Rising ticket prices are costing Australians more than just money. Our cultural climate is in crisis | Culture

The poet Mary Oliver once described art as being like “bread in the pockets of the hungry”. But the cost-of-living crisis – nicknamed “cozzy livs” by a younger generation who know that if you can’t change something, you can at least give it a name on your own terms – has come for both our groceries and our art. What happens when you can’t afford either?

The prices of live events, from theatre shows to musicals and gigs, have been steadily rising for years, particularly in the aftermath of Covid. Laneway festival tickets increased by $20 this year, while Vivid, one of the key events in Sydney’s calendar, started charging entry for select light shows. Events that were once free are free no longer and it’s not uncommon to pay hundreds of dollars for international acts. The battering that Taylor Swift fans recently took while waiting hours to buy tickets to her Australian tour is but one example, with fans forking out hundreds for seats up in the gods. Demand for stadium tours is at an all-time high and punters are paying through the teeth as a result.

As Mixdown reports, there has been a 19% increase in the cost of tickets bought through Live Nation globally in the last year, with the promotion company’s CEO, Michael Rapino, suggesting those prices are only going to rise in line with demand. There has been a proliferation of “flexible ticket pricing” options recently, where ticket prices increase with demand – the route that Splendour in the Grass went down for the first time this year.

Evelyn Richardson, the chief executive of Live Performance Australia, attributes the rise to three main factors: rising production costs, skill shortages and a change in consumer behaviour. “With ticket pricing, you always have to understand the context of tickets being sold,” she says. “The cost of freighting has gone up phenomenally. We move concerts around all the time … and moving costs have gone up significantly, coming out of Covid due to supply chain disruption.”

According to Richardson, production costs have generally gone up by 30% to 40%, sometimes even 50%. But while it’s more expensive to put on a show, promoters are having to recoup costs without the security of presales: people these days are buying tickets at the last minute, if they can afford to buy them at all.

“People are making decisions about how many events they go to,” Richardson says. “You would expect that in an economically challenging time … So now, when you’re putting on a tour and you’re looking at a massive rise in production costs, you can’t recoup just by putting up your ticket prices.”

Rent plays a part in this story too, as it does in every story of current financial strain. Venues are facing rising interest rates, as well as a new generation of attendees who drink less and therefore spend less money at shows. The shutting of Melbourne’s beloved live music venue The Tote, not to mention the increasingly complicated saga surrounding an attempt to revive it, point to the way that real estate is tangled up in all of this. The Tote was “priced for development”, one of its potential new owners said, leading to its steep $3m price tag, and making the venue one more casualty in an increasingly hostile war on renters.

To return to Oliver’s metaphor – what does it mean when our pockets are so empty of art? The result is a cultural climate in crisis, where art is less common, affordable and accessible. Live events in Australia are becoming the playground of the upper middle class and younger Australians are missing out. When the choice is food or a Phoebe Bridgers gig, the answer is obvious.

It would be wrong to suggest there is no affordable art in this country, of course – but the squeezing out of affordable culture has profound knock-on effects.

First, regularly consuming art is a key component to making good art and an explosion in creativity almost always comes hand in hand with an explosion in the consumption of creativity. Think of hallowed scenes like Andy Warhol’s Factory, where musicians attended art shows by their painter friends and film-makers caught an evening performance by the Velvet Underground. Or look closer to home, to the arts and literary journal Angry Penguins and the scene it produced – a cross-pollination of poets, painters and novelists.

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Creative communities are at their strongest when the creation and consumption of art is affordable; when artists can see what other artists are making possible; when boundaries are pushed and challenged together. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed, the recent documentary about photographer Nan Goldin, is miraculous in no small part because of the scene that it captures, one where every house party is attended by a painter, poet or film-maker.

Second, art is meant to be part of our lives, not a deviation from it. We don’t go to the theatre the way we go on holiday – or at least, we shouldn’t. Culture is meant to be an ongoing, organic reflection, seamlessly intertwined with the ways that we rise and choose to live every single day. That’s how it holds its cathartic power – how it retains the ability to move and shape us.

When a hefty price tag turns art into a sometimes food, rather than a pantry staple, we lose an ongoing cultural document, one that changes as we do. The painter David Hockney once claimed that without pictures, we wouldn’t even be able to see the world. So it goes with all art – without it, we cannot form a picture of our lives, our goals, our passions.

We make art to open up possibilities; to instruct, inform, change, shape, entertain. When that creative muscle becomes atrophied, forced out of regular usage by prohibitive pricing, the effect is not just an entire subsection of the population forced to work and perform less. The effect is hunger.

Joseph Earp is a critic, painter and novelist. His book Cattle is out now