The LCD Soundsystem Madison Square Garden scalper sellout debacle — for lack of a better descriptor — caused a rampant wave of fevered speculation around the intertubes. In case you missed it, here’s the background:
LCD Soundsystem, the beloved dance rock band, announced that it would be holding its last show ever at Madison Square Garden this April. When the online pre-sale began, the show sold out within seconds, with seemingly no one able to buy tickets (I myself couldn’t get any, but a friend was eventually able to grab a few in the nosebleeds). Not even the band members themselves could buy tickets.
It turns out that hackers/scalpers had used bots to flood Ticketmaster’s system, snatching up all of the decent seats in a matter of seconds — and then posting them immediately for sale on secondary markets like StubHub, where prices ballooned from $60 to upwards of $1,000. $13,000 tickets were reportedly spotted online.
All this, of course, created a massive wave of frustration and anger among the band’s rabid fan base. The vast majority of indie music fans, after all, don’t have a grand to drop on a rock concert. It also pissed off LCD frontman James Murphy, who penned a furious screed on the band’s blog, denouncing the ‘scumfuck scalpers’ using his show to make a quick buck. In an attempt to thwart them, Murphy announced that the band was going to flood the market with 4 more shows leading up to the final one, exponentially increasing supply, and hopefully getting the scalpers’ absurd MSG ticket prices to come down.
Now, this got the pop economists thinking, and most are in agreement that what’s happening is that tickets for rock shows are very undervalued in the first place — the LCD show still would have sold out if the prices were set much higher. Tickets to rock concerts featuring high profile bands are actually often worth much more than we pay.
This, in turn, reveals a couple interesting things — for one, it highlights the utopian instincts of rock bands. It seems like a tired cliche at this point (and who knows if it even happens much but on occasions like this anymore) but rock bands have a long history of butting heads with promoters to keep ticket prices affordable for their fans. In other words, bands have long worked against their own economic interests to keep prices low; this was a dominant part of the punk ethos of the 70s and 80s.
And we’re all the better for it: How many of your favorite bands would you go see if every ticket cost $200? I think most folks would agree that they’d rather live in a society where more people have access to the shows, concerts, and events they love. If bands didn’t fight to keep prices lower, market forces would take over and exclude many of their fans. This is why the legendary punk band Fugazi refuses to play a show where the ticket price is more than $5.
Which takes us to the bigger picture — namely, how, in a perfect society, would people get to attend the events that cost other people’s time and resources to put on? It points to the classic problem of resource scarcity — how do we decide who gets a limited supply of stuff that a bunch of people want? Right now, our society is ordered so that whoever has the required amount of money can attend the events they please — despite the valiant efforts of secondary markets and scalpers help ensure that those with the most money will be guaranteed access.
But is this fair? In a just world, wouldn’t the people who wanted to see the show the most get to go, not just who had the most capital? Perhaps bands could negotiate a static price, and require fans to answer a number of question about their music — and those who scored the highest got first dibs on tickets (this would also have the benefit of throwing off the hackers’ bots). Or would a random lottery with a fixed price be more fair? Or can we just tweak the market system, and hone it to do some good in the process? The blogger Matt Yglesias suggests letting the free market take over on ticket sales, but installing a limit on how much goes to the band, promoter, and venue — everything over that limit is then donated to charity.
But this still excludes the bands’ fans who couldn’t afford such exorbitant sums. Of course, in utopia, concerts would be free, and staged at venues precisely suited to the performer’s popularity, and everyone who had a genuine interest in attending would get to go — in utopia, everybody gets LCD Soundsystem tickets.