Springsteen tickets for $4,000? How dynamic pricing works and how you can beat the system.

You may have heard of the Great Bruce Springsteen Ticket Debacle. After a six-year Boss tour drought, tickets went on sale, and fans suddenly found themselves staring at $4,000 price tags. Born to sob! 

What was to blame? In two words: dynamic pricing, the same algorithm-controlled, supply-and-demand phenomenon responsible for your Uber ride across town or plane ticket to see Grandma suddenly costing more. (It's not the same thing as Adele's $40,000 tickets, which resulted from resellers scooping up the best seats.)

Well, keep those wallets cracked open, music fans. With the fall concert season upon us and crowds still starved for a live experience, expect dynamic pricing to impact the best seats. But there are still ways to get a good deal and even lobby for change.

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What is dynamic ticket pricing?

Ticketmaster, which is owned by concert promoter Live Nation, has a virtual lock on ticket sales in the U.S. That's led critics to argue that such a monopoly is partly to blame for ticket prices that quickly can surge far beyond face value.

Back in 2011, Ticketmaster, the industry’s dominant – many would say, monopolistic – purveyor of event tickets, announced it would begin adjusting prices based on consumer demand.

The aim was to keep tickets from being siphoned off onto secondary market platforms such as StubHub, providing more of that revenue for the artists, venues and ticket providers. 

“Fans need to wake up to the fact that sometimes that is what those best seats are worth,” says Bob Lefsetz, a music-industry analyst at The Lefsetz Letter. “The only way to get around this is to try and tie each ticket to a specific fan with no transfers allowed.”

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Who's to blame for dynamic pricing: Ticketmaster or your favorite artist? 

Taylor Swift is among a number of top artists who have embraced dynamic pricing as a means of retaining some of the revenue for top seats that normally goes to resellers.

When it comes to dynamic pricing, “it’s important to remember that it’s the artist telling Ticketmaster this is what they want to do, not the other way around,” Lefsetz says.

And many have been doing just that. Over the years, top acts such as Taylor Swift, Drake, Paul McCartney, Ye and Harry Styles have embraced dynamic pricing. Currently, artists such as The Weeknd, Alicia Keys and Carrie Underwood also are offering their best seats – often dubbed Platinum Tickets – through this variable pricing system.

“This is the moment when artists want to go out and support themselves and their crews and the people who work for them, so they want market prices for those great seats,” says Dean Budnick, co-author of “Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped.”

Decades ago, many states had stringent if rarely enforced anti-scalping laws, Budnick says. But those vanished in part because of lobbying by resellers. Premium pricing is “a response to that and an attempt to capture more revenue for the artist.” 

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So just how pricey were those Bruce Springsteen tickets?

Bruce Springsteen's shows have for decades been energy-packed affairs that last more than three hours. The announcement of a new tour after a multi-year hiatus sent fans snapping up his tickets, which in turn drove up prices.

Though Springsteen fans were outraged that their working-class hero let this happen, sales figures released by Ticketmaster reveal that about 12% of tickets were so-called Platinum, and thus subject to dynamic pricing. 

The 88% of tickets sold at face value were priced at $59.50 to $399, with an average price of $202, Ticketmaster told USA TODAY. Just 1.3% of tickets across all shows sold for more than $1,000, and more than half (56%) of tickets sold for less than $200; 18% were less than $99, 27% between $100 and $150, and 11% between $150 and $200. 

"The promoters and artist representatives determine the specific pricing for their shows," Ticketmaster said in a statement. "The biggest factor that drives pricing is supply and demand. When there are far more people who want to attend an event than there are tickets available, prices go up."

Do all fans hate premium pricing?

The Eagles (seen here in 2013) started the higher-priced tickets trend with their 1994 comeback tour, Hell Freezes Over. The band priced tickets at $100, which today seems like a bargain.

They don't, Lefsetz says.

“The irony is people who pay the most for tickets to see their favorite artists are often the happiest, something that you can see in the popularity of VIP experiences,” where artists provide more than a seat at the show, he says.

Concert tickets were underpriced for decades, Lefsetz says. One big shift occurred when The Eagles returned to the road in 1994 and priced their Hell Freezes Over tickets at a then-lofty $100. Fans dove in. He adds that while it’s easy to argue that the best seats are “only going to Wall Street fat cats, that’s really not true; often, it’s the die-hard, hardworking fan saving up for this special experience.”

His advice for those who still want great shows to be inexpensive: “If you want to see a band at a low price, go to your local bar. This is all about raw economics.”

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Will ticket prices ever fall to Earth?

Eddie Vedder, frontman for Pearl Jam, has battled Ticketmaster in years past, at one point opting to not play any venues where the company controlled ticket sales.

Some artists have tried to fight back against high prices. In 1995, Pearl Jam challenged Ticketmaster by refusing to perform in venues where the company controlled ticket sales. More recently, the band came under fire from fans for saying OK to premium pricing. 

But real change is only possible if lawmakers limit the power of Ticketmaster, says Ron Knox, a senior researcher at the advocacy group Institute for Local Self Reliance.

“Artists are operating in a broken system,” he says. “The Department of Justice could revisit whether the merger of Ticketmaster and (promoter) Live Nation reduces competition, rips off concertgoers and bullies artists.”

Knox argues that a more competitive landscape for event tickets, from concerts to sports, would inherently depress prices across the board since fans have a limited amount of discretionary income, especially in our inflationary times.

“Pressure could be brought to bear from Congress and regulatory agencies,” Knox says.

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How do you avoid dynamic pricing?

Bruce Springsteen, shown here with Paul McCartney, has been revered by fans not only for his long shows but also his devotion to the working class. So when some of the Boss' tickets surged into the four-figure realm, many fans felt betrayed.

The best tactic: patience. Much like an Uber ride’s price will spike when a concert lets out, concert ticket prices are likely to jump in the excitement of the on-sale release date. But if you wait, prices may well come down for those once-pricey seats.

In a recent study of resale market tickets by FinanceBuzz, concertgoers spent 33% less than the average ticket price when purchasing on the day of the concert, and 27% less than average when buying the day before the show.

“Don’t rule out your local fan club or radio-station promotions," Budnick says. "Check with your credit-card company; sometimes they offer access to tickets. And don’t forget production holds, that is the release of tickets by management closer to the show once they determine how many tickets they needed to hold back for the artist. Set yourself up for more than one bite of the apple.”

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