Empty Seats at Sold Out Concerts

December 13, 2011

Over the weekend I went to two great concerts, the annual Almost Acoustic Christmas shows here in Los Angeles. And despite the fact that these shows sell out within minute of the tickets going on sale, and have been doing so for years, I was intrigued to notice the empty seats around me at the amphitheater. It leads me to wonder about supply and demand, and whether coolness can lead to over-hype.

Now to be clear, audiences in LA are different from audiences in other cities. We routinely arrive late to concerts and ballgames and other events, and as evidenced by the many people who walked out on Jane’s Addiction last Sunday, we don’t always stick around to see the conclusion of the event. In fact, the two women sitting in front of me arrived when the fifth band was playing, and left about an hour later, seeing only about 20% of the show. But what should we make of the people that don’t show up at all?

Certainly there are always extenuating circumstances, people can see their plans changed by illness, work, or other difficulties. But if you paid $150 for a pair of tickets to a high-demand concert, would you let them go to waste? Even if you couldn’t scalp them, wouldn’t you at least give away those tickets for somebody else to use?

Without any empirical information whatsoever, I’ve come to the conclusion that these people, who did not die in a car accident on the way to the venue, have become so disillusioned with the idea of this concert that they couldn’t be bothered to redistribute their tickets. But why? Because, I believe, these tickets were purchased out of a desire to participate in a well-hyped event, an event that created such a demand for tickets, that people were drawn towards buying something expensive that they didn’t really want.

But what’s the problem with somebody not using a non-refundable ticket? Isn’t a sold-out event a business success by virtue of being sold out? I would suggest that no, an over-hyped event is not a success if people don’t actually want to show up. The venue and promoters and Ticketmaster all benefitted financially in the short-term, but in terms of long-term success you want to provide a great product. You want your customers to enjoy themselves, to be pleased with their purchase, and to be looking forward to doing business with you again in the future.

And in the case of a concert, where thousands of people are gathered in one place to enjoy something communally, isn’t there also a risk that a sense of disillusionment might spread to other people who are otherwise enjoying themselves? I personally enjoyed myself immensely at both concerts because I loved the music and I loved the company of the people I was with. But I couldn’t help but notice the people around me who were bored when certain bands took the stage. And if I was attending that event because I bought into the hype and jumped at an opportunity to buy an in-demand ticket, I would start to question my experience if I saw that the hype wasn’t well founded.

While these shallow customers may not be the most valued in the market, they are customers nonetheless, and business people would be wise not to create a hollow experience for them. Hype might make good business sense, but only when it is proportionate to the product it is seeking to promote.

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