VIP FTW!: How bands are using VIP packages to give fans more bang for their buck

Sep 23, 2009 at 4:00 am

Selling recorded music has become an increasingly dicey proposition, at least ever since the Internet made albums available for the price of a click and a short wait. And in tough economic times, selling concert tickets is less of a safe bet than ever. Even Live Nation, the country's largest concert promoter, is offering big-artist tickets for deep discounts, from buy-three-get-one-free deals to a $50 three-month pass to all shows at House of Blues venues.

And so as the music industry struggles to (re)invent itself, more touring bands are tapping a new revenue source: themselves. From European cult bands to arena-size superstars, premium-package ticket deals are an increasingly popular part of the concert-business model.

"VIP access" sounds awesome, but what exactly this entails varies. In the dance-club world, a VIP ticket might mean as little as a cordoned-off table and some Champagne. At most concerts, it's a little backstage cafeteria where you can grab a soda, enjoy a buffet and maybe watch the opening act eat fajitas. For the Jonas Brothers tour, $300 to $400 includes a good ticket, premium parking, access during sound check, a laminate and a gift bag. (Purity rings not included.)

But in the rock world, you might get twice the show and ten times the memories — especially at the club level. For an extra $20 to $85, a VIP ticket's extra perks might include entering the venue early, watching sound check, meeting the group or taking home a bag of limited-edition merchandise. For die-hard fans, it's a lot more bang for their hard-earned entertainment buck.

At select dates on the current Revolting Cocks tour, tickets are $15 to $20. But $50 VIP passes include early entry, a meet-and-greet with the band and a grab bag of merch. (The Firebird is selling VIP tix to the October 4 show.) On its current tour, Norwegian synthpop band Apoptygma Berzerk is offering two levels of VIP access. A $50 price tag buys early entry, face time with the band and an autographed item. For between $100 and $150 — depending on the venue — the "Fan Appreciation Package" promises one or two laminated VIP passes, access to sound-check rehearsal, a tour poster, a post-show "hang with the band" and a separate acoustic performance of a couple songs not on the setlist.

Those are expensive tickets for a club show, but they move. At a recent show at the 600-capacity Cleveland, Ohio, concert club Peabody's, the band drew nearly 200 fans. Almost 10 percent purchased some level of VIP package. Peabody's co-owner Chris Zitterbart says the $50 package sold just a few more than the $100 option.

"People were really happy with it," he reports.

Depending on the group, though, the VIP opportunity might be a very scarce commodity. The Dutch symphonic metal sextet Epica has to divide gate and merch money among a big crew — and it rarely tours America. So when the group started planning its forthcoming tour, it decided to offer VIP passes.

"We get requests on a regular basis from fans who want to have a more exclusive meeting with the band without any rush," says guitarist Mark Jansen. "Our management, on the other hand, is always looking for possibilities to create extra funds to make the tour financially wise and possible. For a band like Epica, it is still hard to break even for tours in the States. We will see if it works. If it makes our fans happy, we can do it again."

Epica's situation isn't as common as one would think, though. Although most VIP deals sell access to bands, the offers usually don't have an impact on how much money a group makes. Sometimes artists, promoters or venues split the extra cash. But most headliners work for a guaranteed amount that the venue has to pay, regardless of how many tickets it sells. Typically, the VIP ticket just helps the promoter reach that amount.

"With the VIP ticketing, a lot of bands' agents are trying to get creative," Zitterbart says. "I think over time, you'll see this more and more. The agents are trying to get as much dollars for the bands as they can. All the booking agents and bands are trying to keep the guarantees up, while the promoters are saying the guarantees have to come down, because people are spending less money on concert tickets today."

Though meet-the-band packages are finding fresh popularity, it's not a new concept. Traditionally, they've been free — whether they're record-store appearances or small, radio-sponsored meet-and-greets. Real face time isn't cheap: For twelve years, the New York City-based Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp has offered classic-rock fans a chance to hang with their heroes — sometimes icons such as Steven Tyler and Roger Daltrey, though more often someone such as Quiet Riot bassist Rudy Sarzo. Fantasy camps cost anywhere from $500 for evening events to $12,000 for a ten-day package. For between $75 and $200, heritage bands such as the Moody Blues or Skyliners offer pre-show receptions, backstage tours, first-few-rows seats and an autographed photo.

"It's important to have a take-away," notes Zitterbart, who often prints T-shirts or other specialty items just for the event. "If you have an autographed poster, you're one of 50 people on the planet who have that."

Still, if anything, the idea of access has finally become more egalitarian. Two decades ago, you were lucky to find someone who could claim he'd met his favorite band. In the era of the Warped Tour, groups are expected to press the flesh with fans. But if everyone has a chance to meet the band, the story of your 30-second brush with fame makes you a VAP — Very Average Person. Now if you want to feel very important, it'll cost you.

Current hot-ticket acts also offer VIP packages, but they're more VEP (Very Expensive Package) than VIP (Very Important Person). For the ongoing Blink-182 tour, a $250 VIP package includes a shirt, numbered tour poster, laminate and access to the venue's VIP lounge. (The St. Louis date of the tour, which was originally scheduled for Thursday, September 3, is this Tuesday, September 29.) The package doesn't say anything about meeting the band, but you do get a keepsake. Whether or not you buy the package, the chances of trading cell numbers and becoming best bros with frontman Tom DeLonge are about the same. In this sense, the VIP access is psychological more than tangible.

For a band such as Epica, though, Jansen says fans aren't offended when the group offers high-dollar special access.

"Everybody can decide for him or herself to go for this ticket or the regular one," Jansen says. "So nothing changes for those people who buy a regular ticket."

And in some cases, selling top-tier doesn't just mean a few extra bucks for the band or promoters. During Nine Inch Nails' spring tour with Jane's Addiction, Trent Reznor sold VIP tickets to raise more than $600,000 for Eric De La Cruz, a Nevada resident who needed a heart transplant. For between $300 and $1,200, fans could eat dinner with the band, meet the group or even watch the entire show from the stage.

And then there's the metal group Mushroomhead, which has a loyal cult following that's strongest in the Midwest. The seven-man group has been selling VIP packages to big shows for two years. Before last year's Halloween extravaganza, the band let VIP fans watch sound check. The group normally takes the stage in elaborate makeup and costumes, looking like an undead military assault squad. They played the sound check set in street clothes, without face paint. They took requests and let a fan onstage to videotape the experience.

For a certain breed of music fan who needs (or wants) to feel a stronger connection to band — besides, say, in the form of a returned tweet — this VIP experience is more memorable. In a sense, fans feel a sense of ownership of the band.

"I think it's a cool thing, for sure," says Mushroomhead captain Steve "Skinny" Felton, referring to the VIP-tix phenomenon. "If there were some more bands that did it that I liked, I'd [buy tickets]. If they're actually going the extra mile and want to [spend money to] meet you, I'll go for it. When I was growing up, I would have met everybody. I'd spend a hundred bucks. It's all about the story there."