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How ‘premium viewing’ might affect your summer concert season

Remember when you used to get to the concert venue early for general admission shows to grab yourself a spot near the front of the stage? That area where you can see the band unimpeded, look the performers in the eye, and feel like you’re an essential part of the show? It’s now considered “premium viewing,” and from Canalside to Artpark and back, you’ll be paying for the privilege of inhabiting it this summer.

Even a “free” concert doesn’t mean what it once did. If you want what you used to get for nothing, you’re going to have to pay for it. And before you start relating all of this to Buffalo exclusively, realize that this is a national trend – international, in fact – and it’s not likely to be reversed.

“Free” has been monetized. And in a beleaguered industry, with concert attendance walking a precarious line between “so-so” and “not good” – and a recording industry that has been decimated by music streaming services – any revenue stream is a good revenue stream.

National shows at Canalside, Darien Lake and Artpark will offer VIP tickets again this summer, as they have for the past several years.

At the Thursday at Canalside concerts, a VIP area will stretch from a pavilion (located stage right) across the front of the stage (the area generally known as the pit). While general admission is free to the Thursday concerts, this VIP access costs $55 plus service charge.

At Artpark, the front-of-stage VIP area has a variable price tag. For the Barenaked Ladies on June 14, a show which also includes Howard Jones and OMD, VIP packages range from $82 to $158. The lower price tag gets you a front-of-house ticket and some BNL swag; the higher price gets you a front-of-house ticket, meet-and-greet and a photo with the band.

Darien Lake offers VIP seating (and parking), but the big VIP packages are generally under the purview of the artist, not the venue. As a result, prices vary dramatically. Toby Keith’s July 15 appearance, for example, commands $89 for a general admission pit slot, and $175 for the three sections nearest the front of the stage.

A seat for the elite?

The obvious upside to this ongoing development is that if you have the money, and you want to ensure an up-close-and-personal experience with a particular artist, you’re only a mouse click or a smartphone swipe away. The downside is that there often is a discrepancy between the people with the money and the fans with the passion.

“I think that it’s having a negative impact, personally,” said Buffalo concertgoer Josh DiNardo. “Music is about excitement and energy and being near the front at a show used to be about passion. You would find the people there that had the greatest interest, and consequently, were having the best time. Now, it’s developing into a situation where the best real estate is becoming this elitist thing.

“I don’t think that having extra money to throw at tickets to a show is truly indicative of how much you love a band or what their music means to you,” he continued. “It’s just another addition to this national feeling of ‘Look, I can prove I’m better, look at what I have.’ ”

Local summer concert devotee Thomas Heneghan, who said he attends “at least a dozen” shows in the area each summer, sees things differently. “I’m a big believer in the VIP areas at our summer venues,” he said. “VIP pricing isn’t exorbitant and it helps the venues and promoters in their quest to continue bringing such a diverse array of talent to our fair land. The shorter version: Free concerts aren’t free.”

Us and them

“The VIP/ultra-luxe ticketing options that have become all the rage have transformed concert venues into the musical equivalent of the modern-day airline,” said journalist and industry watchdog Anil Prasad of Innerviews.org.

“And they’ve become just about as much fun, too. The ticketing situation comes with all the class-based loathing and resentment you feel when you’re stuck in coach — you know, when you see the privileged few enjoying Dom Perignon and caviar in their overstuffed Lazy Boys, while you’re stuck with a Diet Coke and stale pretzels, crammed in an airborne child’s car seat,” he said. “It used to be those that wanted the good seats the most and were willing to work for them usually got them. More often than not, if you were there early enough, you’d get great seats at no additional premium.”

Prasad, who lives in the San Francisco area, said that venues offering free and soft-ticket shows are “absolutely rampant” where he lives, which suggests that this is a trend that reaches from coast to coast, at the very least.

Buffalo concertgoer DiNardo saw it first-hand when he attended the recent Jazz Fest in New Orleans.

“The best area – the whole front of stage – was cordoned off about 50 feet back into the crowd for people with VIP tickets,” DiNardo said. “I think the people that deserve that space are the ones that will wait all day, like we did at Bonnaroo, to see Paul McCartney. We sat in the blistering sun for six hours waiting in a pit line and as a result, we got to see his show from 10 feet away.”

Concert promoters and in many cases, the artists, don’t necessarily agree. They believe the people who, in DiNardo’s parlance, “deserve that space,” are the ones who are willing to pay for it.

“We live in a capitalist democracy and there’s no getting in the way of its rampant march,” said Prasad. “Those VIP seats are where the greatest profit is made. The 10 percent of the house willing to pay for VIP and premium seating generate as much money as the other 90 percent. But just because you can make truckloads of money, does that make it right? Isn’t a concert supposed to be an event in which everyone is equal and can momentarily leave reminders of their financial status behind?”

Surely, that was the original idea. When I first started going to concerts as a teenager, and certainly well into the ’90s, depending on what kind of show you went to, that idealism was there for you to tap into, should you be so inclined.

The ‘super concert’

If you’re old enough, you probably remember Canalside’s older brother - the Thursday at the Square summer series of free shows. These took place in Lafayette Square, were free and didn’t have VIP areas. People wandered over after work and the vibe was relatively low-key, even when the crowd was a vast one.

Mohawk Place, located just around the corner, started an after-show tradition, with bands playing on the sidewalk and Square patrons staying to make a night of it. All of this felt like a distinctly Buffalo phenomenon, the way that walking around JacksonSquare in New Orleans and listening to the musicians playing their hearts out for tips is a distinct part of the Big Easy experience.

The fear that informs much of the negative reaction to the rise of the VIP is that the grassroots feeling – the vibe that made these events feel tied to the community – may be lost as area venues follow the nationwide trend where community events are replaced by the “super concert.”

A corporate, generic ambience prevails in such an atmosphere. You can’t tell if you’re in Buffalo or Baton Rouge, weather aside. Case in point: Lollapalooza, once a traveling road show where local vendors banded together to create a community vibe that varied from city to city, is now a four-day super concert in Chicago. You can attend, hear some great bands, have a good time. But will you get a feel for what Chicago is all about? Not likely.

It’s just another show.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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