The Costly Forces Behind the High Price of Live Comedy
It’s not like Julie thought John Mulaney tickets would be cheap. Back in his hometown of Chicago, playing in the massive United Center usually reserved for the Bulls and Blackhawks, demand for Mulaney tickets would surely be high. Not wanting to be left out, Julie logged on to Ticketmaster the precise moment tickets went on sale, intent on purchasing the maximum eight seats for her extended family.
Face value for each ticket was around $75, but multiple fees brought that price up to more than $125 per seat. For eight tix, the total was about a cool grand for an evening of laughs. “Why does it cost more than $25 to process an online ticket?” Julie asks, but she has no regrets about the purchase. After more than a year of being cooped up at home during COVID, “whenever we get to do something like this, it feels worth it,” she says. But perhaps ominously for ticket sellers, she adds, “I feel like we can only use that excuse for a little while longer.”
Unless you’ve been hiding out in Taylor Swift’s guest house, you know that the high price of live entertainment is officially A Thing. When ticket sales for Swift’s latest tour essentially broke Ticketmaster and left hardcore fans out in the cold (unless they wanted to pay mind-boggling prices on the secondary market), lawmakers took a renewed interest in the dominant ticket broker. “This goes way beyond Taylor Swift,” tweeted Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN). “This is about a monopoly that can charge higher prices, hide fees and fail to give quality service because it doesn’t need to. … When there is no competition, Americans pay the price.”
That price is high. A number of top comics are on the road right now and ticket costs are eye-popping. Interested in that Chris Rock/Dave Chappelle double bill? Secondary market prices are through the roof.
Is Ticketmaster really the culprit for the rising price of comedy? For its part, the service points a finger at promoters and artists. “Event organizers determine the specific pricing for their shows, not Ticketmaster,” a company spokesperson tells me. “I would recommend getting in touch with the event organizers or comedian teams directly.”
So who’s fault is it — the ticket seller or the comedians? According to Jesse Lawrence, a ticket market analyst and founder of TicketIQ, there are multiple culprits. Let’s run them down…
Market Pricing. There’s a lot of talk about dynamic pricing for comedy concert tickets these days, Lawrence explains, but it’s really just a newfangled name for market pricing. In a nutshell? “You're generally going to see high prices for high-demand, limited-quantity performers,” she says. Check out the highest-priced comedy shows on the resale market according to the chart above: The most expensive ones are for those gigs with only three to five shows remaining. Fewer seats for Chappelle and Rock mean higher demand, which in turn translates to higher prices.
For all the hoopla, the Taylor Swift debacle “was just a supply-demand imbalance. Way more people wanted tickets than there were tickets available,” Lawrence tells me. “In the comedy space, we see that same thing.”
Pent-Up COVID Demand. It’s not just Julie’s family who is ready to get back out and spend. “It’s people not seeing their favorite artists for four or five years in some cases,” says Lawrence. “They’ve saved some money and they’re spending that on live events in a disproportional way because they haven’t had the opportunity.”
Lawrence sees higher demand for tickets across the board, from sports to music to comedy. If your favorite comics are on the road right now, it’s likely their first time out since COVID. And fans have been waiting.
Fees. As anyone who has purchased a ticket over the last 30 years knows, fees aren’t new. But artists, venues and promoters are getting more sophisticated about using them. This is another area where COVID is partly responsible — if a theater sat mostly dormant for two years during the pandemic, it’s now looking to recoup some of the money it lost. Increased fees are one way to do that — and those are just the primary fees.
Lawrence’s TicketIQ is a no-fee reseller, but many others on the resale market can’t say the same. “Secondary fees are pure margin for marketplaces like StubHub,” he says. “The big guys optimize those fees every day, for every event.”
One goal for legislators like Klobuchar is to get those fees front and center, but expect a fight from ticket sellers who profit from doing otherwise. “There’s a fascinating quirk we know through behavioral economics,” explains Lawrence. It’s that the practice of “drip pricing,” i.e., not disclosing all the fees until an online ticket buyer gets to a final purchase screen, drives much better conversion.
The Evolving World of Entertainment Economics. Recording a hit comedy album used to mean big bucks for comedians. But like music artists, comics no longer rake in serious cash from the sale of physical media. And unlike music artists, comedians’ ongoing battle with services like Spotify and Pandora over rights issues means even those income streams have been throttled. That leaves one main source to generate comedy income: the road. “Tours are a very lucrative piece of the business model,” says Lawrence. And more than ever, artists are taking the lion’s share of those revenues.
One other thing that’s changed? Comedians playing in massive venues. In addition to Mulaney’s year-long tour in which he took over arenas versus comedy clubs or theaters, this year saw comics like Bill Burr (Fenway Park) and Gabriel Iglesias (Dodger Stadium) take on the challenge of filling stadiums meant for sporting spectacles. It’s hard to say if that trend is here to stay, as that pent-up COVID demand may be partially responsible for the bigger outlets. Lawrence also points out that the phenomenon might be regional, with the examples of Burr and Iglesias basically taking place in the comics’ hometowns.
Time will tell, although fans like Julie aren’t wowed by the big-venue experience. Seeing Mulaney in a basketball arena wasn’t “as good as someplace more intimate, no question,” she says. “But it was good enough.”
Most of the factors discussed above aren’t changing anytime soon, meaning the high price of comedy is likely here for a while. Of course, many fans can’t afford those concert prices, which raises the question: With recordings of these comedy shows often arriving on Netflix or HBO in a matter of months, why bother shelling out big bucks for the experience in the first place?
“Live is just better,” Julie maintains. “I’m very lucky that I can afford to do this once or twice a year. I am definitely one of those people who really value the fact that it’s happening in the moment.”