In 1976, concert tickets cost less than $10. Now, they can go for thousands. What happened? 

Janet Nguyen Jul 8, 2024
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at Mohegan Sun Arena on April 12 in Uncasville, Connecticut. Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images

In 1976, concert tickets cost less than $10. Now, they can go for thousands. What happened? 

Janet Nguyen Jul 8, 2024
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at Mohegan Sun Arena on April 12 in Uncasville, Connecticut. Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images

This story was updated at 3:25 p.m. ET.

In 1976, Springsteen fans got to watch The Boss play “Thunder Road” and “Something in the Night” in Los Angeles for just under eight bucks, or under $44 in today’s dollars.  

Flash forward 46 years later, and some tickets for his 2022 world tour went as high as $5,000 on Ticketmaster. Fans were outraged. Even his fan magazine, “Backstreets,” shut down in protest.

In late 2022, Rolling Stone Magazine asked Springsteen if he regretted those prices. Springsteen said he wanted to see what his peers were charging, and then “charge a little less” than they were. “For the past 49 years or however long we’ve been playing, we’ve pretty much been out there under market value. I’ve enjoyed that. It’s been great for the fans,” he told Rolling Stone. 

They have indeed been under market value, or at least, very affordable. My colleague Carrie Barber provided me with a series of tickets from concerts that her husband attended in the 1970s, showing how jaw-droppingly cheap concerts were back then. A ticket for one of Springsteen’s concerts at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the 28th row cost $7.50 in 1976. In San Diego, a 7th-row ticket cost $6.75. Even if you adjust those amounts for inflation, those tickets would be worth only $41 and $37, respectively, today.

In the 1970s, fans could watch Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and Elvis Costello for $10 or less. (Courtesy Davis Barber)

Other acts in the ‘70s sold cheap tickets, including Elton John, who charged $10 for a show in 1975, which is equivalent to roughly $58 today. Elvis Costello charged only $5 in 1977, the equivalent of nearly $26 after adjusting for inflation.

Of course, not all tickets for popular acts go for thousands these days. The average ticket price for Springsteen’s concert was about $110 in 2023 and stands at about $276 so far this year, according to data from Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the live music industry. But that means a ticket might still be more than seven times the price it was back in 1976.

As concertgoers watched Springsteen that year, a couple of college staffers and their business partner one state over were busy launching a business that would end up becoming the world’s largest ticket seller. Ticketmaster, which was founded in Arizona in October 1976, would also end up becoming the business that people now blame for artists’ outrageously expensive concerts. 

Since then, the company has merged with the entertainment company Live Nation, creating what some dub a monopoly over the ticket business. In May, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Live Nation-Ticketmaster, arguing that the company engages in anticompetitive practices that lead to higher ticket prices and hurt smaller venues. 

When reached for comment, a Live Nation spokesperson directed Marketplace to an article on their website addressing the Justice Department’s claims and a fact sheet with a list of “myths” about the company. “A primary ticketing company only gets about 5% of the total transaction, a figure far too low to be the cause of high-ticket prices,” the website states. 

Marketplace spoke with experts who say the company controls many facets of the live music industry, potentially stifling competition, but the answer is more complicated than one company. Artists have raised concert prices as record sales have become a less reliable income stream for them; the biggest stars are only getting bigger, allowing them to charge even higher prices; and the rise of the secondary ticket market has made tickets scarcer, pushing up demand. 

How the entire music industry got flipped on its head

In 1976, not only were ticket prices cheap, but you paid the same price no matter where you sat, said Dean Budnick, the co-author of “Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped.”

“Generally speaking, during that time, there was one uniform price for tickets. And that was sort of part of the [rock ‘n’ roll] ethos of the time,” Budnick said. “Now it’s so granular. So granular. You can find shows with 20-30 different ticket prices based on where you’re seated.” 

Tours also served as a marketing tool of sorts, or a loss leader, to help promote the artist’s latest album, which is where the real money was, Budnick said. In Springsteen’s case, that album would’ve been “Born to Run,” which was released in the summer of ‘75. 

“So the thought was, ‘We’ll keep ticket prices artificially low or at a very comfortable level. And then fans will go, they’ll hear music, they’ll buy albums, they’ll become a part of the fan base, which again, will just lead them to buy more albums,’” Budnick said. 

But in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, music piracy gained popularity. Illegal file sharing cut into recorded music profits, which peaked in 1999 at $14.6 billion, the equivalent to $27.5 billion in 2024 dollars. Over the next 10 years, revenue plummeted in half. 

While Apple launched the iTunes store, allowing people to legally purchase music, profits failed to fully recover. 

“The solution to the problem was still pretty tough on the industry, because now they’re selling 99-cent singles instead of $20 albums,” said Brett Danaher, a data scientist and associate professor of economics and management science at Chapman University. 

The business model got flipped on its head. From 1996 to 2003, the average price for a concert skyrocketed by 82%, while the consumer price index increased by 17%. 

“Concerts are the primary profit center, and recordings oftentimes are a means of promoting the concerts themselves,” Budnick said. 

