Tilting At Windmills: In Search Of The $5 Ticket : The Record Are ticket prices really so bad? Like everything in life, the answer may not be obvious.

Tilting At Windmills: In Search Of The $5 Ticket

Tickets stubs from long ago show concerts seemed to be more affordable. Mito Habe-Evans/npr hide caption

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Mito Habe-Evans/npr

Tickets stubs from long ago show concerts seemed to be more affordable.

Mito Habe-Evans/npr


Led Zeppelin opens for the Who at Merriweather Post Pavilion. According to the Zeppelin web site, this would be the only time this happened. I was there -- for $5.75 -- for a good seat.

All of the recent stories about ticket prices and the apparently crumbling business of live music made me think about all of the music I heard when I was younger and how I probably couldn't afford to hear it now. Or could I?

It certainly feels like ticket prices are over the top. $300 for a decent Bon Jovi seat? But now a lousy economy and fan backlash are producing $10 tickets, and not just for lawn seats. That's more like it! More like the good old days ... when we used to walk a mile to school and could buy a bottle of pop for a nickel. Just kidding. Sort of.

But $5.75 does seem like a long way from where we are now. A quick visit to http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pla (a Consumer Price Index inflation calculator posted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics) tells us that $5.75 in 1969 translates to $34.18 in 2010.

Later that same year, my Mom (that's right, my Mom -- you got a problem with that? I was 15) took me to the Atlantic City Pop Festival: August 1, 2, and 3, 1969. She saved the ticket stub in an album. She spent the day at the beach and I hopped a shuttle bus to the Atlantic City Race Course. I stood on the track pretty close to the stage and the sound must not have been too bad because I remember a lot: hearing the almost-original Mothers of Invention play Zappa's jazz/classical fusion; Janis Joplin with the Pearl band. But most of all I remember looking up and seeing rain falling but not feeling a drop as the Chambers Brothers sang "People Get Ready."

The cost? Three days, general admission: $14.56 + $.44 N.J. sales tax. That's $89.17 in 2010 dollars.

Now get this. A three-day pass to this year's Pitchfork Music Festival was $90.

So is it really worse now? Sure, there's a huge psychological gap between $15 and $90. And the fact that it takes $90 to buy today what $15 got you 41 years ago is depressing. But the stats don't lie -- the Pitchfork price was equivalent.

Here are a few more comparisons based on the ticket stubs Mom saved.

Jethro Tull at the Shady Grove Music Fair on July 13, 1970 was $5.50 + $.25 tax. That translates to $32.33 in 2010 dollars. Tickets for an upcoming October Tull show at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Peekskill, N.Y., range from $46.50 to $96.50. Now I had a great seat at Shady Grove -- I remember Clive Bunker played the toms with his head. So the 2010 equivalent would probably be the $96.50 ticket.

That's three times what I paid. Maybe things are worse.

Let's keep looking.

In 1972, my friend Steve and I went up to New York for the first year the Newport Jazz Festival was in the city. My ticket stubs range from $6.00 to $7.00. I heard Ornette Coleman perform "Skies of America" for $6.00. That would cost me $31.32 today.

The CareFusion Festival New York (George Wein's city version of Newport this year) had several free events; some tickets went for as low as $15. Tix for Keith Jarrett in Carnegie Hall ranged from $40 to $90.

Hmm. Again, roughly 3 times what I paid for good seats to hear Oscar Peterson split the bill with John McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra in Carnegie. I still can't figure out that pairing.

But then there's the Bob Dylan and the Band show I saw at the Capital Center on January 16, 1974 (the opener? Aerosmith. I kid you not): Section 106, Row 0, Seat 6 for $8.50, taxes included. That would be$37.62 in 2010.

General admission tickets for an August 4 Dylan show in Austin cost $45. On August 7 he plays  Kansas City for $39.50 or $55.00. Go Bob! But he's at Caesar's Palace in Vegas (there's something wrong with that) later that month with tickets priced from $59.50 to $150.00.

I don't have any physical records of all of the club shows I caught. I distinctly remember paying $5 for a front row table with three friends (we got there really early) to hear Charles Mingus at a club called Etcetera. We sat literally at his feet. I don't remember the year but let's say it was 1973. Using our handy inflation calculator, that would be $24.57 in 2010.

The longest-running -- and sadly one of the few left standing -- jazz club in D.C. is Blues Alley. Tickets for upcoming shows range from $18 to $35 PLUS a $10 minimum purchase -- food or drink -- PLUS a $2.50 surcharge per person.

Now I'm sure there was a two-drink minimum for that Mingus show. But a surcharge?!?!

Maybe that's what's changed. If some ticket prices are equivalent and some are higher, it's all of the nickel and diming tacked on that makes today's live music experience unsavory. You feel like you're being conned -- like someone's trying to get over on you. Sure it costs money to put on a show, but a sense of balance seems to have been lost.

I hope I'm not stuck in the past, but $5 sure sounds nice.