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What Do Artists Owe Their Fans?

Purple-Rain-10-1024x770Guest post by Brendan O'Connell (@therightnow) of, a music and tech think tank.

I love living in Chicago. It means a steady flow of great bands coming through town no matter what time of year it is. The past few months have been something special though: Bruce Springsteen for two nights at Wrigley Field; Prince for three nights, plus after parties; D’Angelo on a comeback tour; R. Kelly; Peter Gabriel doing his album So in its entirety; and hometown boys Wilco at a block party. These were all big-ticket shows — some even $100 or more — and I wanted to go to all of them. I certainly couldn’t afford to see everything so I had some tough choices to make.

I decided to pull the trigger on Prince and D’Angelo. As I stared at the checkout screen on the Ticketmaster website, grimacing at the jaw dropping prices and not-so-hidden fees, I thought about the gamble involved in purchasing such expensive tickets. My standard way of seeing live music is hitting a small club and shelling out ten bucks to see an indie rock band that just rolled out of a fifteen-passenger van. I’ve come to expect late start times, mediocre sound, and a general atmosphere of disorganization. Even if the music is good these issues can affect my experience as a concertgoer. It’s a pleasant surprise when things run smoothly and I really dig the band. That said, it’s not such a big deal to have a bad experience at a club when you’re paying ten bucks. But when the cost is ten times that much and you get the same issues, there’s a big problem. Purchasing a ticket without any kind of assurance on the quality of the production or the music means placing a bet on the artist and promoter, plain and simple.

No Commitment

Forking over $100 per ticket for D’Angelo sure as hell felt like a gamble given his erratic behavior over the past decade or two, but I did it anyways. That puts me firmly in the “super-fan” camp alongside other irrational fans that will gladly pay the high cost of admission to see bands that we can’t live without. I fully expected there to be problems with the show and that’s exactly what happened: D’Angelo went on thirty minutes late, only played six songs, cut off after thirty minutes, and offered absolutely no apology or explanation. To be fair, the headliner Mary J. Blige told the crowd that he had an “emergency” but it was too little, too late. No refunds, no reparations, no nothing.

And then there was the Groupon. A few weeks after I bought my tickets I got an email in my inbox from Groupon: the D’Angelo and Mary J concert was the deal of the day. The same tickets I bought for $100 each were now going for half price. It shocked me that the show hadn’t sold out (I suppose my super-fandom blinded me to the fact that D’Angelo doesn’t have much of a draw after being out of public life for so long). I felt cheated out of $100 and penalized for buying tickets early. Isn’t it supposed to work the other way around?

Here’s the thing: I still had a great time. I’d been waiting twelve years to see D’Angelo after I missed the Voodoo tour in 2000. As a super-fan I was determined to enjoy the music no matter how long I had to wait or how short the set was. It’s pretty obvious that artists and promoters exploit this level of fandom and that fans are willing to be exploited. We put up with late start times and abbreviated sets as long as we get to see our favorite bands. Then we hop on social media, post pictures and status updates, and brag about how awesome it was. I sure did. D’Angelo’s show was a disappointment, but in a way, the problematic set left me with something to gloat about. My Facebook status after the show tells all: “Oh D'Angelo. Starting an hour late. Playing six songs in thirty minutes. Costing $100 a ticket. Totally worth it. Welcome back, D!” 

“I don't know about that, seems like he took his sweet-baby-Jesus time with stuff. Where's the commitment?” responded Kyle, one of my FB friends. In retrospect Kyle was right on the money. D’Angelo has no commitment to his fans, and the promoters showed no commitment to their customers. I love D’Angelo but it worries me that he will wear out his fans’ patience pretty fast. Word travels fast over Twitter and Facebook.

Make It Right

Prince had some slip ups on his three night run in Chicago but acted responsibility to set things right. The House of Blues after party on the first night ended with a mob of angry, frustrated fans. After paying $60 and waiting five hours for the music to get rolling, Prince’s band did a few numbers and that was it. No Prince. Time had gotten away from His Purpleness and the venue had to shut down for the night. Prince eventually appeared on stage and apologized to the audience. Social media exploded the following day with nasty tweets and angry status updates.

Rather than ignore his fans’ frustrations, Prince gave everyone at the HOB free tickets to his Wednesday show at the United Center. In what must have been a shock to Prince followers everywhere, Prince seemed to respond to other concerns as well (he has bit of a reputation for doing his own thing). After making the crowd wait forty minutes for an encore on Monday night, Prince came right back out for a double encore on Wednesday. Critics panned him for not playing enough guitar the first night (we all pay to see him play the “Purple Rain” solo right?), so what does he do? Shreds constantly at the next two shows.

Acts and promoters need to take note: if you screw up you need to make it right. Once you earn the trust and loyalty of your fans you need to nurture the relationship. It sounds like I’m giving romantic advice here but maybe there are some similarities. Stop treating fans like the girlfriend you dog around on and put a ring on it for God’s sake!

Aside from voicing discontent on social media, fans have another powerful weapon: dollars. We’ve already seen the fallout from high-ticket costs with canceled tours or slashed prices at the last minute.

Satisfaction Guaranteed

Artists and promoters should be taking the lead instead of waiting for fans to stop buying tickets. One quick fix could be connecting with fans via email or social media and sharing day of show information such as accurate set times. There’s no reason fans shouldn’t have this information. What’s the big mystery all about? Does posting set times hold artists accountable to a schedule? That shouldn’t be a bad thing. That’s probably the biggest complaint you overhear at shows; a small amount of information could go a long way.

Promoters could also address fan concerns through social media. For example, a promoter could create hashtags for each event and respond to fan inquiries in real time. It would have been comforting to be notified by the United Center or Live Nation via twitter that D’Angelo had an emergency.

Ultimately, I would love to see artists, promoters, and venues offer a satisfaction guarantee at concerts. Imagine Prince announcing a concert tour with the tagline, “This party will be the best night of your life or your money back.” Fans would eat that up with a spoon. I don’t expect this to happen anytime soon, but less extreme measures such as offering partial money back, free downloads or merch, or comp tickets to other events to dissatisfied customers would be steps in the direction. The new music model is about adding value and connecting with your fans. It’s time for big-ticket tours to do just that.

Brendan O'Connell is a musician based in Chicago. He is the songwriter & keyboardist for pop/soul band The Right Now. Follow him on twitter at @therightnow