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-- Larry, on "Sunday Bloody Sunday"

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Too Much U2 Too Soon? Exploring U2's Surprising U.S. Ticket Sales

@U2, February 06, 2018
By: Sherry Lawrence

 

I received a call out of the blue from a family acquaintance last week asking me if I knew that U2 was playing in Boston. He heard an ad on the radio while driving to work and wasn’t sure if I knew, and asked why they were touring the 2015 production again. He sounded surprised when I told him that U2 has a new album out, and although the stage design is the same as for 2015, it will be a different set list with different graphics — and yes, I knew they were coming to Boston. Later that day, I saw the Experience + Innocence Tour 2018 commercial on both our local Boston CBS and NBC stations. The tour commercial promoted only the second show in Boston, June 22. At the time of this article's publication, there were still over 1,500 tickets available for that night on Ticketmaster.

Since when has U2 not sold out Boston?

That is a question I've been wrestling with for a while now given that U2 performed four nights in Boston in 2015, and a total of eight over the course of 2005. We are about 80 days before the 2018 tour kicks off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and there are still over 30,000 face-value tickets available for sale on Ticketmaster across at least 15 dates. Major markets like Chicago, New York City, San Jose and Los Angeles, as well as smaller markets like Tulsa, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., all have plenty of inventory to choose from (except general admission). Go to any show with an interactive seating chart on Ticketmaster and take your pick. (This does not include the hundreds of Verified Resale tickets offered at a higher price on Ticketmaster.)

Note: The figures in this article are based solely on blue dots signifying face-value tickets located on the interactive Ticketmaster pages of 15 Experience + Innocence Tour dates, and do not include shows ticketed outside of Ticketmaster. All sales figures were calculated from Jan. 6, 2018 through Feb. 3, 2018. Not every Experience + Innocence event offered an interactive map on Ticketmaster.

I do recognize that the Experience + Innocence tour is at least 80 percent sold overall, and given today's concert climate, the current ticketing situation shouldn't throw up any red flags. After all, many people will choose to purchase their tickets closer to the concert date. Face-value tickets for the general public are usually available to purchase right up to show time, so a true sell-out doesn’t happen until the show is well underway that evening. I will also concede that at least one more date has been added in New York City (with the possibility of another in the future), even though face-value tickets are available for the other two nights at Madison Square Garden.

However, fans have been wondering why the American market has been so soft while shows in Europe have been selling out within a day of the general sale. For this tour, a few key factors might explain the sales figures so far.

Ticket Prices

Face-value tickets for the Experience + Innocence Tour cost more than tickets to any other U2 tour to date. To compare Boston area prices from the last four tours (not including Ticketmaster fees):

General Admission:

2009-2011 U2 360 Tour: $57.50
2015 Innocence + Experience Tour: $65
2017 The Joshua Tree Tour: $70
2018 Experience + Innocence Tour: $80.50

Top-Tier Face-Value Ticket:

2009-2011 U2 360 Tour: $250
2015 Innocence + Experience Tour: $280
2017 The Joshua Tree Tour: $280
2018 Experience + Innocence Tour: $325

I pulled out some of my ticket stubs from U2’s 2015 tour to compare seating in the lower and upper bowl of the arena. The face-value for a seat in Loge 5, Row 11 in Boston in 2015 was $98.50 plus fees. At the time of initial onsale, a ticket in that section was $171, almost a 75 percent increase from 2015.

Those who chose not to purchase on day one of the onsale can get a ticket in Loge 5, Row 12 at the time of this publication. However, it is now classified a "Platinum Ticket" and commands the face-value price of $425. That is a 400 percent increase from 2015. Why so much? According to Ticketmaster's website, its “Official Platinum Seats program enables market-based pricing (adjusting prices according to supply and demand) for live event tickets, similar to how airline tickets and hotel rooms are sold. The goal is to give the most passionate fans fair and safe access to the best tickets, while enabling artists and other people involved in staging live events to price tickets closer to their true value.” Trouble is, people can get comparable tickets for $150 less through StubHub than what Ticketmaster's charging. Case in point: Boston’s June 21 show. A seat in Loge 5, Row 21 is priced at $249 on StubHub while Loge 5, Row 20 is $399 on Ticketmaster as a "Platinum Ticket."

In 2016, Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino told the Financial Times, "We have to start pricing the house to match the market. … The perception of price gouging would lead to disastrous PR." The article continues, "But he argued that reselling would remain rife until artists 'price the product at what the market is able to pay.'" It appears the pricing model for U2's 2018 tour is more in line with what Rapino was advocating for two years ago. The comparison of pricing a concert as one would price an airline or hotel room is not an apt one because you cannot scalp an airline ticket or a hotel room like you can a concert ticket.

When comparing U2's 2015 arena tour pricing allocation with the upcoming 2018 tour, more tickets were allocated at the top $325 ticket price this time around. Ticket buyers cannot justify paying that amount of money for nosebleeds. At Madison Square Garden in New York City, tickets in the top row of the central upper bowl sections (i.e., 212, 223, 224, 225) are at the top face-value price of $331. In Boston, the first seven rows of the upper bowl are at the top face-value price of $325, and in Los Angeles prices vary between the first eight rows and the first 10 in the upper bowl. That was not the case in 2015. By contrast, St. Louis’ upper bowl 2018 tickets are almost half the price of the major markets: $171.

