The Secret to Getting Great Concert and Sports Tickets for Cheap

We all want front row seats to see our favorite band play in an intimate venue, or to cheer on our beloved sports teams with a great view of the action. But when everybody wants the same thing, well… the law of supply and demand dictates that the price is going to go up.

Way up. Tickets to the hottest sold-out tours of the summer will set you back hundreds of dollars on resale sites like StubHub or VividSeats — and those are just for middling seats. The median price of a ticket to see Adele or Justin Bieber is currently $588 and $549, respectively, says Adam Clemence of Chicago-based VividSeats, while up-close floor seats can run into the thousands of dollars. Other big acts, from Luke Bryan to Drake to Beyonce, are costing fans upwards of $134 per ticket — on average.

And yet, over the past decade, I’ve managed to see most of my favorite bands play right up close – often in the first few rows – and rarely paid for more than $25 for the privilege.

The difference is, my favorite bands aren’t all that famous. They might be one day – after all, U2 was just an opening act at small nightclubs on their first American tour in 1980, and before Paul McCartney was fetching more than a hundred bucks per ticket, the Beatles performed night after night in the seedy strip joints of Hamburg, Germany on their way to fame.

But for now, the groups I love are slogging it out in music’s enormous working class, relentlessly touring smaller venues with $5 to $25 cover charges.

Here’s the truth: The talent gap between a good, local act and an international superstar is, in a lot of cases, totally negligible. (Okay, I’m not talking about Adele’s one-in-a-million voice here. But you’ll probably hear better country music at just about any bluegrass night in America than you will at an overpriced Luke Bryan concert. The parking, food, and beers will be cheaper, too – and if it’s a local joint, you might not have to pay those outrageous ticket fees, either.)

In fact, one 2008 study showed that popular music is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy — what marketers say is popular becomes popular, whether or not it’s any good. The study’s authors created a fake, online music market where more than 12,000 subjects were asked to download songs by unknown bands and then rate them. It turns out, users rated songs higher if they were told other people gave it a good rating — even if that wasn’t true. “We found that most songs experienced self-fulfilling prophecies, in which perceived—but initially false—popularity became real over time,” the study’s authors note.

In short, the main reason everyone is willing to pay big bucks to see these mega-acts is simply because they know and love those particular songs. They’ve heard them on the radio, can sing along to every word, and want to share that experience with the artist, their friends, and other fans.

But what if you and your friends knew and loved different songs? Ones that weren’t just foisted upon you by the Marketing Machine?

How to Find a New Favorite Band

That’s the whole key to this strategy. If you can fall in love with a different band or singer — one the rest of the world hasn’t caught onto yet – you’ll be able to see them perform up close and for cheap for years to come.

So how do you discover a new favorite act? Here are three ways to try.

Support Your Local Music Scene

If you live in a bigger city or in a college town, there’s probably live music happening every single night in small, intimate venues nearby. I’ll be honest with you: Half of it is probably not very good. But the upper echelons — often the bands who land coveted Friday and Saturday night gigs – are likely going to be every bit as good as a national touring act.

What’s more, most small bars and clubs book multiple bands per night to try and draw more people in. For a $5 to $15 cover charge, you can hear three or four bands play over the course of a night. If one of them is terrible, just head to another part of the club away from the stage and catch up with your friends like it’s any other night out — most venues have a place to retreat to.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t know any of the songs: Simply being out and hearing music in person builds an anchor memory for the songs you’re listening to. The next time you hear the band’s music, it’ll conjure the memory of the show, and the songs will grow more and more familiar.

And here’s an added bonus: When you love a local band, you don’t have to wait two years for them to go on tour and hope they stop in your town. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to see them play live.

Attend a Music Festival

Another great way to find lesser-known bands you love is to attend a well-curated, music-centered festival. While tickets can be expensive, you’ll have the opportunity to see dozens of small but gifted acts perform in addition to the headliners.

In 2014, we went to the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island, and when I left I was the newest fan of several bands — including one, Houndmouth, that I’ve seen play twice since. (If you like rootsy rock with lots of harmonies, give them a listen.) They’ve since graduated to slightly bigger venues like the House of Blues, which I’m glad to see — although I hope they don’t make it too big, or I’ll have to find a new favorite band!

Free festivals abound in the summer as well, whether they’re sponsored by your city or a local radio station. Check out your area’s events calendar to see who’s playing — if it’s free, you have absolutely nothing to lose by stopping by to see if any of the acts have a sound you like.

Pay Attention to Pandora

Music-streaming service Pandora allows you to create a free personal radio station based on a few “seed” songs or artists — for example, it can generate an entire station from a handful of your favorite songs, or even just one artist, like Bob Dylan. Then, it plays you songs that its algorithms think you’ll probably enjoy based on those initial inputs. Much of the time, its playlist ends up being spot on for me — but you can give songs a thumbs down if you don’t like them.

