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Steve Lafleur: Taylor Swift ticket prices are breaking people’s brains

Commentary

The post-COVID economy has been a little nuts. After two years of mostly sitting at home trying not to die, people are living it up. And the global economy is running hot. Central banks around the world have sharply increased interest rates in part to cool off consumer demand. Consumers aren’t having it. 

With everyone with any disposable income trying to make up for two years of lost experiences, the cost of leisure has skyrocketed. Hotel rooms in mid-sized American cities are running around three hundred American dollars. Flights have tapered off a bit from last year, but they’re still not cheap. But if you really want to see the excesses, look no further than Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. 

I’m not exactly up to speed on pop music. Frankly, it’s been a decade since I’ve paid attention to new music. So I didn’t really grasp the magnitude of the Taylor Swift phenomenon until I was booking a hotel room in Cincinnati a few weeks ago. Reasonably normal-looking hotels had suspiciously negative reviews. So I decided to dig into it. 

It turned out the Eras tour had blown through town two days before, leaving behind a trail of negative hotel reviews. Since everyone in Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky with a pulse wanted to go to the concert, hotel prices ballooned. Swifties were not happy. Prices doubled, and normally abundant but temporarily scarce parking spaces went for fifty bucks. Reviews for the hotel I booked took such a temporary beating that I was able to lock in a room for about twenty percent below the current weekday rate. Thanks, Swifties!

Of course, hotel prices aren’t the whole deal. Usually getting and staying somewhere is the most expensive part of a vacation. Not if you’re going to see the hottest show in the world. Even in Cincinnati—hardly the biggest concert market—ticket prices climbed to over a thousand dollars, with last-minute tickets dipping to the eight hundred dollar range. 

Fans are understandably frustrated. After all, not everyone can shell out a thousand dollars for a concert ticket. The trouble is, there’s not enough Taylor Swift to go around. Someone is going to miss out, no matter the price. 

To illustrate this, let’s consider the recently announced Toronto leg of the tour, set to take place in 2024. The tour will include six shows at the Rogers Centre, which has a capacity of just over 50,000 people. In other words, there will be around 300,000 seats available. In other words, fewer than one seat for every ten Torontonians, or enough for around one percent of Canadians. It’s not a surprise that tickets are going for thousands of dollars on the resale market. 

No matter how you distribute tickets, some people are going to be left out. Who gets left out will be determined either by prices or by some form of arbitrary rationing. We can argue about whether it’s better that some people are able to profiteer by reselling tickets for several times face value, or whether it’s better that people are excluded by some arbitrary, non-monetary means (say, by picking people at random and preventing resales). But there isn’t really a third option—we can’t make more Taylor Swift. At least not with current technology. 

Sadly, Taylor Swift won’t be young forever. One day the stadium lights will go out. Some people are going to miss out. That sucks. But there’s no way around it. We can’t all be there for the big moment. Not always, anyways. 

What interests me about the Eras tour isn’t the tour itself or even the entertainment business. It’s about how people think about scarcity. We see it in everything from concert tickets to housing. When there are more potential buyers than sellers, prices tend to go up. People often conclude that it’s simply a matter of greed. Building one more “luxury” condo I can’t afford won’t solve this! And that can very well be true when there’s a severe shortage. 

Unlike unique, unrepeatable events, most things aren’t inherently that scarce. We can actually build our way out of housing shortages—if we choose to. There’s a reason why housing prices are much lower in fast-growing cities like Phoenix and Dallas than they are in prestige cities like San Fransisco and New York. They build way more houses!

On the other hand, Taylor Swift could probably double the number of shows and tickets would still be expensive. There are just so many people who want to see the tour, and who would be willing to go several times. By contrast, there are only so many houses anyone will buy. Even speculators. 

I worry that we learn lessons from these edge cases that aren’t really applicable to normal situations. The fact that there isn’t enough Taylor Swift to go around should tell us precisely nothing about public policy. Most things aren’t as scarce as concert tickets for the biggest musician of a generation at the height of her popularity in the wake of a global pandemic. 

