Tales of Mental Tangle #6: Tiered Pricing

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I won’t be submitting a mail order request this time around. The reason? I don’t want to watch all the shows I see this summer from the lawn, and Phish’s ticketing system doesn’t allow you to differentiate between lawn and assigned seats in your ticket request. This, despite the institution, for the first time in Phish’s history, of tiered pricing–that is, tickets that cost more in some parts of the venue than in others.

In the old days, Phish prided themselves on charging the same price for the tickets in the front row as for the ones in the back row. In the days since summer tour was announced, reaction to the new policy has been mixed. And truthfully, we won’t fully understand the impact until the tour starts up. But until then, Poster Nutbag and I both had some thoughts that we wanted to share with you.

We’ll discard the usual Tales of Mental Tangle format in favor of a more straightforward pro essay and a con essay. So without further ado…

PRO: Poster Nutbag

Before I get into my defense, I think it would be helpful to review what the ticket situation has been up to this point.

Phish tickets are underpriced. That is a fact, and it is something the band has consciously sought because they want all their fans to be able to come out and see the shows. I support that. But given that Phish tickets are underpriced, there are market forces at work that are causing a secondary market to emerge where selling tickets is a for-profit business made possible by cozy relationships between promoters and brokers, sites like StubHub, and right-out fraud. Given these factors, I think tiered pricing is a good step for fans, and will help address some of the inefficiencies in Phish’s pricing,

What made the old pricing great was also its downfall: every seat, from the back of the lawn to the pit, was the same price. Pit tickets are of higher value than lawn tickets, though, no matter what the price is. You can see evidence of this on CashOrTrade. During the Holiday Run I had some 300 level tickets on 1/1 that I was trying to trade for a 12/30. But on CashOrTrade, people only wanted to trade like sections, i.e. 100 level on 1/1 for 100 level on 12/30. My 300 level was the same price, but didn’t have the same value.

This is also true of the resale market. Everyone knows that the closer tickets are priced higher on StubHub. In this case, there are excess profits being generated by seat location – and these profits are being realized by brokers, not Phish. There are other factors at play here in the for-profit secondary market, but the principle that there is a market failure in this case is not in doubt. Tiered pricing doesn’t solve this problem, but think about this: knowing that there is a lower-priced option out there, it may apply downward pressure on all tickets.

Tiered pricing can also help sell more overall tickets to some venues. Some venues this summer will definitely sell out: Bethel, MPP, Alpharetta, nTelos, and a few others. But others, like Riverbend and Darien, will probably not. But maybe a few more casual fans (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way) may come out, given that they have an opportunity to buy a ticket at a slightly lower value. Who knows how many more people would bite at a $45 ticket vs a $50 or $60 ticket? That is true for the touring fan as well. Money might limit the length of your tour, but at $45, maybe you can swing the extra show.

One common retort I have heard about tiered pricing is that it can start to segregate fans into the haves and the have-nots. I don’t think that will necessarily be true. As discussed above, price selection already occurs, so stratification is already occurring. Second, and most importantly, any vet worth his weight in (headies/Phish stats/Sammy Smith) knows that you can more or less sit where you want if you know how to do it.

Tiered pricing is not something to be feared. I don’t think Phish management has turned into the Yankees. I think they are taking a commonsense step to help ameliorate the problems that Phish tickets are grossly underpriced and that a for-profit, secondary market has appeared to take profit from the resale of tickets. Other measures can be taken, and while this will not solve the problem, I applaud Phish for trying to make things better while staying as true as possible to their core convictions. Phish tickets are still underpriced, and I’m glad they are because it has enabled the band to make a connection with their fans that 99.9% of other bands will never have. Recognizing a flaw and moving to correct it is a move we should support, and I think tiered pricing will ultimately have a positive effect on the community.

CON: Guy Forget

Guy ForgetThis is obviously a tricky issue, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure I can say I’m categorically opposed to it. But I do have some strong concerns, which I’ll try to enunciate here.

First, I’ll address the most common complaint—as you put it, the fear that this will segregate fans into the haves and the have-nots. I don’t want to get carried away with this—honestly, a $15 price difference is not about to make it so that everyone in the lawn is in rags and everyone in the pavilion is in Gucci. But before, if some wook biatched his way into your row with his friend’s stub, it was annoying, but the only reason you were entitled to your seat was your own good luck. Now, it’s because you ponied up and he didn’t. It’s not like this is class warfare, but the idea that entitlement is related to wealth seems antithetical to what Phish has always stood for.

And what Phish stands for is what I believe is really at issue here. Phish has always had a unique relationship with capitalism: they’ve let fans freely tape and distribute recordings of every show; they haven’t put tons of money into promoting their albums; they’ve kept their ticket prices below market value; and for God’s sake, they’ve done things like play 58-minute Runaway Jims. This approach, I believe, is a large part of what’s allowed them to be so successful in the long term – after all, it’s hard to imagine tens of thousands of people traveling to the far corners of the country to see some cookie-cutter band’s festivals.

But it’s also what makes us love them in a way that most bands are never loved. It’s a kind of trust: to use the cliché, it’s the feeling that we’re all in this together. And the tiered pricing is just the most recent in a long line of decisions they’ve made since Coran Capshaw started managing them—playing large festivals, sticking almost exclusively to the east coast, and on and on—that are totally pragmatic, but that violate that trust. The gate to the concert grounds at It read, “Our intent is all for your delight.” These days, an honest gate might read, “Our intent is largely for your delight, but hey, we gotta look out for our own bottom line.”

Now I don’t want to get carried away. This particular decision doesn’t leave anyone out in the cold. In fact, they lowered the price of lawns while keeping pavilions at $60. And it won’t impact the number of shows I see this summer. But the long term picture looks a bit different. Contrary to what would’ve been true in 2.0, I don’t plan to see all the shows in close range. And although that’s mostly because of the lack of jamming and drop in quality of the music, it’s also in part because the whole Phish experience feels less magical, less personal, and less unique. I believe decisions like this one are to blame.

We’d really like to know where others stand on this issue, and hopefully keep the conversation going. So please share your thoughts in the comments.

On the whole, are you for or against tiered pricing?

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