The afternoon of Feb. 6, I was standing in line at the Singletary Center for the Arts box office behind a handsomely dressed couple that looked like they had just come from church to see the final performance of the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre’s production of Porgy and Bess.
When it was their turn to be served, the man held out his credit card, and the ticket agent said, “I’m sorry. This performance is sold out.”
That’s become a more common occurrence at Lexington-area shows recently. Just this weekend, Rupp Arena presents a sold-out performance by country star Jason Aldean Friday night, the Lexington Opera House hosts two sold-out performances by theBeatles tribute show Rain and Saturday night’s concert by violin legend Itzhak Perlman and the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra is so sold out even people who know people couldn’t get tickets.
This follows recent sold-out or near sold-out shows at those venues by artists such as pop star Chris Isaak, comedian Kathy Griffin, the touring production of Spamalot! and country stars Rascal Flatts, Rupp’s first non-UK basketball sell-out of 2011.
So, is the sell out back? Is a recovering economy starting to show up at the box office?
Well yes and no, venue directors say.
Yes, things do seem to be better than they were in the depths of the great recession in 2008 and ‘09. They also see other factors from a string of very popular acts to a pure desire on consumers’ parts to go have fun to ticket prices coming back to earth.
Rupp Arena director Carl Hall points to Friday night’s Aldean concert, specifically, as the perfect equation for a sellout: artist popularity-plus-affordable ticket price. The top price for that show was $47.50, well below last year’s national average concert ticket price of $61. And upper arena seats priced at $25, “sold out almost instantly,” Hall says.
“Artists are becoming sensitive to the public’s ability to pay sky-high ticket prices,” Hall says.
Singletary Center director Michael Grice says affordable tickets and star power also played a role in Perlman’s sell-out.
While the $60 to $80 price tag is real money to most people, it is less than was charged for recent concerts by classical stars such as Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, who commanded $100 with the Lexington Philharmonic at Singletary last spring, or the Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who’s September performance at Danville’s Norton Center for the Arts cost $100 to $500, that top price including a pre-show dinner. The Vienna Phil’s unprecedented concert did sell out, but Salerno-Sonnenberg played to a lot more empty seats than an artist of her stature should have.
“Something the industry has had to come to terms with is the tickets have to be affordable,” Opera House director Luanne Franklin said. “On the other hand, it costs a lot to put a show on the road.”
And it costs a bit more now than it did a couple weeks ago, when gas was still under $3 a gallon. Most touring shows roll in a handful to dozens of tractor trailers and tour buses that drink thousands of gallons of gas. If the price of gas shoots up, as it has recently with trouble in the Middle East and North Africa, consumers and tours feel it almost immediately.
“The price of everything goes up,” Hall says, noting the gas prices are one reason to be concerned about the overall health of the box office.
But he is optimistic, particularly looking forward to 2012 where he says a lot of tours are in the works. One thing that might mark those shows, he and Franklin say, is less of a production than we have seen in recent shows by artists such as Black-Eyed Peas.
“Artists want to get paid and there are other fixed costs, so something’s got to give,” Hall says.
How much consumers care about those bells and whistles is subjective, the directors say. Audiences may be perfectly happy to simply see Randy Newman and his piano, but if they are going to see 42nd Street, they expect a big production.
In the immediate future, presenters are seeing more sellouts including this month’s presentations of Emmylou Harris and Cats, whose March 19 matinee has sold out, to the June Bluegrass music performance by comedy and film star Steve Martin. Tickets to his show sold out immediately, despite being more than $100, proving artist popularity is sometimes the most important part of the equation.
The Singletary Center’s Grice says that while this has been a good season, ticket sales have not returned to the high levels of 2007. But box office reports give him and Franklin cause for optimism.
Franklin says, “Part of my job is simply reading people, and people are looking for something to lift their spirits and are willing to spend an extra dollar for it.”