Sunday, July 2, 2006 | 7:40 a.m.
Las Vegas is no longer a bargain town - cheap steaks are getting rarer, free drinks are drying up - but if you want a real indignity, try going to a concert.
Our ticket prices are as steep as stepping off the Stratosphere.
"Seventy-five dollars?" Las Vegas music fan Greg Serensits moaned about a recent Black Crowes concert. "That's one-third of my electric bill."
When the Rolling Stones came to town, the cheap tickets were $131.25 - more than twice what they charged in L.A. Madonna added $30 to her price. If you want to catch Chris Isaak at the House of Blues this summer, it'll cost you at least $65 for the cheap seats, which is the same price as the most expensive ticket at the House of Blues in Cleveland. And only here would someone charge $70 for an evening of David Spade.
Why? It's the same reason those steaks are huge, our airport is busy and pawnshops are plentiful - the answer for Why Are We Here? in Southern Nevada.
Tourists. Gamblers, gluttons and shopaholics, in varying degrees. People who are not good with their money and leave it here. And even if they are normally prudent and abstemious people, well, they're here to play, and it's play money, says Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a magazine that covers the concert industry.
"They don't think of dropping 50 or 100 bucks on a quick bit of gambling; so the cost of a concert ticket doesn't seem so much. Or an expensive cigar or whatever," Bongiovanni said.
That attitude is very, very profitable for us, and it generates a fortune in business and taxes. But when we want to see a concert, we pay the Little Rock Tax.
"They're planning 50 dates. And then they take Vegas and say, 'Let's pretend Little Rock, Ark., fails miserably.' If you're a promoter or an agent and you lose money on that date, you want to be able to use Vegas as a makeup," said Daren Libonati, who runs UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center. "That's how we're used."
It's not an official tax, of course. It's just how musicians and their managers ensure their tours against bombing in the burgs.
"These acts aren't being sold as if they're for locals," Libonati said. "I'll joke and say that I didn't know my mailman in Vegas makes more than the mailman in Phoenix. Why are we charging this? When are we going to realize that we have real people that live in Las Vegas that have real jobs like people in the rest of the country?"
If Libonati sounds a bit bitter, imagine how you'd like to be blamed for high ticket prices by your neighbors when you're at "Little League games or whatever."
"Fans don't realize it's their favorite stars that are creating that and demanding that price," Libonati said. "We don't always have a say."
Most of the money goes to the artist, said Bongiovanni.
"And the ticket price is always approved by the artist," Bongiovanni said. "If they think they can make more money in Vegas, usually they're going to go for it."
To be fair, there are certain acts that are careful about what their tickets cost and keep prices close from city to city. This summer, Pearl Jam tickets cost about $50 wherever you are, and Shakira is charging around $20. But the town's really big venues compete for only a few musicians - acts that have a broad fan base, a legendary status and ages that put them in the lanthanide series on the periodic table of rock. Concert venues compete hard for these acts that can draw crowds to their attached casinos and clubs and offer higher guaranteed revenues to the artists and their agents, who have been known to play the venues off each other.
"Part of it's a mentality in the industry and among agents and others that the hotels have this higher revenue because of gaming in the casinos; so they should get paid more money," said Randy Phillips, president and CEO of tour promoters AEG Live, which schedules Bon Jovi and the Dixie Chicks. "It's also a transient market that turns over every two or three days. You can come back and do it again. Most major acts try to do Vegas two or three times on a tour."
Even if you can afford the ticket price for the best seat in the house, you may not be able to get it. Casinos buy many of the pricier seats to comp high rollers (or music-loving and ethics-lacking politicians), once again leaving the average local fan out of luck, says Serensits, whose fanaticism led him to become president of Las Vegas Jam Band Society.
"If you want first front row, you either go to a broker and pay three times what it's worth or go to the casino and gamble three times what it's worth," Serensits said. "It's ridiculous, but Vegas is a 'money talks ' kind of town."
Serensits said his nonprofit group promotes cheap concerts, with ticket prices typically between $5 and $15. But many of his favorite artists come to Las Vegas looking for a bigger payday than that, as he found out earlier this month.
"Seventy-five dollars to see the Black Crowes? For standing room only? That's ridiculous," Serensits said. "There's a show that I'd never ever miss that, because it was $75, I refused to go to."
That June 16 show was at the Joint at the Hard Rock, one of the priciest venues in town. The Hard Rock says its prices are higher because it's a small venue that books acts that typically play arenas. But when the Black Crowes played the Joint in 1996, the tickets cost $32 ($39, adjusted for inflation).
No matter how you look at it, ticket prices have been going up in Las Vegas. (They've also been going up nationally as tour promoters have consolidated, and artists have come to rely on concert revenue more as record sales have dropped like a wing-shot quail.)
Ten years ago, a ticket to see James Brown at the Joint cost, adjusted for inflation, $30.75 to $72.26. This year it was $52 to $82. The big ticket this year is Barbra Streisand at the MGM Grand for $100 to $1,000. In 1986 Julio Iglesias was one of the top acts in town, selling tickets for the then-amazing equivalent of $77. Ten years before that, Neil Diamond was the big draw, with his most expensive tickets worth $103. In 1966, the Beach Boys headlined a radio station's concert, for which basic admission cost, in 2005 dollars, $14.65.
Once, casinos used to use sell tickets at a money-losing prices, counting on fans to more than make up for it gambling. But H.C. Rowe, entertainment director at the Palms, says that entertainment has not been a loss-leader since the '80s. By the '90s, shows started to break even, and these days are viewed as profitable in their own right.
"There's not a cheap ticket it in town. It's a shame," Rowe said. "I guess it boils down to what the market will bear and people will pay."