Filesharing may have killed the CD star, but a recent article in The Economist about "what's working in music" describes a surprising trend in tickets to big concerts: "In 1996 a ticket to one of America's top 100 concert tours cost $25.81, according to Pollstar, a research firm that tracks the market. If prices had increased in line with inflation, the average ticket would have cost $35.30 last year. In fact it cost $62.57." Not bad for a down economy. (Incidentally, the cheapest ticket you can buy to see Lady Gaga at Bridgestone Arena on April 19 is $61.84, after fees. The Gold Hot Seat Package — featuring "pre-show disco with snacks and cash bar, live DJ, lights, and music video screening," among other sundries — will set you back an astonishing $437.50.)
In 1996, a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline cost about $1.25. On any given night in Nashville, you could go out to a rock show at a club like The End, pay a $5 cover to get in, and see three or four local bands. Today that gallon of gasoline costs more than twice as much, and the bands you could have seen then have since broken up. (OK, not The Features.) But you can still go see a local rock show for $5.
"As far as local, up-and-coming bands cutting their teeth, three bands for five bucks has not changed in 20 years," says Mike Grimes, co-owner of The Basement.
"For some reason, the market does not bear a higher price for a club show," says Mercy Lounge general manager Drew Mischke. "I think it sucks." As Todd Sherwood of The 5 Spot puts it, "It hasn't changed in so long, and people are still complaining when they come to the door." (Contrary to popular belief, Sherwood explains, the club is not named for its still-customary $5 cover charge — a fee he'd gladly raise in order to pay bands and staff more.)
Of course, not all local rock shows are $5 — Tristen's record release show at The Basement Jan. 20, for instance, will cost $8, or about a dollar above where we'd expect the price to be based on inflation. But a quick perusal of listings for The End this week reveals not a single cover charge above $5. According to Bruce Fitzpatrick, who's been running the club since 1998, "About 90 percent of shows are $5. ... It's been the same for years and years and years." In the meantime, good luck finding a $1.25 gallon of gasoline.
While many of the costs associated with playing music — instruments, electricity, alcohol — have gone up since 1996, the enduring $5 cover means that no one involved in producing local rock shows has gotten a raise in a long time. "I've been running sound in Nashville for seven years, and I still get paid the same," Sherwood says.
On the plus side, all of this also means that a local show remains an incredible bargain.
"What I want to reinforce," Grimes says, "is that local music cover charges have been resistant to inflation, and to kind of trumpet that for people who are looking to see quality entertainment for little money. Look in your own backyard rather than waiting for the next big band to come to Bridgestone and pay $10 just to park. ... Lots of bands come through and play for very small cover charges that are huge a few years later."
As for why the $5 cover endures so stubbornly, no one's really sure. It might be a function of the economic downturn. Maybe it's just the kind of city we live in: "Nashville is so saturated with amazing talent," Grimes says. "You can see tons of shows for free. ... While people are here trying to prove themselves, they know they have to play for little money, initially." Fitzpatrick adds that Nashville is, in many ways, still a small town at heart, and that "people expect it to be a $5 cover." Plus, he says, there are more places to see music now than there were in 1996, and the cover charge is something he mostly leaves up to the bands themselves, who choose to keep it low in order to compete with other shows.
Maybe it's the Internet. Anyone can easily call up clips of almost any band on YouTube and get a decent sense of what their live act is like. As Mischke notes, you don't have to go to a show anymore to check out a band, or thousands of them. For their part, Mercy Lounge plans to install remote-controlled HD cameras later this month, and will soon give bands the option of streaming their shows to the world.
Or maybe it's something else.
"The local scene right now is in kind of a valley," Grimes says. "There hasn't been a new crop of bands that draw really well — although I shouldn't say that because maybe some of those shows shifted toward house shows, and they pack a lot of kids. But those kids are under 21." Mischke points to "a kind of peak, at least" about two years ago, when local rock shows drew consistently well and prices started to inch upward. Today, as Mischke puts it, "I could put together a bill of my favorite rock bands in town, and you'd have to charge $5 for it, and hopefully you'd get 300 people on a Saturday night, when they could charge $16 for a dubstep show on a Tuesday night and have 500 people show up."
And therein lies another trend: "Electronic shows and jam bands," Mischke says. "Those shows are packing out because they put more effort into the production." With elaborate professional light shows and skillfully produced video backdrops, productions like the genre-smashing Mashville and the dubstep-leaning Everything's Nice have raised the bar considerably. Moreover, today's top-tier shows aren't just more expensive to see than they were 15 years ago — they're also more massive in scale and spectacle. Even former club-circuit regulars the Pixies, playing The Ryman last year, brought a full-color LED video screen that filled the entire back of the stage.
"[A show] is not a very scarce resource," Mischke says. "It's actually quite abundant — so if you can actually put on a show or an event that offers more value in some way, that it's not just the same thing as everyone else's show, maybe you can charge more for it."
For local rock bands compelled by forces no one fully understands to keep their cover charges artificially low, time will only tell if there's another peak to look forward to, or if it's time to start investing in fog machines and pretty lights.
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