Project 22

We’re experiencing a ticket revolution.

Ten years ago, subscriptions ruled and arts groups barely gave single tickets a thought. Patrons knew if they bought in bulk they’d get a discount and their seats would be waiting for them.

Today, the ticket industry is in chaos. StubHub and Craigslist have turned regular concert-goers into ticket scalpers. Groupon and Living Social have broadened the concept of student rush. Start-ups like Ticketfly (with 14 venues in LA) are preaching the social media gospel, linking ticket sales to audience engagement. Make friends, make money.

After the controversial 2009 merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation, consumer groups were calling for more transparency from venues and artists about their inventories and their pricing. And yet recent technological innovations give them more cover to manipulate pricing at will. In June, Live Nation unveiled a flexible pricing system for major concert tours that allows prices to react — up and down — to audience demand. Last week, Mike Boehm in the LA Times looked at how this concept is being embraced by the nonprofit world.

Arts leaders are trying to firm their footing on this shifting terrain, but who’s paying attention to consumers? With so many choices just a click away — buy now and save, wait-and-see and save, stay home with Netflix — audiences are more baffled than ever.

I propose a project that combines investigative reporting, community engagement and innovative technology to take a consumer-oriented look at the upheaval in the sale of performance tickets in both in the non-profit and for-profit arts world (After all, those boundaries have been blurred to the extent that concert and Broadway tours routinely book both types of venues, often back to back).

First, let’s trace the trends of ticket sales at LA’s theaters and performance venues, looking at a 10- or 15-year window for the ratio of subscription to single ticket, the average cost, the average date of sale in context of performance date. Do patterns emerge for large venues vs smaller ones? For popular art (a Broadway tour) vs a harder-sell (contemporary dance concert)? Is age a factor (the enduring wisdom is younger audiences wait until last minute, while older couples create date nights and need time for booking sitters and dinner reservations.) What about the night of performance? (Depending on resources, we could also include museums, which do lots of promotions and (at least in NJ) are leading the use of Groupon, etc.)

Let’s poll audiences. Let’s ask them why they gave up their subscriptions, and if their attendance patterns have changed as a result. Let’s query them about ticket brokers, Ticketmaster and other services. Let’s engage them about BOGO promotions and flex pricing. Do they really want transparency, and are they willing to pay more for it? Let’s ask them to share a good ticket buying experience and a horrendous one. What’s their first plan of action, what is their last resort?

Then, let’s invite the venues to show us, visually, how it all works. Several theaters I cover in New Jersey use a web-based interactive ticket model that shows buyers a theater schematic and designates seats that have been sold and those still available. Could we use the same technology to chart time and cost of sales? Which are the first to move, which the last, and when did the prices change?

By charting how we got to where we are, we can also begin to forecast the future. But in the end, the focus should remain on the buyer and this basic question: Are consumers better off now than they used to be?