Supply and demand usually works just fine, when governments stay out of the way. There’s no lesson here, as tempting as it is to search for one. 

Hopefully, as the COVID hangover wears off, things will continue to normalize. Travel and leisure have become rather expensive. Hopefully, the era of $300 Radisons is over. But the hottest concert tickets in town will probably always be expensive. There’s just no way around that. Not until we figure out how to clone Taylor Swift.

Jack Mitchell: A populist troubadour is born

Commentary

As poets must do, I devoted the weekend to umping 14U Girls baseball; and while I was calling balls and strikes there was a small earthquake in the realm of popular songwriting. I refer of course to the mega-viral Youtube-borne hit song “Rich Men North of Richmond” by Oliver Anthony.

A week ago Mr. Anthony, a handsome red-bearded former factory worker from Virginia, had only ever released songs recorded on his iPhone; since his hit song’s release last Wednesday, it’s had 12 million views (and climbing) on Youtube, is all over social media, and (this will shock you) has polarised America, with populists touting Mr. Anthony as a 21st-century Woody Guthrie and anti-populists daily discovering fresh ways to dislike him. Youtubers are competing to post reaction videos, Billboard, Rolling Stone, and the Seattle Times have profiled him; on Sunday, when he performed at a farmer’s market, the substantial crowd knew the lyrics and sang along.

So is the song any good? Does that matter? Let’s save the deep sociopolitical analysis until we’ve looked at what Mr. Anthony has to say and how he says it. The short answer is that, yes, the song is quite good and that’s why it’s on its way to being a populist anthem. But of course “artistically good” and “politically fair” need not equate.

The song opens directly—no opening bars—with the singer’s own voice front and centre:

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day
Overtime hours for bullshit pay
So I can sit out here and waste my life away
Drag back home and drown my troubles away

Aesthetically, this opening nicely pairs consistent rhyme (everything’s in “-ay”) with a variety of rhythms in the four-beat lines; the near-monotony of rhyme, which dares even to use “away” twice, suggests the soullessness of the speaker’s daily grind. By way of content, we are at once in a world of low pay, marginality (“out here”), and alcohol as a cope. The tone is bitterly ironic: the payoff for the grind is no more than a life being wasted.

The next verse expands the scope:

It’s a damn shame what the world’s gotten to
For people like me and people like you
Wish I could just wake up and it not be true
But it is, oh, it is

Again the rhyme enforces the inescapability of the social predicament, which is general (“the world”) and communal (“people like me and people like you”). In addressing the listener, the speaker enlists him. The last line is poignant and nicely captures the moment: the problems are real and they are not going to be wished away, but the solution is not obvious.

So far, the song lacks political specifics, but that changes with the chorus:

Livin’ in the new world with an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just want to have total control
Want to know what you think, want to know what you do

Geographically we are in the South, therefore, and looking North; this is not that compass of Prairie Populism but angles a resentment going back to Reconstruction. (One might wonder if the rich men south of Richmond, not to mention west of Little Rock, are not also complicit in the speaker’s woes.) Still, the complaint is economic: it is the rich man, not the Yankee, who is to blame; yet his immediate goal is not mere riches but power, “total control,” via the policing of the discourse and the surveillance state. Nonetheless, “North of Richmond” does seem, as the song develops, to mean principally “north of Richmond and south of Baltimore,” i.e. Washington.

