- Words Louis Rabinowitz
Olivia Rodrigo's 'Sour' tour sold out in a matter of minutes last week, leaving plenty of fans frustrated and upset. What impact does massive excess demand have on live touring?
“God, it’s brutal out here.”
Olivia Rodrigo wrote “Brutal”, of course, about her own individual experience as a teenage girl experiencing heartbreak. She probably did not expect to have written a fairly perfect description of what it is like to buy tickets to her own concerts, but that’s the benefit of universal themes right there.
Tickets went on sale last week for Rodrigo’s inaugural Sour Tour, which will encompass destinations across North America and Europe between April and July next year. Given Rodrigo’s huge popularity and the fact that, thanks to this never-ending pandemic, this is her first proper tour, it was predictable that demand would be considerable. Still, the speed at which tickets for her shows sold was pretty stunning.
From the minute tickets went on sale, fans were invited to participate in the unpredictable battleground of a Ticketmaster queue. Tens of thousands of people, all staring at the little walking guy as he makes his incremental progress across the screen. If you were really lucky, the guy would finish his walk and you would be redirected onto a ticket booking page with minutes to scramble for seats. If you were most people, you’d be greeted with the unwelcome notification that all tickets had vanished while you languished in the queue.
Like we said, it was brutal out there.
Naturally, fingers were pointed and frustrations boiled over. For a lot of fans, the main culprit was that Rodrigo was set to play in far smaller venues than her stature merits. There were no stadiums or mega-arenas to be seen here. In London, where the venue choice is always a pretty good gauge of how a musician sees themselves, Rodrigo is slated for two nights at the 5000-capacity Eventim Apollo – a big venue, to be visited next year by the likes of Wolf Alice and Jack White, but far from the largest the capital has to offer. It’s no wonder tickets vanished so quickly – there just weren’t that many relative to how popular Rodrigo is.
It’s natural for fans to be upset, especially considering that, in the absence of availability, scalpers have oozed into the gap to buy tickets and flog them for exorbitant prices. Rodrigo has herself offered a good explanation for the venue choices, saying in an interview that “I don’t think I should skip any steps”. In other words, she’s working her way up the touring ladder as a brand new artist with only one album to her name so far. Arenas are ahead, but not quite yet. It’s a reasonable argument – Rodrigo’s vertiginous rise to fame was a surprise result of particular circumstances including lockdown-induced nostalgia, and it can be easy to forget how new she really is as an artist. She’s not exactly starting small as is.
The question then becomes a more existential one: what do we want from our favourite artists’ live shows? Do we want them to be somewhat exclusive occasions for the true faithful to have an unforgettable experience where they feel some emotional closeness to the artist? Or do we want them to be campaigns of accessibility, where the uneven playing field is levelled and fans of all stripes can congregate in the biggest numbers possible? It’s an especially tough dilemma in the social media age, where even mega-famous artists can develop an online presence that feels intimate and personal for fans.
Live music doesn’t fit one shape. Intimate (or in Rodrigo’s case, intimate-ish-ish) shows can be a phenomenal experience, but so too can the massive Glastonbury-style gatherings in the tens of thousands. There’s no reason why Rodrigo can’t split the difference in time. UK artist Sam Fender, for instance, has scaled up through the course of his second album’s rollout from a show at O2 Academy Brixton to a gigantic festival-style gig planned for next summer in London’s Finsbury Park. Next summer – touch wood a million times – is likely to bring a resurgence of big festivals, and Rodrigo is perfectly placed to topline shows like Coachella and Lollapalooza in time.
It’s not now, of course, and that’s the difficulty. Some might accuse Rodrigo’s fanbase of being impatient, seeking instant gratification that the slow-roll of artists’ building success doesn’t allow for, but that would be unfair. Fans have been waiting for some time. “drivers licence” was released all the way back in January of this year (time isn’t real), and the Sour Tour doesn’t kick off till next April. While Rodrigo has performed her songs plenty of times, including in her own short film and on Saturday Night Live, we’ve learned the hard way in this pandemic that nothing hits quite like live music. When that long-awaited opportunity is swiped away by random luck and a bunch of Ticketmaster scammers, it’s hard not to empathise with the fanbase’s frustrations.
Especially in this streaming age, where Spotify and Apple Music have scythed into the profits that artists make directly from their music, live shows are an absolutely essential part of how a fanbase engages with their favourite musicians, and how the artist constructs their own identity. For now, Olivia Rodrigo has chosen to make her debut outing a relatively intimate one that emphasises her status as a new artist to the circuit – though, of course, her version of “intimate” is one which the vast majority of artists would view as the show of a lifetime. It’s a justifiable choice, though it’s one that proves that there’s no way to put yourself out there as an artist without excluding someone or somebody.
That’s the harshness, often acknowledged but rarely confronted, of live touring – it will always veer further towards exclusivity than accessibility, to big cities over small towns, just by the nature of artists seeking the most ticket sales possible. Olivia Rodrigo, in her own way, has exposed the realities of the system as it is, and the limitations it places on artist and fanbase alike. If there’s something unequivocally good to come out of it, maybe it’ll be the envisaging of a different way of doing things that puts the power in the hands of the right people.
Which is to say, at the very least, nobody likes a scalper.