MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say. The following comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press.
Live music is brilliant, isn’t it? Seeing favourite acts in concert, being together with other fans, discovering the stars of tomorrow, being right there in the moment when magic happens on stage. You can’t beat it, right?
The alchemy – the power of transcendence – that happens between musicians when they play in front of a room or a field of people is clearly the apex of the live experience. But it is also used to explain away the rest of the live experience that can sometimes be found desperately, pathetically, insultingly lacking.
It is as if the joy coming from the stage is seen as excusing – justifying, even – some of the terrible things paying customers have to put up with in order to get close to that stage. At its most egregious, it’s like one perfect oyster and a flute of Champagne bobbing in a backed-up toilet.
In the world of software, there is the enormously important process of “dogfooding”. Here engineers use their latest product over and over again, all with the intention of exposing flaws, limitations and problems. They go through it again and again to find the imperfections and, when they find them, work out ways to erase them.
The live business could, and should, learn a lot more about itself (and what it expects its customers to pay for) through dogfooding.
UK Music recently reported that 14.4 million people attended live events in the UK in 2022, with 1.1 million of them travelling from abroad to go to shows and festivals in the country. “Music tourism” in the UK was estimated to have created 56,000 jobs and generated £6.6 billion in revenue. This came hot on the heels of a report by the Mayor Of London that stated, in a single week in July, over 1 million people attended live music shows in the capital, generating £320m in ticket sales while “supercharging spending in London’s hotels, restaurants and cultural attractions”.
Marvellous. Fantastic. Well done, everyone.
After Covid effectively shut down the business for a year or more, depending on the country, it is naturally wonderful to see live music roaring back into life again. That should not, however, mean the sector can act with impunity.
It’s easy to get caught up in the hysteria of it all and start thinking that this is truly A Golden Age For Live Music. It is sunlit uplands leading all the way to a giant stage where Beyoncé, Harry Styles, Blur, Bruce Springsteen, Arctic Monkeys, Travis Scott, Ice Spice and The Weeknd are jamming on their greatest hits and doing a jovial call-and-response (“London, I can’t hear you! Let me see those hands in the air!”) with us all and beckoning us to join in on the chorus.
Except… against that sharp rise in profits and some of the biggest attendance numbers in history, the inverse is that the audience experience is arguably getting worse. And the music business, from its luxurious position on guest lists/in golden circles, does not see or does not care what is happening towards the back of the hall or the festival field where the views and the sound are so poor it is like watching the gig on a transistor radio swinging from an Etch A Sketch at the bottom of a well. Unless they want to double or triple what they would normally pay for access to what is laughably called a “VIP” tier.
There is the abject misery of trying to buy tickets for the biggest acts, having to structure it like a military campaign. There are the extra fees that push up ticket prices to levels that would be comical were they not so cruel, and being forced to become more transparent about them does not lessen the sting.
“Most people join the music business because they are fans. But access to free tickets in the best spots soon sees entitlement starts to replace fandom.”
There are the shameful levels of disorganisation that force band members to publicly apologise that fans were unable to even buy a drink (not to mention the “satirical” prices of those drinks). And there are endless stories of egress chaos coupled with public transport snafus leaving people stranded and unable to get home.
I still maintain that no major industry or business treats its customers with the same horrifying levels of disdain that professional football does. I specifically mean the avaricious behaviour of the FA, UEFA and the Premier League. The astronomical costs of season or match tickets, the treating of merchandise as if it is from the Parisian catwalk (changing every season and costing a fortune), the brazen and self-aggrandising attempt to fleece fans again with the plans in 2021 for a European Super League (that collapsed but could still return in an expanded form).
At its worst, however, the live music industry is giving football a run for its money here.
The music business, in order to avoid becoming little more than the FA with choruses, needs to fully experience gigs from the perspective of the paying customer to really understand that there is a massive disconnect between what they believe they are paying for and what they are actually receiving for their money.
Most people join the music business because they are fans. But access to free tickets in the best spots soon sees entitlement starts to replace fandom. Then the real curdling starts.
In the early days of Songkick, they implemented a hugely important company policy. Staff were not allowed to accept guestlist tickets or “upgrades” to hospitality boxes. They were instead given an allowance, on top of their salary, that could be used to buy tickets to concerts. The whole point was that they needed to experience live music in the same way the rest of the paying audience did. If the show sold out before they could get a ticket, that was it; they missed out.
To misquote Oscar Wilde, they soon learned the price and the value of everything. (The play that mangled quote came from, it should be noted, was Lady Windemere’s Fan.)
We could all learn an awful lot from Songkick’s approach. And maybe – just maybe – it might reignite our own fandom and ensure the wider base of paying fans don’t get short changed.
The live industry needs to dogfood its own product. By doing so, it can avoid treating its customers like dog shit.
Music Business Worldwide