It was a chilly November evening in 1999 when Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band brought their reunion tour to what was then known as HSBC Arena. The show, a sold-out, intense, lengthy and joyous affair, was received rapturously by the audience. Afterward, I wandered around to the rear of the building with my brother, both of us willing to brave the cold on the off chance that we might catch a glimpse of Springsteen leaving the arena.
About 20 fans were hanging around the rear of the building when a few vans began to pull out. One of them contained E Street Band members Steven Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons, and as the van drove by the small crowd, Van Zandt rolled down the window, smiled and waved. I thought, “That’s good enough for me.” But we waited anyway, just in case, while most of the small crowd dispersed. We were about to bail and call it a night when another van pulled out of the backstage loading dock area and swerved directly over to the sidewalk, where roughly 10 of us were hanging out. The sliding door of the van whipped open, and there was Springsteen, surrounded by E Streeters Gary Tallent and Roy Bittan.
“Hey there,” he said, grinning. The small crowd gathered around, and Springsteen shook hands, cracked jokes, smiled a lot and looked everyone in the eye. “Thanks for comin’, you guys. We gotta hit the road. See you again, I hope!” He waved, shut the door, and the van drove off into the night.
Total cost of this experience for fans like us? Zero. Springsteen stopped because he wanted to say hi to a group of obviously devoted fans. He didn’t have to. And he didn’t say, “Hey, I’ll shake your hand if you pay me for the privilege.”
By contrast, if you want to get up close and personal with, say, Drake, when he plays First Niagara Center on Dec. 15, or Justin Timberlake when he takes over the same venue Feb. 22, you’re going to have to pay for the opportunity. And pay dearly. Oh, and paying won’t guarantee that you get to meet the artists, by the way. If you carefully read Drake’s “YOLO Package” VIP ticket offer, you’ll notice that those who purchase this package will be guaranteed two good seats in a VIP lounge with drink service, a VIP backstage tour and “a group photo (taken) on stage – *Artist will not be appearing. (The VIP lounge will be located on a riser on the floor of the FNC.)
The cost for this Drake VIP experience? $1,500. Timberlake is offering a similar deal, for the same price. He won’t be appearing to shake your hand, either.
One might wonder just what has happened to rock ’n’ roll, or popular music in general, when the up-close-and-personal experience has been monetized. Today, charging fans to be in your presence for somewhere between 10 and 30 seconds has become acceptable behavior. Sectioning off the finest seats in the house, jacking up the price and labeling them “VIP seats” is just as common.
Drake and Timberlake are not responsible for creating this “pay to get close to and/or meet your music idols” concept. Artists ranging from classic rockers such as KISS and Aerosmith to aging boy bands like New Kids on the Block or pop it-boy Justin Bieber are all engaging in this type of deal. Many major annual music festivals are doing the same.
The line of defense from the artist’s standpoint? Most commonly, selling VIP experiences and meet-and-greet opportunities is seen as a way to offset tour costs. That’s a bitter pill for fans to swallow, particularly when they are already being asked to pay vastly inflated ticket prices for most shows. (Tickets for Drake’s Buffalo show range from $49.75 for 300-level seats to $99 for floor and 100-level seating. There are also lower-priced VIP packages that include a single premium seat, starting at $225. Timberlake is charging $177.50 for the best floor and lower 100 level seats and between $47.50 and $92.50 for the rest.)
My intention here is not to single out Drake and Timberlake, because they are far from the only artists engaging in a policy that some might see as exploitative. But if we use Drake’s show as an example, we can break down the numbers.
Let’s say you are a major fan, and you think going whole-hog for the “YOLO Package” for yourself and your date is money well-spent. You’re out $1,500 before you make it in the door. Let’s suppose you and your date are interested in some Drake merchandise to commemorate your big night out. If you both want a T-shirt, your VIP status allows you “crowd-free merchandise shopping,” but you will still be paying between $25 and $40 a T-shirt. You will also be able to access a VIP-only bar, but it’s a cash bar, so if you plan on a few drinks, you could reasonably be dropping another $50. By the time you leave, it is quite possible that your Drake date will have put you out somewhere in the area of $1,800.
Oh, and you won’t have gotten any face time with Drake, either, because, after all, “*Artist will not be appearing.”
But, hey. Whatever. It’s your money.