John Mellencamp is coming to South Bend’s Morris Performing Arts Center for two shows in June. During the 1980s, Mellencamp, who went by John Cougar then, became one of the most popular rock singers of the MTV era.
Songs from “American Fool,” “Uh Huh” and his penultimate album “Scarecrow” became anthems of Midwest rebellion, melancholy, malaise, and yes, even joy. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the stodgy old ushers at Notre Dame’s Joyce Center Arena sing along with “Pink Houses” when the house lights go up (April 18, 2006).
Because I was an Indiana University student when Mellencamp, who was born in Seymour, Ind., was at the height of his popularity, I feel a close connection with him. First off, I enjoy most of his songs. When I was at I.U., there were occasional rumors about him riding his motorcycle through campus. He filmed the music video for “Crumblin’ Down” in the I.U. Auditorium. In 1984, MTV ran a pink house giveaway promo which gave Bloomington some national exposure, not all of it good.
Mellencamp’s drummer, Kenny Aronoff, was a guest lecturer in my History of Rock and Roll class. I had a ticket to see Mellencamp in 1985 at the auditorium, but had to miss the show because I sprained my ankle playing basketball. I did finally get to see him live on April 26, 1986, at I.U. Memorial Stadium during Little 500 weekend.
Mellencamp has continued to produce interesting music for the past 40 years, but little of it has caught the attention or praise of his earlier work. Because he smokes continuously, his once mildly gruff voice has entered Bob Dylan sandpaper-roughness territory. In his live shows, Mellencamp has eschewed playing most of his hits in favor of deeper cuts.
Even though Mellencamp’s shows run on the short side and his voice is craggy, I thought I would check out the ticket prices for his South Bend appearance. I was in for a shock. On Ticketmaster’s website, third balcony seats, the worst in the venue at the Morris, were $187 for the Friday night show. The most expensive ticket was $972. For comparison, the ticket to his 1986 I.U. show was $16. The price for the 2006 Notre Dame show I saw was $46. I have the ticket stubs to prove it.
Stranger still, when I went back to the Ticketmaster website a couple days later, the ticket prices were different; still ridiculously expensive, but all-over-the map different.
I am at an age where I don’t attend many concerts, primarily because most of the artists I like don’t tour anymore or are deceased. I’m also not willing to pay the going rate. The last concert I saw was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (May 13, 2017), and six months later, Petty was dead. But I have seen news stories recently about Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing” and the problems it has caused for Taylor Swift, Bruce Springsteen and Bad Bunny fans.
For the record, I don’t like Taylor Swift’s music and don’t know any of Bad Bunny’s songs, in case that isn’t obvious. I did see Springsteen live. His January 5, 1985 show at Market Square Arena was the best concert I have ever attended. But I wouldn’t pay thousands or even hundreds of dollars to see him again, especially since Clarence Clemons, his great saxophone sidekick, is no longer alive.
According to a 2022 USA Today article, there are a few reasons for the escalation of concert ticket prices. One is that lobbyists have managed to get anti-scalping laws off the books in most states. Another is the cost of touring has gone up in an age of huge stage shows that require large crews to move, assemble, and disassemble the sets.
Yet another reason is that artists have seen their profits for the sale of their music in the digital age plummet. Touring in larger venues offers them a better chance to cash in. And probably most at fault is the failure of our government to enforce antitrust laws which allowed Ticketmaster to become a near monopoly (although after the recent Taylor Swift ticket sale meltdown, Congress was quick to haul in Ticketmaster bosses to testify, showing that Congress knows how to pick an “important” issue to grandstand about).
Ticketmaster claims that dynamic pricing is approved by the artists. If the demand for a show is high, the prices reflect that. The ticket seller claims that the majority of tickets sold are reasonably priced because the pricing scheme locks out online resellers and, if customers are patient, they can get lower prices as the date of the show draws near. I tried the last-minute strategy for the 2022 Straight No Chaser show at the Morris. It didn’t work for me.
The ticket buying process in the 1980s, pre-Internet sales, now seems quaint. My friends and I would wait in line for hours, sometimes overnight outside the ticket offices. It was a communal event. We knew that some of the people in line intended to scalp the tickets they purchased. Many box offices had a maximum ticket purchase limit to try to make certain true fans were getting an opportunity to buy seats for their favorite shows. Notre Dame had a lottery system to discourage fans from waiting out all night.
And again, the ticket prices were really cheap. I saw The Pretenders at the Purdue Hall of Music in 1984 for $8. I saw Elton John at Deer Creek Music Center in 1989 for $25. In 1994, I saw James Taylor from the second row at the Notre Dame Joyce ACC for $23.50. When I read about concert prices now, I realize that I grew up in a golden age of live music. Fans today have to spend unimaginable amounts of money if they want to see their favorite artists.
I did call the Morris Center box office, and the associate who answered the phone said Mellencamp fans can still purchase tickets at the box office Tuesday through Thursday and avoid some of Ticketmaster’s fees. But if you purchase from the Morris website, a seat in the orchestra section is listed at $139.50 with an $18.75 ticket fee tacked on. For what will likely be a one and a half hour show with few hits played, that’s too much for me to spend.
I have concluded my rock concert days are likely over. As John Cougar Mellencamp sang on his 1985 song “Rain on the Scarecrow,” “Son I’m just sorry they’re just memories for you now.”