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here is a brilliant moment in Hilary Mantel’s recently televised Wolf Hall, where, when asked why he was treating one of his victims so badly “when he has done you no wrong”, Cromwell thinks for a while and replies “I did not care for the way he looked at me”.
So that’s curtains for him then.
I can’t help wondering if that could even be one of the reasons many people take against Joe Bonamassa. From what I have seen, read and heard, he seems an amiable enough fellow, a hugely talented guitarist, who played alongside BB King when he was 12, who has been working hard learning his chops, plying his trade for decades and significantly, someone who has successfully brought a whole new generation of fans into the blues fold. Personally, I’m not enchanted by much of his stuff but if you don’t like his style, his super-slick marketing machine or his sharp suits and shoes, then that kinda misses the point. I adored Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard but I wouldn’t take any of them home to meet my mother… and as for that cuddly cactus Van Morrison, well don’t get me started.
Right now though, The Big Sin that is putting Bonamassa at the front of the queue for the Clarkson split-lip treatment is the price of his concert tickets. I am definitely not going to write an apologia for ticket pricing here but… say that slowly… er… one of the reasons that you don’t like/will boycott his music and badmouth his playing is because of his ticket prices? What? Let’s take a closer look at that whole can of worms….
The price currently being bandied about by critics is £110 for his concerts – and yet, right now, a mere thirty seconds research shows that there are tickets available in Liverpool, Chicago, Paris, Brighton and Cardiff for well under half that price. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? Are you really surprised that if you want to sit somewhere where you can, as Lennon said, rattle your jewellery, you may well have to spend more? Also, you do not need an economics degree to work out that venue seating is a finite number and the later you leave your purchase, the scarcer the tickets, the fewer the choices and prices respond accordingly. If you have a life, the truism of the correlation of price and scarcity is something that smacks you round the head on a daily basis. Ask your mum.
The economics of show prices are hugely complicated – and not just for music tours. Major musicals, top flight theatre, outside events and particularly anything that goes on the road all have to factor in dozens of overheads, quite apart from the fee for the central stars. Anyone, who has worked even on the periphery of a major venue or tour will be well aware of the cost, of, amongst many other things, lighting, heating, sound systems, transport, venue hire, box-office, rig loading, maintenance – and, unfailingly, those dual stealth expenses: health and safety and local byelaws (I could write another article on the legal minimum number of portaloos and standpipes you need!). When The Rolling Stones toured they usually had two set venues running, sometimes three – one they played while another was being set up in readiness for the next city. If you want a show with all singing and dancing stages and lighting pyrotechnics then you will probably need three Edwin Shirley Trucking Company pantechnicons. If you want one bloke on a stage with no support and a single spot, then yes, that would be cheaper.
None of the above mentions the marketing and sales that make you aware of the shows. Any pub band knows that if you leave the posters and leaflets behind the bar then nobody knows you are in town and not many will turn up. Yes, the Bonamassa team do tend to go into overdrive, but then so does Bjork’s and so does Ed Sheeran’s and I don’t hear the same complaint. Let’s face it, if they didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know. Advertisements, billboards, flyers, banners, trailers may once have been trees but they do not grow on trees. The smartest of relaxed managers and PR and marketing people know full well how to get their talent to the right audience but while much of this can be done for free, more often than not someone, somewhere, sometime will have to sign a cheque to reach that goal.
It is notoriously difficult to get a transparent breakdown of the make-up of ticket prices particularly for high profile concerts. While it is clear that the staging overheads can be stratospheric, the effect of the secondary market is far shadier and sinister. Booking fees and delivery charges seem to have become a standard fixture of the cynical selling process and once the touts and scalpers have got their hands on tickets the scarcity value starts to be ramped up. There has been some welcome minor legislation to deal with this and, to be fair, some major artists have insisted on various safety precautions being put in place. However, most major events, from tennis tournaments to the World Cup still ply their favours to corporate and business outlets (not always sponsors) and this immediately slices out a wedge of seat options and price choices. Even though this may be distasteful or objectionable to some, it is difficult to moan too much about it, since often without that heavyweight support from products you may well loathe (Guinness/Vodafone/Virgin anyone?) the project may not even get off the ground and, as any musician with an amp, guitar, sax or harp deal will tell you, a sponsor may be a good thing and not necessarily involve Supping with The Devil.
