By Elliot Stern
She’s heralded as the music industry’s #1 best selling female artist. And with 50 Gold, 30 Platinum and 13 Multi-Platinum albums it’s hard to deny the claim. In fact, she’s second only to Elvis in the all time charts, ahead of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And for the first time since 1994, Barbra Streisand has scheduled herself to do a concert tour across the country.
Hollywood has always been kind to its heroes. While the media may try to attack, the industry has a way of always coming out clean. Elvis can die of an overdose and Robert Downey, Jr. can spend as much time in jail as he does on the set and yet America still swoons at the mention of their names. These are the “good guys”, regardless of what they do. And Streisand is definitely a Hollywood hero. Not only is she blessed with a Midas touch that seems to turn every effort into gold, but for some reason we have all come to know her as a champion for the underdog, a person who knows what it means to need people. And according to her publicity, that’s the very purpose of this tour. To meet the needs of the common man. Or, to put it in Streisand’s words (taken directly from her website):
“The increasingly urgent need for private citizen support to combat dangerous climate change, along with education and health issues was the prime reason I decided to tour again. This will allow me to direct funds and awareness to causes that I care deeply about.”
It’s a tour aimed at helping people. It’s Streisand’s way of making a positive influence on our country and the world we live in. Or at least that’s what a press agent somewhere would have us believe. Unfortunately, a lot seems to be going on behind the scenes in this tour that might raise a few eyebrows among those not blinded by the glitz and glamour.
For one, it’s a tour that’s participating in the disturbing trend of auctioning tickets. In an attempt to compete with scalpers and online auctions, more and more concerts are resorting to ticket auctions. Ticketmaster, a company that for years fought the concept has now announced that nearly 30% of the tickets they offer for 2006 concerts will be sold at auction. And along with Pink Floyd, Madonna, B.B. King and Roger Waters, Barbra Streisand will offer tickets to her show to the highest bidder. Tickets can be purchased at traditional box office outlets as well, with top tier tickets to the show selling for $750. And there really isn’t anything wrong with that. In a world where Ebay has demonstrated the internet’s ability to establish market value, why shouldn’t a concert performer be allowed to make a profit? Shouldn’t a performer be allowed to make whatever the general public is willing to pay for their talents? That’s probably true about most concerts, but then, this isn’t just any other concert, is it? It’s a concert to meet the needs of the common person, a concert designed to “direct funds and awareness to causes that I care deeply about”. Does that mean a poor person isn’t allowed in the door? Should a concert designed to help the common man be closed to all except those who can outbid the crowd?
Of course, the argument can be made that the more money she makes on the tour, the more money will go to help those “causes I care deeply about”. You remember those causes, don’t you? Education and health? I think it’s fair to assume she means the education of those who can’t afford prep school and the health of the uninsured, the very people an auction would exclude from her concert.
I remember hearing a story about Kenny Rogers back in the mid 80’s while he was busy organizing the Hands Across America effort. He tried to talk a well known actor friend into holding hands in the line designed to stretch across the country. The actor told him he didn’t have the time, but would gladly donate a million dollars to help support the causes the event was benefiting. Kenny’s immediate response was, as overheard by several attending the same party, “If you can’t afford the time to stand in line, we don’t want your money.” Far too many less than noble altruists have demonstrated that it takes more than money to make a difference. How many millions does Streisand have to make before she feels it’s worth a couple hours of her time to do a show in a town not known for its rich and famous, a town, say, like Detroit, Michigan?
According to the last census, the median household income in Detroit weighed in at $29,526. That translates into 21.7% (one out of every five) of the families living below the poverty line. It’s a city known mainly for its factories and industrial job market. The National Institute of Literacy did a study in 1998 that found that 47% of Detroiters (that’s right around half the population) were functionally illiterate, meaning they could just barely read and write but “cannot perform fundamental tasks as filling out an employment application, following written instructions, reading a newspaper, reading traffic signs, consulting a dictionary or understanding a bus schedule”. If ever there was a town where the “common man” congregated, it would probably look a lot like Detroit. Surely any money Streisand plans on spending on “education and health” would be well spent in Detroit.
Streisand was originally scheduled to perform on October 18 at the Palace of Auburn Hills auditorium, a suburb of Detroit. The show has now been cancelled. According to Michael Cohl, the CEO for Concert Productions International (CPI), the company responsible for orchestrating the Streisand tour, “We apologize to the dedicated Barbra Streisand fans in Detroit who had purchased tickets, but it was impossible not to accommodate the extraordinary demand in Toronto.”
The “extraordinary demand in Toronto” he’s talking about is explained in an official statement from Cohl’s office that reads:
“With ticket sales for the upcoming Barbra Streisand fall tour running ahead of her 1994 tour, promoter Michael Cohl has opted to remove from the schedule the only city with a lagging response. The announced October 18 performance in Detroit has been deleted in favor of a second concert in Toronto, whose first evening sold out in a single day.”
Cohl’s move does make good business sense. If a city is dying for your show, it’s only fair to do two of them. But again, does this fairly reflect the concern for the “common guy” this show is supposed to be about? According to Pollstar, a concert trade magazine, the average ticket price to one of the top 100 top grossing shows in 2005 ran at a record high of $57. The 2004 average weighed in at $52.39. Although overall ticket sales dropped by 7% between 2004 and 2005 (from 72.2 million to 67.4 million), the overall ticket revenue continued to rise. Basically, the price of a single ticket has risen high enough to make concerts profitable even though concert industry estimates show that 55% of tickets made available to the public last year did not end up being sold.
To Cohl (and Ticketmaster’s) credit, they have agreed to refund all money that’s been paid for Detroit show tickets and even are offering an $85 “traveling bonus” to anybody interested in trading in their Detroit tickets for tickets to the Columbus, Ohio or Toronto shows.
Anybody who’s been to a concert realizes it’s big business. Having thousands of people congregating in an area can’t help but boost the economy. Restaurants get much more business, waiters get better tips, cab drivers end up making a decent profit and even local hotels benefit from rooms sold to out of towners arriving to see the concert. That’s why cities spend so much of their time and energy trying to promote concert halls and events. By not showing up in Detroit, Streisand not only hurts those who bought tickets, but also has a strong negative effect on a ton of “common guys” related to the hospitality and entertainment industry in the town.
But Barbra Streisand tickets are still price tagged at $750 each. Currently her Atlanta and Columbus, Ohio shows show some excellent seats that have gone unsold. But the gross will still make the concerts profitable. If you can find 20 millionaires willing to spend $100,000 on a car, you can make more money, and use much less effort than you would if you had to sell 400 cars at $5,000 each. And in the end there would be 20 rich people in town able to drive to work, with 400 becoming the proverbial “drain” on our economy we hear so much about. If you sell tickets over the counter at $750 each, and then try to make even more by auctioning the rest of them off, you’ll end up with exactly the scenario we experienced last year. Only the elite will be permitted to attend concerts. And when a town like Detroit that doesn’t have enough rich people to pull the load comes along, you’ll end up finding the show cancelled in favor of richer towns, because of a “lagging response”.