So artists and their teams are actually one of the main drivers behind higher ticket prices, and popular touring artists can end up taking home 90% of ticket revenues, he said. 

While some select musicians make millions from touring, they do have an entire ecosystem they need to support. Music subscription services will only net them a fraction of a penny for a stream. And last year, recorded music revenue amounted to $17.1 billion, an increase from last year but a huge departure from the industry’s glory days. 

The cost of producing shows has gone up, which gets baked into the cost of a ticket, said Serona Elton, professor of music industry at the University of Miami. 

Some artists have very complicated shows, with movable sets, pyrotechnics, high-wire harnesses and LED screens, Elton said. And as production complexity increases, so do labor costs. You need highly skilled people to set up these “technical marvels,” she said. 

COVID-19 stay-at-home orders also created pent-up demand for live shows, leading consumers to start “revenge spending” on tickets.   

Many artists still do sell cheap tickets, but the biggest artists are able to charge ever-increasing prices. This is what Danaher calls “superstar effects.” He said there’s a greater concentration of interest in music from the very top artists, so the concert tickets for these mega stars are rising higher than the rate of inflation. 

“The guys you’ve never heard of were 10 bucks, and U2 was 60 bucks. And now the guys you’ve never heard of are 20 bucks, but U2 is 400 bucks,” Danaher said. 

The role of StubHub and Ticketmaster

Prices have also gone up thanks to the rise of ticket reselling companies, like StubHub, which was founded in 2000, Budnick said. Scalpers are gobbling up tickets, making them scarcer, which then puts upward pressure on their price on the primary and secondary market.

Ticketmaster’s dynamic pricing model exacerbates this phenomenon by allowing the price of seats to change in real time based on demand, Budnick said. Even though ticket prices on the secondary market can be artificially inflated, artist managers and agents might decide these are the true market value of these tickets, Budnick said. 

As a result, they might ask for a larger guarantee from the promoter the next time they sell tickets, causing “prices to go up a notch in the long run,” Budnick explained. 

Resale tickets for the “Springsteen on Broadway” tour back in 2017 went as high as $10,000, even though retail prices ranged from $75 to $850. Tickets for Taylor Swift’s “The Eras Tour” in Inglewood, California, sold for between $49 and $449 on the primary market, but reached up to $11,000 on StubHub. Some resellers say they’ve even been able to sell Swift tickets for $20,000.

In an emailed statement, a StubHub spokesperson wrote that the ticket resale market provides more opportunities for fans to buy concert tickets.

The spokesperson added, “Tickets that sellers list at extremely high levels rarely, if ever, sell.”

Ticket service fees are also higher, and Ticketmaster can charge around 35% of the ticket’s face value or more, Budnick said. 

Ticketron, a platform that existed from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s until it was acquired by Ticketmaster, charged customers a small service fee, Budnick said. Before 1982, the fee was $1 or less, Budnick added. 

Ticketmaster changed the game after Fred Rosen took over as CEO of the company in 1982. He struck business deals with venues that allowed them to share those service fees, Budnick said. 

“Under the Ticketmaster model, fees immediately jumped, often more than doubling … to ensure that Ticketmaster would take home more profit, and the venues received a healthy sum as well,” Budnick said. Ticketmaster was an upstart at the time, and wanted to gain market share by making its clients (the venues) happy, Budnick said. 

“Ticketmaster would get an exclusive right to sell all the tickets in the venue. And in exchange for that right not to share inventory, but to exclusively sell them all, Ticketmaster would give the venue a signing bonus, and would oftentimes advance money against service fees,” Budnick said. 

That is still the company’s business model today, Budnick said. “Some of those fees will go to the building, some of those fees will go to the promoter, some of those fees will go to Ticketmaster,” Budnick said.

Will prices ever go down?

The concert space might succumb to the same fate as recorded music did after the ‘90s, Danaher said. Virtual reality technology is improving, and some artists are now offering VR concerts. Danaher said he thinks that prices will decline as more and more concerts become digitized and people pirate these recorded events.

But before VR technology potentially changes the live music industry forever, the federal government and state lawmakers are trying to use legal remedies to combat high ticket prices.

The Justice Department is trying to break up Live Nation and Ticketmaster to accomplish that goal, but experts are skeptical. While some of the service fees you pay go to Ticketmaster, it does not determine the face value of the ticket, Budnick pointed out. 

Regulating the secondary ticket market could make a difference, Budnick said. 

Minnesota enacted a series of reforms in May that will require sellers to disclose the full price of the ticket, including fees and charges; prohibit people from trying to sell multiple copies of one ticket; and ban resellers from selling tickets before they’re actually available. Maryland passed a similar bill that month. 

We’ll never go back to the days of 1976 concert ticket prices. But Budnick thinks actions like these could provide consumers with some financial relief. 

In the meantime, artists are finding ways to make their concerts more accessible to their fans (while also gaining a new revenue stream). Swift struck a deal with AMC to debut “The Eras Tour” on the big screen. And a new Bruce Springsteen documentary of his world tour is coming out this October. 

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.