When Jenny Lind came to Boston on her first US concert tour in 1850, demand for tickets to see the Swedish opera star was so high that her promoter, P.T. Barnum, sold them at auction — dynamic pricing in its original form.
When the auction began, a singer and composer named Ossian E. Dodge bought the privilege of choosing the first seat, anywhere he wanted in the hall. Dodge’s winning bid was $625 — the equivalent of nearly $24,000 today, and an indication that concert attendance was reserved for the moneyed class.
That sounds familiar: Some tickets for upcoming Boston-area performances by Bruce Springsteen — who plays TD Garden on Monday — Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé went on sale for thousands of dollars each, thanks to “dynamic pricing” — prices that rise with demand in real time. With the cost of a night out for two at a big-name concert able to rival the median monthly mortgage payment in Massachusetts — $2,365, according to recent Census data — certain live music experiences are again becoming a pastime for the affluent.
“It boils down to the stark difference between inside and outside,” an editorial on the Springsteen fan site Backstreets declared in July, summarizing the shock that many fans felt when prices for his current tour surged far higher than anyone expected. Some floor seats in Boston listed for nearly $5,000 each. “So many fans who have always gone to the shows, who have always been part of This Thing of Ours, now can’t go, will not be inside, will not be part of the conversation, purely because they can’t pay the cost to see the Boss.”
Months later, following a backlash from his audience, Springsteen told Rolling Stone that instead of his usual practice of charging a little less than his peers, he opted this time to “do what everybody else is doing.”
“I know it was unpopular with some fans. But if there’s any complaints on the way out, you can have your money back,” Springsteen said.
That response sounded flippant enough to Backstreets editor Christopher Phillips that he cited it when he announced last month that Backstreets would shut down after 43 years. Leaving one of the most dedicated pillars of his fan base feeling “dispirited, downhearted, and, yes, disillusioned” as it closed up shop is a sign of how damaging it has been to Springsteen’s relationship with his audience, or a portion of it, to treat his fans like other stars do.
It wasn’t so long ago that no pop musician could have gotten away with charging so much. When rock ‘n’ roll came of age with baby boomers in the 1960s, tickets were cheap: seeing Jimi Hendrix on Boston Common in 1969 would have cost you $3, or about $25 today. That was the result of generalizations about socioeconomic class — rock was not considered or priced like “high culture” — and about demographics.
“It was assumed that the average person who was going to go see a rock ‘n’ roll show was probably a teenager or not much older than that,” said Steve Waksman, professor of music and American studies at Smith College, who recounts the Lind tour in his 2022 book “Live Music in America: A History from Jenny Lind to Beyoncé.” “So you had to keep the prices in a range where you wouldn’t overshoot the mark of what they would afford, because you weren’t going to sell those tickets to 35-year-old middle-class people.”
As boomers aged and amassed more spending power, prices increased. So did perks: premium stuff, like backstage meet-and-greets and VIP ticket packages. Not only did those add-ons generate additional income for artists, they created an air of exclusivity for fans willing to pay for them. As Barnum knew, scarcity is lucrative — even when it’s manufactured by artist managers or tour promoters.
“When you get a Taylor Swift or Beyoncé or whatever, there’s obviously massive, incalculable demand,” said Tony Margherita, who managed the alt-rock band Wilco from 1995-2017. “But $1,000 to some guy who works at a hedge fund is a different thing than a college student or me or you or millions of people in the middle.”
Pricing tickets according to real-time demand is ostensibly a way to thwart scalpers, and direct the money to the artist instead of the resale market — a rationale Springsteen offered in the Rolling Stone interview. “The ticket broker or someone is going to be taking that money. I’m going, ‘Hey, why shouldn’t that money go to the guys that are going to be up there sweating three hours a night for it?’”
Yet concert tickets selling for thousands of dollars apiece creates a different kind of scarcity, one that is turning audiences into a self-selecting group with resources beyond the reach of many people. Buying a ticket for the likes of Springsteen, Swift, or Beyoncé not only requires money, but access to presales, often through fan clubs or credit card companies. Fans also need enough tech savvy to navigate the online ticketing process, and no small measure of luck. Demand for Swift tickets was so high that her entire “Eras” tour — including three shows in May at Gillette Stadium — sold out during presales, before the general public even had a chance to buy them.
“It’s another way of creating a line between folks who get in and folks who don’t,” Waksman said. “Some of that is financial, but it’s also about information. That’s a big line between haves and have-nots.”
Swift’s fans largely directed their anger at Ticketmaster rather than the singer, who posted a statement on Instagram criticizing a process that left much of her audience frustrated and ticketless. The presale breakdown also prompted a congressional hearing.
These days, the only place many megastar musicians directly interact with fans is in concert. When the have-nots get shut out, and the bulk of the crowd comes from the same upper-end tax brackets, the artist onstage might as well be looking in a socioeconomic mirror.
“Doesn’t seem like that’s going to be a lot of fun,” said Margherita, who thinks it’s smart for musicians who value their relationships with fans to find ways to accommodate as many of them as possible. “You have to be very conscious of trying to create avenues for all kinds of people to be able to afford to see you. It’s tricky to do. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think it can be done.”
Even as big-name acts suck up all the oxygen at the top of the concert food chain, there are alternatives. Jonathan Wynn, a sociologist at UMass Amherst, notes that there’s plenty of live music happening on a smaller scale that won’t clean out your savings account. After all, even Springsteen started out playing in bars.
“For every Springsteen, there’s 3,000 singer-songwriters who would love to have 20 people show up at their little venue,” Wynn said. “You’re going to spend $5,000 on a ticket? How many Tuesday night shows could you see for that at a local club?”