Belgian summer really begins when the Rock Werchter – formerly: Torhout-Werchter – arrives. Students, take off your belts, the holidays can begin. Thursday is the day.
This year – and in previous years as well – along with that joyous event comes growing criticism of exponentially rising ticket prices for music festivals. Those prices are going up really fast: in ten years it will be almost twice the rate of inflation.
There are several reasons for this price development. All the costs of organizing the festival – from travel costs to stage construction – are also adding up. In the music industry, the revenue model has become more dependent on live concerts, which means artists are demanding more money. Today’s festival is less about the music and more about the total experience, with a greater demand for comfort and food. And of course, the market power of global entertainment giants like Live Nation also plays a role, who love to charge extra profit margins on top of inflation, simply because they can.
So are the critics right? Yes, but something strange is going on. Despite complaints about exorbitant ticket prices, the Werchter Four Days Marches are again nearly sold out this year. You see the same at other expensive festivals in the Netherlands like Tomorrowland or Lowlands. Even at concerts by Beyoncé, Harry Styles or Bruce Springsteen, the wildly expensive prices didn’t deter the public. If you look at it from a purely economic point of view, the conclusion is that the price elasticity for festivals is still not broken. So don’t be alarmed if next year tickets become 20 euros more expensive again.
Anyone who concludes that music festivals have become exclusive toys for the (upper) middle class is missing something. They always have been. Even when prices were still relatively low, there was already a large group of people for whom the financial or socio-cultural threshold was too high. A cross-section of the festival grounds is not a cross-section of the (young) population. So the discussion of high ticket prices is reminiscent of student housing. Criticism of rising prices gets buried in the stampede to get a place.
Something has changed. For those who thought a ticket to Werchter or Pukkelpop was too ambitious, there were a wide variety of smaller, local festivals. In this way anyone who wished could enjoy the festive atmosphere to some extent. However, that offer has been scaled down significantly. Here, too, the parallel with the housing issue is clear: stricter standards and regulations have eroded the moderately priced lower tier of the market.
Small and medium-sized festivals are disappearing because the organizers are no longer able to pay or because omnipotent, international concert promoters can set the calendar and prices without competition. That consequence of the market power of giants in the music industry is far more worrying from a social-democratic point of view than those very expensive tickets that thousands of people continue to buy anyway.