Once you tack on Ticketmaster fees, parking, merchandise, food and beverages, it becomes a very expensive evening for a family of four. According to our 2012  and 2016 Fan Survey results, U2 appears to be an act whose demographic is trending older, and based on what I’ve seen at the the previous three tours, more families are attending the concerts.

There is limited discretionary income to go around, so perhaps people are making different choices. Also, many fans are waiting for another drop of general admission tickets, which typically happens about a month before the show, or are hoping that the ticket prices will start going down closer to the show.

By the way, U2 is not the only act charging $325 as the top general ticket price. Taylor Swift is also charging $325. By comparison, Britney Spears’ top general ticket price is $499, Justin Timberlake’s is $275, Pink’s is $230, Elton John’s is $200 and Pearl Jam’s is $112.

To say that fans feel the pinch in the wallet is an understatement.

Initial Ticket Onsale and Marketing

The timing of the initial ticket onsale was problematic. The tour announcement came on Nov. 1, about five weeks after the last Joshua Tree Tour 2017 U.S. date. As with Pop and PopMart, the tour was announced and sold before Songs Of Experience was released. People were once again buying into a tour without knowing the music. The marketing for the tour relied heavily on video footage from 2015 and used the same tour logo (albeit blue instead of yellow). Consumers had no way to immediately recognize it was a different tour with a different set of songs and visuals. For those who enjoy the minutiae of it all, they’re using the same stage design and screen (with improved resolution), but in general it will be a different show.

The desire to bundle the album with a ticket sale to ensure a No. 1 album on the Billboard Top 200 chart got in the way of properly marketing the tour and Songs Of Experience. U2 indeed did get that top spot on the chart, but the album remained on the chart for only seven weeks. The album dropped off the chart the week of Feb. 3, 2018.

Along with the rushed marketing, those attempting to purchase tickets for the North American tour dates were forced through the Verified Fan process, and we all know how that went. Some fans who were denied Verified Fan access were so disheartened by the process that they chose to sit this tour out. The change from a four-ticket limit to a two-ticket limit for U2.com members also played a part. Many fanclub members who brought family members to the 2015 shows either couldn’t afford it this time around or could not sit together. By the time Ticketmaster removed the Verified Fan requirement, the remaining tickets were either in the top-tier price range or in an undesirable location.

Fans also reported to @U2 issues about obtaining presale tickets for cities not using Ticketmaster. I reached out to the four North American venues not using Ticketmaster for ticketing to inquire about ticket allocation, and whether Live Nation was instituting the "slow ticketing" model seen with Jay-Z and Taylor Swift’s current tours. ("Slow ticketing" is where all inventory for the show is not released to the general public all at once; rather, availability is trickled out slowly from the initial onsale through showtime to thwart scalpers.) A representative from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, said he was unaware of the "slow ticketing" model being used by U2, and offered to connect me with his counterpart at Live Nation. The Live Nation representative did not reach out to confirm what the venue said.

Didn’t We Already See U2 Recently?

Although U2 is No. 1 on Entertainment Weekly’s "25 Must-See Concert Tours in 2018" list, plenty of other acts are touring the U.S. in 2018. U2 has staged tours in the United States in three out of the last four years (2015, 2017 and now 2018). The last time U2 performed three different tours, promoting three different albums, in the U.S. over a four-year time span was in the early '80s (October in 1982, War in 1983, The Unforgettable Fire from 1984–85).

With so many artists touring, perhaps some fans are sitting out U2 this year because they’ve seen the band at least once within the past couple of years. Those who missed out in 2015 because the arena tour sold so well were able to catch them in stadiums in 2017. Simply put, U2 has overworked the U.S. market.

Current Political Climate

U2’s message is clashing with current political policies and some fans’ sentiments in the U.S. The band’s bold statements of alarm over presidential decisions has taken aback some fans, and U2’s participation in this year’s Grammy Awards apparently didn’t produce the sales bump one would expect. The Experience + Innocence Tour kicks off where the current U.S. president won the 2016 election by a relatively wide margin (Oklahoma, 65 percent; Missouri, 56 percent), and maybe not surprisingly, those cities each have over 3,000 tickets available as of this article’s publication.

Conclusion

The Experience + Innocence Tour is selling well overall, but the U.S. market is softer than in Europe. Live Nation has stepped up its marketing of the tour in the U.S. to push ticket sales for certain nights. I believe that the European sales strategy shifted due to the sales experience in the U.S. for the tour's first leg. The tour was branded differently for the European tour announcement, and the pricing tiers were shifted so more tickets were in the mid-level price range. While it’s a treat for American fans to have the opportunity to see the band so many times over a short period, it might have been wiser to start the tour elsewhere (like Australia) and work its way to the States to give American fans a chance to pay off the costs of the last two tours. It might have been too much too soon for the U.S. market.

©@U2/Lawrence, 2018

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