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Monday, May 15, 2023

Why The Cure’s Fight for ‘Fair’ Ticket Prices Is Likely to Backfire

A legendary '80s rock band is generously working to sell tickets below the market rate. But can it overcome the forces of the market?

Image Credit: Mr. Rossi

The Cure, an English alternative rock band, has started a fight against high ticket prices. The music industry is praising them for their punkish temerity. However, the economic way of thinking suggests The Cure has made a muck of it.

The Cure is dealing with an age-old conundrum. A rock band builds its identity representing the outsider, the common man, the little guy. Then the band achieves success, and its tickets suddenly command high prices. The band now appears to have become the very thing it resents—the greedy capitalist or “The Man.”

The “godfathers of goth” (the band’s nickname) have decided to resist this fate. Most tickets for their upcoming North American stadium tour have been priced well below average industry prices—between $20 and $120, and many with reduced surcharges.

The lead singer, Robert Smith, has explained that they “don’t want to price anybody out of the show,” and he feels these prices are “fair” for that purpose. Fans must have agreed, as the tickets promptly disappeared like little King Edward V and his wee brother from the Tower of London.

It turns out that selling tickets below market prices is actually quite common. The Cure is noteworthy only for their more aggressive tactics and outspokenness.

First, they turned off the “dynamic pricing” tool which recently allowed Taylor Swift to earn as much as $22,000 per ticket. Economists call this “peak” pricing. Smith called it “a greedy scam.” Politicians like to call it price gouging (though they oddly have not come with shackles for Ms. Swift).

Then, they stopped bots from buying blocks of tickets, and—employing a new technology for the industry—they made all tickets non-transferable. The kibosh has been put on scalping.

The Cure’s efforts and exhortations have made clear that they aim to not just create a kick-*ss musical experience this summer, but to truly expand access to it.

The Concert Ticket Market

The Cure’s feelings about prices are shared widely among music critics. Prices are said to be “soul-destroying,” and the purchase process to be “nightmarish” and “anxiety-inducing.” One music critic waxed, “Enjoying life and art is part of what makes the human experience so unique. When that enjoyment is overshadowed by financial stress and burdens, it takes all the fun away.”

Economists have studied this market. Ticket prices have, indeed, risen well beyond inflation since the 1980s. There are several proposed causes: fewer productivity innovations relative to the overall economy, the increased reliance on performance revenue since music streaming, Ticketmaster’s dominance of the industry, buyer competition based on speed, and more recently the voracious desire for fun after government-imposed lockdowns.

If you are tracking these on your Economics bingo card, go ahead and mark Baumol effect, complementary goods, market concentration, market design, and demand shift. For good measure, you might as well also mark transaction costs, intertemporal choice, asymmetric information, and rent seeking. The ticket market is messy.

Music insiders praise The Cure for taking “ideal measures” to fix the problem and to achieve an “equitable” and “fan-centered experience.” My teenage self loves them all over again!

Is there anyone who could find a problem with what they have done?

An Existential Malaise of Consequences

Anyone who reads FEE knows that setting a price ceiling below natural market prices does create problems. At a minimum, shortages ensue since lower prices increase interest in a product as surely as gravity increases speed. Then there are the often unseemly solutions for how to distribute the product of short supply.

For tickets, the distributional problems follow from the low transaction costs in the market. To get one of the undersupplied tickets, a buyer simply needs to electronically queue up on-line. No overnight camping at the stadium, no frantic rushing from record store to record store, no hiring agents to do the same. Just log in and while waiting, maybe browse social media, review emails from work, and make coffee. The ticket selling process is convenient—too convenient for what The Cure wants.

The Cure wants a system where people of lower income can get hold of a ticket. However, people with perhaps “more time than money” have no advantage in the surge to get in the queue and thus simply get scattered in among those with more money than time. For The Cure, there are many of the latter—just as there are in the lotteries for rent-controlled housing in Manhattan. The Cure built their fan base in the 1980s (and have had no hits this millennium) so their fan base is predominantly middle-aged and at their peak earning potential.

Almost certainly, most who get tickets in the end will be fans who are smirking at the jangle of consumer surplus in their pocket. The Cure’s equity-in-the-arts welfare program has not helped attendees afford their electric bill this month, but rather afford their top-shelf drink tab.

All of this is commendable, but hardly a big win for equity, and arguably a net loss for justice as more unintended consequences ensue.

The Cure also wants to create a great experience. However, such an experience depends not just on the musicians, but also on who attends. A concert is better with high-enthusiasm attendees. While high prices may not guarantee that only high-enthusiasm buyers enter the market, low prices certainly invite in lower-enthusiasm buyers. Thus, The Cure has thrown open the doors to the nemesis of the epic concert—“the poseur.”

When The Cure launches into a spectacular twenty-minute version of “The Forest,” these buyers will be (in resemblance to the old adage) looking at tree photos on their phones, or even trimming their trees at home instead of filling their seats. Life tends to get in the way when there isn’t much money in the balance—and even Smith seems to know this as he has turned to begging, “Please Please Please don’t buy tickets if you don’t intend on going to the show!!!” Still, at these prices why not grab one and see if the calendar opens up for a harried moment between the kids’ soccer and cheerleading?

In the end, it must be recognized that for sake of justice an injustice has also indisputably occurred. The Cure purposely thwarted the scalper but ironically also thwarted the willing scalpee. The latter are many of the ticketless superfans who are crying across America’s metro areas like thousands of desperate King Richards on the battlefield shouting, “My Kingdom for a horse!” The Cure denied ticketless superfans a ticket as surely as Shakespeare denied Richard a horse.

Ticketless, my adult self is less thrilled with The Cure than my teen-self.

The Moral Encore

Economics is born from moral philosophy. The Cure’s missteps may be relatively innocuous compared to rent control and anti-gouging legislation. Still, they reveal how ubiquitous those “disruptive currents” of thinking are that draw society further and further away from the beneficence of the free market. It is another example of why classical liberal economists should embrace the role of moral leaders.

The Cure can forsake whatever profits they want, and they have no obligation to society to reflect on the morality of, say, Pareto’s optimality or Mises’ economic calculation. However, by failing to do so The Cure harms its own aims. They have frustrated many ticketless fans, jeopardized the levels of enthusiasm in the stadium, given leeway for Ticketmaster to charge higher surcharges without customers balking, and gained little in return for the sake of equity.

Smith joked that maybe they should simply play “more/bigger” shows. Now that would have done the trick! Saturate the market! Offer ten shows in Chicago, three in Cincinnati, maybe even one in Duluth! Until they do that, we are left with the disconnect of fantastic music and fanciful visions.

Until they allow themselves to become ubiquitous, The Cure is no cure, but instead a touch of what their earlier band name was—malice.

  • Scott Drylie is an Assistant Professor of Economics, Cost Analysis, and Acquisition Management at the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, Ohio.