I love Pandora for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that even the free version plays relatively few commercials. But perhaps its most valuable service is that it routinely surprises me with songs and bands I’ve never heard before and most definitely like. When you come across an unknown artist or song you really enjoy, just bookmark or like it within Pandora so you can remember the name later.

Of course, there are other ways to expose yourself to new music as well. On your car radio, check out the lower end of the dial, where college radio stations play music from all over the spectrum — much of it really good and relatively obscured from the popular masses. If you hear a great song, check the station’s website for their recent playlist and see if the artist is coming to town. And the best part? There aren’t any commercials.

It Works for Sports, Too

In an era when most of our star athletes bounce around from team to team in search of a bigger payday — one moment they’re on the Red Sox, the next thing you know they’ve signed with the hated Yankees — we’re all just rooting for laundry, Jerry Seinfeld once joked. So why pay $50 to $150 a ticket just to cheer for uniforms?

Just as with music, the difference in talent between the pros and the minor leagues or college level athletics isn’t as big as you probably imagine. If you’re truly interested in the sport of baseball, basketball, hockey, or football, you’ll see incredible skill on display and close, exciting games, even at these lower levels. And yet going to a college basketball or minor league baseball game costs a fraction of attending a big-league event — not to mention the lower cost of parking, concessions, and even souvenirs once you’re inside.

Here in Boston, I can get pretty good seats to a Boston College or Northeastern University hockey game for $15 to $20; comparable tickets to a Boston Bruins game ranged from $45 to $145 in 2015. Meanwhile, tickets to a New England Patriots game — if you can get them — range from $89 to $350, while a BC football game will set you back a more reasonable $25 to $60.

And with an average price of $54.79, the Boston Red Sox are baseball’s most expensive ticket, according to Team Marketing’s 2016 Fan Cost Index. But just 30 miles up the road, you can watch the team’s Single-A affiliate, the Lowell Spinners, for seven bucks. (Premier Box seats cost a whopping $10.) The players wear the same uniform as the pros — the only difference is how close you’ll get to sit to the field.

‘But I Really, Really Want to See ___!’

Now don’t get me wrong: I fully understand wanting to see your heroes. I’ll be in attendance at David Ortiz’s final regular-season game at Fenway this fall, and there was no substitute for seeing his game-winning, extra-inning heroics in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 American League Championship Series in person — easily two of the most incredible events I’ve ever witnessed in person.

So if you really, really need to go to the big show, there are still some tried-and-true tricks to save money on tickets to popular, pricey, and sold-out events.

For starters, be flexible: Ticket prices can vary drastically depending on the night of the week and the location. “If an artist you’re dying to see is coming to Madison Square Garden and the tickets are too pricey, see if their tour stops somewhere within driving distance where tickets are in less demand,” says Clemence of VividSeats.

For example, tickets to see Zac Brown Band at Fenway Park in Boston on a Saturday night in August start at $97 on VividSeats, while tickets to the Sunday night show start at $75. Meanwhile, for a Saturday night show a couple of weeks later in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. — about a three-hour drive from Boston — tickets start at just $33.

It also pays to keep an eye on prices. “Big-name artists are constantly adding tour dates and extra shows, so if you can’t find the seat you want, be vigilant,” Clemence says. Then, he adds, “When you see a good price, take it.”

Finally, Clemence says single seats tend to be cheaper than others — so true superfans are often able to score a discount if they’re willing to sit solo. “If you’re heading to a stop on a massive tour – Beyonce, for example – it might be worth making some new friends!” he says.

More Fun, Less Money

In the end, the goal is to have as much fun as possible without breaking your budget. If you’re someone who only goes to one game or concert a year, this probably doesn’t matter as much — so by all means, splurge. Go see the big show, the real deal.

But if you like to get out a lot, and want to see a ton of live music and sporting events without crushing your entertainment budget? Look to lesser-known acts and lower-level teams at smaller venues. You’ll see really talented musicians and budding star athletes for a fraction of the price – and who knows, you might even get in early on the Next Big Thing.

Related Articles:

What are some ways you save money on concerts or sporting events? Do you have any favorite local or relatively unknown artists?  

Jon Gorey
Jon Gorey
Contributing Editor

A former personal finance reporter at TheStreet and columnist for MarketWatch, Jason Notte's work has appeared in many other outlets, including The Newark Star-Ledger, The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and The Boston Globe. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S. and the layout editor for Boston Now, among other roles at various publications. Notte earned a Bachelor of Science in Journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998.

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