Should Live Entertainment Be $1?

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Theater critic Chris Jones asks, “Where is the Dollar Tree of the arts?”

Chris Jones believes that the arts and live entertainment industry should abandon the middle class in favor of serving the high end and the low end. He believes this because this is the way that the rest of the economy is going, in his view, and therefore it’s incumbent for live entertainment to follow suit.

The metaphor he uses is the Dollar Tree store, where all kinds of potentially useful and high-quality stuff is sold for a dollar. He asks, where is the Dollar Tree of the arts? Because if we don’t have one of those, we’re not keeping up with the megatrends in the economy.

He rejects electronic forms of entertainment (movie, TV, downloads, online video, etc.) as the Dollar Tree of live entertainment, and he rejects as insufficient the work that live entertainment and arts organizations do to make “access” possible for people without a lot of money — leaving us in the unenviable position of having no answer to the problem of how we serve an economy with no middle.

I think that’s a fair statement of his case.

Here’s my counterargument. The economy isn’t about the very high and the very low. That’s a potential dystopian future, but we’re not there yet. As a rule, American consumers have demanded and gotten better and better quality in everything they buy as time has gone on. The size and features of homes, cars and electronic goods are all far superior to those a generation ago, even at the bottom end. The expectations of the quality of ingredients and the variety of food for people well below the high end of the income spectrum have all gone up significantly in the last generation.

Beyond that, consumers have more power than ever to find a price for something that suits their needs. Jones thinks that in some version of the past, consumers could easily pay less by doing something like “booking early, standing in line, using a coupon, taking advantage of senior discounts or paying some other nonmonetary price the rich and the busy were not willing to pay.” But the reality is that this kind of price hunting is easier than ever before. You don’t even have to pay those nonmonetary prices in many cases because the tools produced by a networked economy make it something you can do from your phone or computer with ease.

I don’t fully agree that people in the arts and entertainment venues aren’t doing enough to create access. I work with thousands of them, and many of them take this extremely seriously. Even against their own survival interests, sometimes, they create accessibility. It’s all there, in multiple ways, and if Jones doesn’t think it goes far enough, I would suggest that he think about why those programs aren’t fully used, if it’s so important that people do so much more.

Also, it’s reasonable to ask if the main premise is true. Does the live entertainment and arts business need to retreat to the extremes? Right now in cities like Chicago, there are literally hundreds of really great things that someone can do at reasonable prices, and they do them! You can use The Book of Mormon or the Rolling Stones as examples, but they’re not typical. They are the 1% of events. America’s big cities are absolutely full of great stuff to do at reasonable prices all the time.

If someone truly believed that the live entertainment industry should tear down the apparatus of producing great stuff at reasonable prices and, yes, selling the very high-profile stuff at expensive but market-driven prices, what’s the alternative? An even more extreme top end, a hollowed out middle ground and then a bunch of dirt-cheap events that have no viable business model to them, but some of which might actually turn out to be pretty darn good.

Why would we go there?

The value of live entertainment has risen in the last generation, as I’ve explained a bunch of times. That spikes at the high end, and it raises the middle to the point where there’s actual value in those shows. You can’t go for $5, but you can’t even go to a movie for $5. That’s not a bad thing. It’s an indication of value. People put value on live entertainment and arts. Imagine that.

So as a recipe for destroying an industry, it’s solid. As a recipe for anything resembling progress toward more people participating in it, more financial resources being put toward it or really any societal benefit, I don’t see it.

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