I'd add that one of the supreme ironies of service fees in entertainment is that you pay the most for the least amount of service. Savvy buyers know that you always pay the least in fees if you go in person to the box office (in the case of Broadway in ...
What irritates you the most about buying tickets to live entertainment? Let me guess.
New York producer Ken Davenport — who is an interesting thinker on the business — had an interesting post on his blog, The Producer’s Perspective, last week.
Its heading? “How we could get rid of ticket service fees.”
Davenport rightly notes that anyone buying tickets to a show such as “Hamilton” first has to get over the hurdle of high ticket prices — you have to convince yourself that it’s worth it. (For the record, it is: not a single reader has ever written to me say that “Hamilton” was not worth what it cost them; scores have written to say the opposite). So you get past that and then you find you have to pay a variety of tacked-on charges. The amounts vary, but they’re a lot. You pay them — you have no choice but to pay them, since it is a monopoly — but you are annoyed.
Now contrast this with, say, your experience on Amazon Prime. You pick your item and then pay no shipping or handling charges. Sure, you’ve paid your $99 annual fee for the service, but that motivates you to buy more stuff, since you’re in search of good value. With each individual transaction, you feel good. And you don’t shop at other places, since they will hit you with fees.
This is why Amazon is single-handedly killing off traditional retailing in America. It has done so, to a large extent, by avoiding tacked-on service fees.
So why can’t live entertainment do the same?
I’d add that one of the supreme ironies of service fees in entertainment is that you pay the most for the least amount of service.
Savvy buyers know that you always pay the least in fees if you go in person to the box office (in the case of Broadway in Chicago, that means the box office at any of their downtown theaters). Here, you actually get a lot of service in the form of a knowledgeable box office professionals offering you advice and maybe even a smile. If you buy online, you don’t actually get any service, but you’ll pay a lot more in fees.
And there are other pitfalls online. For example, a reader wrote a couple of days ago to recount her problems in buying tickets to “Luzia,” the touring show from Cirque du Soleil that I consider the best show of our Chicago summer (and in town through Sept 3).
After seeking tickets first on the United Center site — a logical choice, since Cirque pitches its tent right next to that venue — my reader couldn’t find “Luzia.” (I found it there, but it’s not easy to see). She then surfed to her way another site and was offered tickets for $159. She thought that was the going rate for tickets and bought six for a total of $1,244, once fees were added.
But she later found out that she’d in fact bought tickets from a reseller on the so-called secondary market. These were tickets with roughly $60 face value. Six of them should have cost $360. The rest was gouging.
The reader should have been buying her tickets at the official site, www.cirquedusoleil.com. Cirque long has controlled its own ticketing and is admirably transparent in terms of pricing, at least compared with the competition. (And, by the way, you don’t need to pay for the high-priced seats at “Luzia.” There is not that much difference in your experience since you’re seated in a tent in the round). But the Cirque site is not the norm when it comes to buying tickets for live entertainment.
Davenport argues that producers want to sell as many tickets as possible through their official channels, since that way the most money goes to the creatives involved in the show and, of course, the producers themselves. Fair enough. But they’re still charging booking fees for, in essence, booking their own tickets, even if they have designated a third party. It's an entrenched practice and hard to change. And this is just as applicable to sports tickets. Try buying a ticket to the Chicago Cubs through its official channel — fees abound.
But what if you could buy an optional annual membership to cover those fees? Would you not then buy more tickets to get your value? Would not that be great for both the producers and audience members? Sure it would.
You can, of course, take this further and create a kind of Amazon Prime for theatergoing in general — pay an annual fee and get actual tickets to all the shows you want. As subscriptions have waned in popularity, more and more theaters are offering some version of a multipurchase card, allowing for more flexibility and discounts for coughing up cash in advance. And a few — such as Theatre Wit in Lakeview — have actually created memberships that allow you to pay a fixed amount per month and attend all the productions you want at their three-theater venue on Belmont Avenue.
Of course, you’re unlikely to see “Hamilton” doing that soon. Unless Amazon (shudder) finds a way into the ticketing business.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.
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