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Why You Can't Afford Shows in SF 

Wednesday, Oct 21 2015
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San Francisco has become a city full of expensive things and people with expensive taste. Whether it's that fabled slice of toast, the world's most expensive cocktail, or a $1400 bunk bed in a "hacker hostel," it's no secret that if you want something in San Francisco, you're going to pay top dollar for it.

Longtime working class residents and young, financially insecure artists have been affected by this for a long time. We've reported on venue closures, festivals moving to Oakland, and artists being evicted from their apartments with depressing frequency. It's hard to witness, but when comparing San Francisco's ticket prices with neighboring cities, it's also hard to see why anyone would choose to see an act in San Francisco.

According to Vivid Seats, the average ticket price in San Francisco ($129) is 59 percent higher than the rest of the Bay Area ($74).

Alex Petralia, 25, singer of punk band Nopes, has been living in San Francisco for seven years. He originally moved here to study at SF State, but now, more than ever, he finds himself heading out of the city to attend concerts that interest him.

"Yo La Tengo was up to almost $150 a head at the Masonic in San Francisco," Petralia said. "Meanwhile, I can get tickets for $21 in Santa Cruz at the Rio, go on roller coasters at the Boardwalk before the show, and still have money left over for In-N-Out on the way back."

He added, "I'm choosing Santa Cruz."

The reason for the price jump isn't simple, according to various independent and in-house bookers. Petralia was checking the resale ticket prices for the Masonic show, if he went direct he could score a better price. Also, the Bay Area is one of two major markets on the West Coast, and San Francisco is the Bay's crown jewel. Artists ask for more money in major markets, knowing they should be able to draw bigger crowds. And any well-planned tour schedule aims to land artists in major markets on weekend nights — when more people are free — increasing demand and skewing average ticket prices up.

One manager told me he took that notion of the big city weekend show so seriously that after his client had a show in San Francisco, he decided to keep the artist relaxing in the city for a week, before officially continuing his tour in L.A. the next weekend. The manager had looked at playing smaller markets, like Santa Barbara, to kill time, but decided against it. The restless artist, eager to perform, decided to play some solo shows in other, smaller markets — although at a much-reduced ticket price.

But Yo La Tengo's Santa Cruz and San Francisco shows are both scheduled for weekend nights (Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 14-15). And although music fans in other major cities suffer similar problems, at times it seems that San Franicsco residents are getting the particularly short end of the stick when it comes to ticket prices.

When Brit Floyd, a popular Pink Floyd Tribute band, recently toured the country, Vivid Seats calculated the average ticket price in several California cities and in one famously expensive major market across the country.

Average Brit Floyd Ticket Prices:

Bay Area: $75

San Diego: $80

Fresno: $82

New York: $82

Los Angeles: $84

Sacramento: $94

San Francisco: $103

"It's not just greed that drives the price up," Nick Bane, an independent Bay Area booker, said. "If you're a venue in San Francisco, you have to compete with other venues over the same tour package. This creates an up-bidding of which venue can offer the artists the most money. These bands are not loyal to any particular venue, so they go where they get the most money and the cost is passed on to the audience."

The issue isn't just about supply and demand economics, either. There are extra factors specific to San Francisco, which add to the woes of concert attendees at the ticket booth.

One in-house booker said that even successful San Francisco shows need higher prices to fund venue retrofitting efforts to silence the complaints of cranky neighbors. Another said that the rental prices of Bay Area venues is so high that putting on a concert anywhere without a bar is near-logistically impossible — one of the many reasons San Francisco is severely lacking all-ages venues. But the high prices come with higher expectations, and one booker said he has begun to experience angry emails from fans after disappointing performances failed to live up to the price tag.

"I understand their frustration," he sighed.


About The Author

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome

Matt Saincome is SF Weekly's former music editor.

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