A strange thing happened the other day: Bernie Sanders went to a performance of Hamilton. A presidential candidate going to a Broadway show isn’t the strange part. The strange part is *this* presidential candidate going to *this* broadway show. Bernie Sanders, champion of the people, advocate for the little guy…the man leading the assault on a rigged system of privilege and wealth inequality.
That guy, somehow, scored a ticket to the hottest Broadway show ever. Hamilton, a show that is completely sold out for the next nine months, which requires a convoluted lottery system for tickets, and which keeps breaking records on secondary ticket market sites such as StubHub. Bernie Sanders used his position and privilege to score seats at a show which most Americans can’t see because they can’t afford. Nice.
But before all the Bernie Bros start swarming…this is not a rant against Bernie Sanders. I actually think it’s great that a presidential candidate decided to make attending the performing arts part of his campaign. We could use more of that from the other candidates in the race.
The issue that the Hamilton craze brings to light is an important one. The show has done what every show wants to do: it is a critical and a box office triumph. Good for Hamilton. (I’d make a Hamilton reference here—perhaps quote a line from the show or something—but I haven’t seen the show. I can’t get tickets.) But with its success we see, with dramatic clarity, how quickly commerce corrupts art.
If you want to go to Hamilton, but you’re not among the lucky few to have procured your tickets nine months in advance—or through the nearly impossible digital lottery—you then head to the secondary market, where you will pay significantly astronomically more than face value for a ticket.
In fact, on StubHub right now, the cheapest single ticket for a weekend evening performance is $814.35. Plus fees, plus dinner, plus in my case flight and hotel and oh never mind I’m not going.
Tickets to LA Lakers legend Kobe Bryant’s final game are cheaper than Hamilton. Tickets to see the Golden State Warriors potentially break the NBA single season Win-Loss record are slightly more than 1/3 the cost of a ticket to Hamilton.
On one hand, score one for The Arts that there is more demand for tickets to a theater show with an ongoing, indefinite run than there is demand for the two most significant NBA games of the last 20 years. On the other hand, the demand has created a situation whereby most people who want to see the show can’t, or won’t, because they either simply don’t have enough money to see it or they’ll choose to spend their money on other things—like a European vacation—instead.
The reality right now is that Hamilton is not a show for everyone. It is only a show for the elite.
Buzz creates demand, demand creates a secondary ticket market where anyone can profit off the artistic achievements of others, and lack of money becomes a barrier to art.
Back in the day, art used to be only available to the aristocracy…or at church. Then, folks like Mozart and Haydn started playing concerts publicly and publishing the music they wrote for the culturally elite, so everyone could experience what they were bringing into the world.
Today, capitalism and commerce has replaced the aristocracy as the thing to deny art from the people.
This is not just a Hamilton problem. This issue exists on smaller scales as well. Big museums charge $20-$30 for admission, the cheapest seats for concerts by major orchestras are also in that range, but it’s half that price to get into a Major League Baseball game. A night at the ballpark makes more financial sense for most people than a night at the theater or symphony.
So, with the base prices for access to art being double the base prices for access to live sporting events, I suppose it shouldn’t be so surprising that the truly buzzworthy arts events cost more than their sports counterparts.
Still, it’s unfortunate. While there are numerous arts organizations who are trying to make the arts more accessible financially (the excellent Hammer Museum in Westwood is now free all the time), there are others who exhibit the behavior of the secondary market: upselling their experiences to create buzz, capitalizing on that buzz, and monetizing that buzz.
[Case study: the hottest performing arts ticket in LA last year was for Hopscotch, a mobile opera performed in limousines and various diverse locations around town. Tickets started at $125. A lottery was established and a lucky few were able to get in for $25.]
Where does this leave us? I understand it costs money to put on a show and that ticket prices offset some of that cost. I understand that manufacturing “An Event” is necessary to get attention in a world with infinite entertainment options. However, it is possible to create buzz without pricing people out of an artistic experience.
[Case study: the Kaleidoscope Chamber Orchestra performed recently at a club-like venue in Downtown LA. They gave away piles of tickets mostly to young millennials, who probably wouldn’t have attended a concert of music by Schoenberg otherwise. The line went out the door and the concert was delayed because so many people came to see the spectacle. People felt like they were part of a really cool event and afterwards said they were much more likely to attend a classical concert in the future because of it.]
I guess in a country where start-ups and entrepreneurs are king, I suppose I should just let the market be the market. But, to me, art should be a little more sacred than that. Art reflects who we are as human beings; art shapes the human experience; art helps us make sense of our all-too-complicated existence. Art should not be subject to the whims of the marketplace. Access to art should not depend on one’s level of privilege. Art should be accessible to everyone—from Bernie Sanders to you and me.