Ticket prices strike welcomes low note
Every October since 1998, Beijing's classical music fans have waited on tiptoes for the star-studded cast of the annual Beijing Music Festival.
In this year's event, the big names of world music will definitely not disappoint fans.
Even more exciting is the news that the concert's tickets will be much cheaper than previous years. Except for a few VIP tickets, the prices range from 300 to a mere 10 yuan (US$36.2 to 1.2).
"We do this to make sure that more music lovers can afford the tickets whose prices have been wildly driven up by the unhealthy show market," says Yu Long, artistic director of the annual festival.
The decision to lower prices was not an easy one. The price of performance tickets in Beijing has been forced higher and higher in recent years.
Of the shows running in October: Andrea Bocelli, 2,900 to 300 yuan (US$350 to 36), Monte Carlo Ballet 1,880 to 180 yuan (US$227 to 22), Germany Rhine Symphony Orchestra 1,000 to 200 yuan (US$121 to 24) and Romanian Fashion Theatre 580 to 80 yuan (US$70 to 10).
The high cost can be largely blamed on one thing. Agents for the stars, both pop and classical, charge local show organizers a large sum. They must also pay for marketing, promotion, the venue, security and many other factors involved in the show.
But there are other reasons which may sound odd.
"It's strange but true, the more expensive the price is, the better the tickets sell. In certain shows, the most expensive tickets are often the first to sell out, even faster than the cheapest," says an anonymous local producer who presented a concert by a German symphony orchestra in late September.
According to him, there are always companies and individuals who buy the expensive tickets as public relations gifts.
"They do not care about the money or the concert itself, but they do care about the price of the ticket which means the price of a gift. In their minds, if the ticket is not expensive enough, it is not a good gift," he says.
Since there are people who buy tickets for others, there are "others" who have got used to waiting for the free tickets and never buy them themselves.
As not all those who get the free tickets are music fans, the result is many empty seats even though the show is said to be sold out, leaving real music fans out in the cold.
Many such "free" tickets will get into the hands of scalpers in various ways. They often tout the ticket at a cheaper price at the gate of the venues half an hour before the concert.
Many local concert-goers never book tickets or go to the box-office in advance, because they know they can buy good and cheaper tickets from the touts 5 or 10 minutes before the show starts.
To combat this, the Beijing Music Festival has lowered prices to "protect general music fans' right to go to concert."
"It is not our mission to present concerts only for VIPs, but the high price of tickets has forbidden many music teachers, students and a large number of classical fans from going to the concerts," says Yu in a serious tone.
"The festival brings world-famous musicians to Beijing every year. The problem is how to get more real fans into the hall to appreciate the masters' performances.
"In terms of revenue, selling one ticket of 1,000 yuan (US$120) equals selling 10 tickets of 100 yuan (US$12), but the social impact is very different," he says.
Yu's idea and actions got supportive feedback from the local government and many insiders.
"We appreciate what Yu and the Beijing Music Festival have done to reduce the ticket prices. It is an effective and practical way to attract people to the concert, as well as to popularize classical music," says Jiang Gongmin, chief of the Cultural Bureau of Beijing municipal government.
"It's an important step to a healthy show market. It might be able to change people's habit of seeking free tickets or buying from the touts," says local music journalist Lun Bing.
And the booming box-office has proved the effectiveness of the new policy. So far, the opening opera "Romeo & Juliet," Yo Yo Ma's recital and the closing concert by UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra under the baton of Charles Dutoit have all sold out.
Tan Dun's concert, the concert by Orchestra de Paris under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach, James Galway and Munich Chamber Orchestra's concert have sold 80 per cent of tickets.
However, many are not so keen on this new policy, especially those show organizers who complain that their productions are not as famous as the Beijing Music Festival, and receive no support from the government or powerful sponsors .
Li Yu, general manager of Tianqiao Theatre, says: "The high price matches the status of the super stars and the audience understands this. Some sponsors ask for good marketing and promotion which results in high prices."
But Li also expresses his appreciation for what the Beijing Music Festival has done in terms of the box-office.
"We have all noticed the unhealthily expensive ticket prices, but nobody took action. This time, the festival has made a good start."
But will the healthy start lead to a good outcome? Could it really help guide the local show market? Only time will tell.