And they don’t think you know, but I know that you do
‘Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end
‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond

The first line here is quite beautiful, featuring what the ancients called a chiasmus, as the second half reverses the order of thought in the first, with two separate uses of “know” side by side and “don’t” and “do” at either end; it rebuts the establishment’s contempt for the ignorant deplorables. Then the cost of living: taxes on top of inflation. (I take “to no end” to mean “endlessly” rather than “pointlessly,” although maybe some hear a double meaning.) The next verse adds further specifics:

I wish politicians would look out for miners
And not just minors on an island somewhere
Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat
And the obese milkin’ welfare

Here the miners/minors pun pairs the miners of West Virginia coal mines, archetypal blue-collar workers left behind by the digital economy, with Epstein’s victims. I don’t think this pun succeeds artistically. Its first effect is to shock (“He went there!”), its second effect is to draw a contrast between how politicians “look out” for the two classes of people, but “looking out” for the victim is a fairly roundabout way to describe sexual abuse and, as a result, the comparison isn’t tidy. It is also strange that a pun should turn on a “minor” as abuse victim, since puns are fun and sexual abuse is not fun, and to my ear the effect is jarring; but perhaps the pun is merely a compositional device and not meant to be humorous.

The contrast between the starving urchin and the fat man is a classic one, and the image of the obese “milking” welfare is appropriate enough, suggesting piglets suckling at the sow. As with the suggestion that politicians are sexual predators, however, it is hard to picture the whole of America’s obese population (42 percent of the whole) being on welfare; this is obviously a trope (a conventional idea), which detracts from the vividness of the image and so from the argument. The last verse devotes two whole lines to it, however:

Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds
Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds
Young men are puttin’ themselves six feet in the ground
‘Cause all this damn country does is keep on kickin’ them down

“Pounds” and “fudge rounds” is a nice rhyme and sets up “ground,” but again I don’t think the droll image of the hugely fat guy eating taxpayer-funded carbs works with the denunciation of young men’s rising suicide rate, a serious subject. When is the listener meant to stop laughing? Or perhaps the abrupt shift from the lighthearted to the deadly serious, here and above, is a strategy for discussing serious subjects without seeming too earnest. Alternately, perhaps the tropes of the politician as sexual abuser and the welfare recipient as big fat guy are so engrained that they don’t really register as more than symbols of corruption.

After the suicidal young men, the song repeats earlier material (“Lord it’s a damn shame,” “Livin’ in the new world,” “I’ve been sellin’ my soul”).

Here we could discuss, as most ponderings of populism do, whether the populist’s complaints are valid. In my opinion, some complaints here are valid (stagnant wages, the cost of living, the two-tier American justice system symbolised by Epstein’s cronies, “learn to code” contempt for workers, the surveillance state) and some are not (the association of taxation with welfare and so with obesity, the image of politicians as sexual abusers). One could suggest different targets for Mr. Anthony’s populist rage. One could rewrite his song to one’s own political preferences, even if doing so paid little respect to his autonomy as an artist. The rewrite would be unlikely to get 12 million views a week.

So let us grant that the song is well written overall, with some inspired touches and some disjointed imagery. Perhaps most effective is its subtle appeal to the listener to join the speaker’s cause. Clearly, it is resonating massively, and ipso facto it would not resonate if it were poorly written (or poorly performed). There is no point in arguing about the content, in the song or in populism more generally. You can no more argue with the vox populi than you can argue with a glacier: the glacier is moving in one direction, and changing its course (if that is even possible) is a matter of thinking twenty years ahead, not twenty months or twenty weeks. 

North American pundits’ response to this wave of populism has generally been feeble. It does not matter that the working class is objectively much wealthier than it was fifty years ago. The fact of the matter is that it feels discarded, insulted, depleted, drug-addicted, enfeebled, sometimes suicidal, and relatively impoverished. It is no good explaining to a laid-off Virginian factory worker that he may be in the lowest quintile of American income-earners but he’s still in the top quintile worldwide. Populist rage is itself the metric, and if it is not soothed in the coming generation, whether by redistribution or by a renewed respect for intangibles like art and sport and family and religion, the question is not whether there will be an economic and political revolution, perhaps to the tune of “Rich Men North of Richmond,” but when. In the meantime, a populist troubadour has entered the chat, and he is just getting started.