on stage, groups of people swan around in the cordoned-off area front of you, drinks from the VIP bar in hand.

Gig-goers are finding themselves in this depressing scenario increasingly often. “We’ve played Hyde Park five times, and the first time was for free. The other times were… not for free,” Mick Jagger said onstage at BST Hyde Park on Sunday 3 July. Admittedly, the first Rolling Stones concert he was referring to was in 1969, when the music industry was in a very different place – but the contrast between access to live music now and then is stark. This year, the Rolling Stones played across two weekends at the London day festival, which is sponsored by American Express. Tickets began at a heavy £95.75. Also available were six tiers of VIP ticket, from £251 to an eye-watering £714. These included access to the “gold circle” – a standing area close to the stage – separate toilet facilities and, for the top two tiers, a complimentary bar.

It is not only the Stones and BST that proceed under such a system. Attendees of this year’s Primavera Festival in Barcelona may have been annoyed to find that a footbridge connecting two parts of the site that in previous years was open to all had become VIP-only, enabling those who had stumped the extra cost to move between stages far quicker than the rest of us – who instead had to trundle around the harbour’s perimeter. Taylor Swift fans have previously been able to pay more for access to the “snake pit”, the area of the arena closest to the stage (though Swift is also known to spontaneously “upgrade” fans to thank them for buying merchandise). Meanwhile Harry Styles’ fans could pay almost £100 extra – on top of a £78.80 general admission fee – for early entry into one of the pop singer’s 2022 arena shows in Glasgow or Manchester, as reported by Pink News.

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It’s the issue of space and access that is most frustrating. Tiered prices for seated events are not uncommon – there is some logic in tickets for the stalls in a West End theatre costing more than seats in the upper circle with restricted views – but at a standing rock or pop gig, separating audience members on account of the size of their wallets goes against the event’s very purpose. Being in a crowd at a live music event is about relinquishing some individual sensibility and feeling part of a whole. Whether you’re singing and dancing along or standing still in thrall to the artist’s songs, you’re part of a communal experience, witnessing the way that band is performing on that day in that place in a way they may never again.

There is a ritual to gig-going, part of which involves ardent fans doing all they can to secure a spot at the front, whether that involves camping in the street outside the venue the night before, or turning up early at a festival and standing through six other acts before the headliners come on. This system works because music fans show a mutual respect for such dedication. Those who sacrifice more time and energy to the cause deserve such proximity to glory; the rest of us don’t mind being a little further back. The VIP “gold circle” system takes a sledgehammer to this custom: the most enthusiastic fans won’t necessarily be anywhere near the stage.

The advent of such tiering has come hand-in-hand with the corporatisation of live music events. For BST, American Express card-holders had pre-sale access to tickets, a privilege that isn’t uncommon for music events: O2 customers have long had pre-sale rights at the numerous O2 Academy venues across the country. But the significance of a Stones concert, once a decidedly anti-establishment affair, falling under this savage commercialism feels particularly symbolic. “The first time was for free,” Jagger said.

It’s one thing to have an ugly brand logo fixed atop a festival stage, and quite another for real fans to be pushed to the back in favour of those who can afford VIP packages. At least those fans who couldn’t afford the general ticket price knew from the moment tickets went on sale that they’d be staying at home.

[See also: An ode to the Great British music festival]

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that a 2017 Radiohead concert at Emirates Old Trafford, Manchester, used tiered ticketing. In fact the front standing area was made available to fans who previously had standing tickets for the band’s cancelled Manchester Arena shows, because of the difference in capacity between the venues. This example has been removed from the article.

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