However, what I do often hear is that rather sad moan… we made him/her what they are today, he owes us, without us he would be nothing and now we can’t afford to see him. Well, setting aside the ludicrous idea that all these thousands of fantastic loyal fans did actually traipse round pubs and clubs to watch (say) Ed Sheeran when he was just a bloke who strummed a guitar, it is a very silly notion that an artist who has struggled for years to climb that greasy ladder should now potentially subsidise thousands of people who probably only discovered him when he finally broke into their hot ticket consciousness. Oh Yeah…I’m not a musician now, I’m a sodding philanthropist.
Incidentally, it should not escape your notice that many of these pious moans come from reviewers, disc jockeys and commentators who often get in on a freebee and then write about the exciting after-show party.
Then there is the fanciful notion that for the price of one Bonamassa ticket, you could go off and support eight local gigs and help the musical grass roots. Well that is certainly true, but it is a daydream because you know it wouldn’t happen. Put five twenty pound notes on your kitchen table and see how many gigs you would actually go to. Nope, you might like to visit the garden centre, get the broken washing machine fixed, take the kids to the cinema and maybe, just maybe, go to a couple of gigs with what’s left. We spend our money according to our likes and needs and priorities – not because we have a philosophical take on helping musicians. I am at the front of the crowd shouting for support for live music and struggling talented musicians, but I’m not about to use that as an ethical excuse not to see a top flight artist who may pass through my life but a few times in his or her career. I once camped all night in Hammersmith to make sure I got a Dylan concert ticket. As it happens, it rained all night – and he wasn’t that wonderful. However, I would not have traded that for half a dozen pub and club blues band gigs simply to make a point about the ticket pricing. This doesn’t mean I am a fat rich bastard who doesn’t care about struggling musicians. It was my choice. I thought it was worth it and you can do your alternative ethical pub tour without me, thanks.
One bright sunbeam slicing through this overcast sky is The Festival. On a Buck Per Band Basis there is no question that, although they may often be on a par pricewise and may take a sizeable chunk of your hard-earned, you get huge value for your money. They tend to support a headliner of note, deliver several stages, offer up often dozens of solo and band talents and bring in newcomers all in one place at one time. From Glastonbury and The V to Hebden Bridge and Scarborough, the talent proliferates thanks to a few organisers who still put their ethics right next to the till. You may not like the main act who will bring in big support but there will be fifty others out there that you will.
Finally, as it happens, dear Joe doesn’t even make it on to the current top twenty Forbes list for expensive gigs. Rule out the ‘screamy teeny’ market. The Bank of Mum and Dad tend to foot the One Direction and Bieber bills… (if I can’t go I will scream until I die.) Rule out the ‘only appear once in the blue moon and maybe never again’ market (how long will Streisand and Diamond keep going?). What you have left is a list that is extraordinarily predictable. The Who, U2, Taylor Swift, The Foo Fighters, Kenny Chesney… and who is currently top? Why, it’s our old friends Fleetwood Mac. You can all start a fight about that when I’ve gone….
At the end of the day these concerts are only a tiny part of the music business. They are not killing it, strangling it, depriving us of good music. Like it or not, hold your nose or not, as with any high-end business, market economics must play a part. Butterflies, Mick in a dress and free stuff in Hyde Park are long gone. This does not mean you cannot pursue your love of and support for the rest of the musicians striving to get off the ground. We can all point to our favourite soloists and groups who are now making their mark because of our support. Give me another page or two and I will give you a list of UK Blues artists who need it.
Beating up Bonamassa may make you feel better, but it’s not his fault.