While many Torontonians are happy to fork over for big acts, indie promoters are finding ways to make live music more accessible
In a city where concert venues are continuously threatened by high rents and unfair noise complaints, Allie Gregory remains optimistic. The 28-year-old music fan goes to as many as four shows per week, and she’s fairly certain she wouldn’t even be living in Toronto if it weren’t for the wealth of concerts.
“It’s really one of the only things I care about,” she says. “An amazing music culture is one thing Toronto still has going for it. In terms of Canadian cities, it’s one of the only ones international artists come to. No other activity receives as much of my income.”
Gregory spends up to $400 a month on concert tickets, and often shells out even more of her income earned as a bartender on merchandise and drinks at shows. She realizes it’s a lot but believes it’s worth it, despite missing out on fancy restaurant meals and vacations in order to fund her hobby.
“When I see an event pop up on Facebook, I just have to go,” she says.
Gregory isn’t an anomaly. When NOW put out a call for Toronto concert fans, we received dozens of emails from folks of all ages who frequently go to shows and spend a significant portion of their income on concerts. Yvonne Spiczynski, another live music supporter, says she attended 76 concerts in 2014 and might beat that number this year.
While Toronto-specific data on the economic impact of live music doesn’t exist, a Music Canada report states that concerts in Ontario generated $628 million in revenue for music companies in 2013, with 38 per cent of that total from ticket sales.
If you think ticket prices have increased significantly in the past decade, it’s not just your imagination. According to a Pollstar report from 2015, the average ticket price in North America that year increased by four per cent, while the global concert business was up by 11 per cent. This trend has continued, begging the question of whether live music is worth these prices?
In 2019, tickets to Ariana Grande and Elton John’s arena shows in Toronto soared to well over $1,000 for prime seats. Even the Strokes, who play Budweiser Stage this summer, are demanding up to $275 a pop to sit in the amphitheatre.
Gregory purchased tickets to Elton John’s concert as a Christmas gift to her parents, but she doesn’t usually attend high-priced arena shows herself. She paid over $100 for Arcade Fire at the Air Canada Centre in 2017, but regrets spending that amount – not because of the music, but because of the venue. “I didn’t like the way we were treated by staff going into the concert, and the bar closed early. It was a little oppressive,” she recalls.
While Ticketmaster, Live Nation, Embrace and Collective Concerts – some of the city’s biggest concert promoters – declined to comment on why live music costs so much, a page on Ticketmaster’s website provides some insight into pricing structures: “The primary tickets sold on Ticketmaster are owned by our clients (venues, sports teams or other event promoters) who determine the number of tickets to be sold and set the face value price. In some instances, events on our platform may have tickets that are ‘market-priced,’ so ticket and fee prices adjust over time based on demand.”
This model, known as “dynamic pricing,” is similar to how airline tickets and hotel reservations are sold. The more demand there is for a popular concert, the more prices will increase. As for those pesky service fees that can add anywhere between $10 and $300 (in the case of a $2,000 Elton John platinum ticket) to the base price, those charges are determined by an agreement with individual artists, and profits are shared between Ticketmaster and the client.
For music fans, those added costs can mean the difference between sitting near the stage or in the nosebleeds. Of course, many of Toronto’s small and mid-size venues, including the Danforth Music Hall and Velvet Underground, typically offer general admission pricing for standing-only shows.
Independent promoters are going a step further by experimenting with different pricing models. Their profits might not be as large, but they often support local artists and bring in underground acts.
Joel Norton, a promoter with Apollo Inc., which books dance music shows at 500 Keele (and other locations while the venue is temporarily closed), says tickets are usually priced at three different tiers, where those who buy early are rewarded with lower prices. For their Ben UFO and Ciel show happening on Friday (May 10) at a Regent Park church, 60 per cent of tickets were sold for less than $30 (tiers one and two). The third tier is $33.90 plus a $4.25 service fee, and remaining tickets will sell at the door for $40. The model, also used by mainstream nightclub Coda, is working, with $30 being the amount most buyers are willing to pay.
“The cost of tickets is based on the overall budget and the capacity of the space,” Norton explains. “The base cost of the ticket fluctuates based on the artist fees, the scale of production, permits, staffing and any additional costs.”
As promoters, Apollo Inc. receives whatever’s left of the total base cost minus a 13 per cent sales tax after all parties have been paid.
Ted Kennedy, who has been running the electronic music monthly Frequencies at Handlebar for five years, uses a pay-what-you-can model. His goal is to enable as many people as possible to have access to live music.
“What I like about PWYC is you can let people in and say, ‘If you like what you see, then come back and pay us.’ Some people will pay more and some will pay less, and in the end, it evens out,” he says, adding that most attendees pay around $5.
It helps that Handlebar, which has an indoor capacity of just over 100, doesn’t charge artists or promoters a fee to book the venue, and at the end of the night, they are paid a percentage of bar sales. So the more people Frequencies can get through the door and buying drinks while they enjoy the show, the more everyone is compensated.
Kennedy doesn’t make enough as a promoter or musician to leave his day job in marketing. For him, Frequencies, which is scheduled for May 16, is a labour of love. He’s toyed with the idea of charging a firm price, but doesn’t want anyone turned away for lack of funds.
“Promoting at this level, I want to incentivize the artists to bring people, too. When they get a percentage of the door, they’ll bring more friends,” he says. “I love the experience of live music. Special things can happen at a concert that you can’t get from a CD or watching a video of the artist. Being there in the moment of a song, experiencing brand-new music you’ve never heard before and feeling surprised – that is so rare and special.”