The average concert ticket in Toronto now costs $121 — and many cost hundreds more. What’s fueling the hikes?

A five-hour drive did little to determine Turner Jones and Natalie Winterink from attending their first live concert together since the start of the pandemic.

The couple, who came to the city from Sudbury, waited in queue in the lobby of Scotiabank Arena on April 6 to catch what they called a “perfect” lineup of artists: all-female punk quartet NOBRO, Chicago-based rock band Rise Against (Winterink’s favorite — she knows every word to every song) and headliner Billy Talent.

The music-loving pair attended live shows together most weekends before COVID-19 brought in-person events to a screeching halt in March 2020.

Now, with events firing back up and venues that had to close for months on end struggling to recover costs, their old hobby seems more costly than ever.

“We’re so happy concerts are back,” said Jones. “But with the drive down, hotels, tickets — they get expensive quick.”

Winterink, who had recently shelled $200 for a ticket to The Weeknd, bought the Billy Talent tickets from a friend at a discount, paying $50 each: far below Ticketmaster.com’s starting rate of $154 for the show, as of the preceding Tuesday.

Concert ticket prices have been on the rise for decades: in 2018, the BBC found that ticket prices had risen by 27 per cent since the late 90s, even when accounting for inflation.

Recently, those numbers have spiked even more: worldwide data from Statista shows that seeing an artist live in 2019 cost $96, up considerably from the 2015 average of $78.

More recently, ticket platform SeatGeek reported that the average concert ticket in Toronto now costs $121 — enough to squeeze the budgets of many live music fans.

“Most of our festivals sold out in record time while average ticket prices have been 10 per cent higher than 2019,” wrote Michael Rapino, president and CEO of entertainment company Live Nation Entertainment Inc., in an address to shareholders in August 2021.

Rapino added that he expects the next two years to be a “roaring era for concerts.”

A number of factors could be behind the increase in ticket prices, according to experts. But Debapriya Sen, an economics professor at Ryerson University who specializes in industrial organization, doubts that inflation is the driver.

With the necessities of life like food and shelter costing more than they did last year, raising concert prices could in fact deter people from buying them, said Sen.

Instead, the simplest explanation for the rise in cost could be pent-up demand.

“Concerts before the pandemic were not a necessity like, say, groceries,” he said. “But buyers who missed the live experience might see it as a must now, and are willing to pay a premium. The industry might be capitalizing on that.”

An increased appetite for live shows gives license to ticket marketplaces and artists to raise their prices. Ticketmaster.com, the world’s largest ticket marketplace, uses dynamic pricing: ticket prices change over time based on demand. Lower-bowl seats to Justin Bieber’s concert last month were at one point going for as much as $5,000 on Ticketmaster.

Ticketmaster.com, which did not respond to interview requests for this story, also collaborates with individual artists when deciding on ticket prices.

Artists, too, have great incentive to ask for more money: many rely heavily on concert tours to make a living, as illegal downloading and paltry royalties from popular streaming services (about 250 streams for one dollar of profit on Spotify, according to a 2021 report from Business Insider) make it challenging to make good money from online music sales.

In fact, most high-profile artists that figure on Billboard’s top 50 highest-paid musicians lists of 2018 and 2019 (before tours were suspended) made the majority of their money from touring.

Sen also suspects that concert venues may be charging more money for bookings to recover money lost to canceled events, which in turn could motivate artists, who are facing greater booking costs, to charge even more.

But while artists and venues might feel obliged to increase the price of tickets to play catch-up and pay outstanding bills, Sen wonders if it’s a good strategy to attract new fans in an era where digital concerts are gaining in sophistication.

“Sometimes an artist should maybe want to think twice about lowering their ticket price to get a new audience that hasn’t yet developed a liking to them,” he said. “Especially now — for new audiences, you might be competing with things like better virtual concert offerings — they might not value live shows so much.”

Adam Zhang, a Billy Talent fan also in line for Wednesday’s show, questioned whether the last-minute ticket he bought for $160 was worth the price tag.

Zhang, 22, had not attended a live concert since before the pandemic, but has enjoyed digital shows, like Travis Scott’s Astronomical tour, which he viewed for free through the video game Fortnite in April 2020.

“Obviously, there is an atmosphere at live events that you can’t feel from your couch,” said Zhang. “But it’s cheaper and it’s a different kind of thrill. I’ll probably alternate between both kinds of shows now.”

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