Tonawanda News

December 16, 2013

MUSIC NOTES: Is it the end of free concerts in Western New York?

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Earlier this year, various local media outlets reported that Buffalo Place organizers are considering charging a small fee for concerts that were once free, something Artpark did successfully two years ago. If Buffalo Place does decide to levy a ticket charge, it may mean the end of the free major concert series in Western New York. It was a great run.

For many years, Western New Yorkers have been spoiled by the huge number of free concert choices in Buffalo, at Artpark, in North Tonawanda and Lockport. At its peak, in a given week, a person could go to Artpark on Tuesday, Buffalo on Thursday and North Tonawanda on Saturday (later replaced by the Friday night Lockport series).

There are a number of reasons that free stopped working. One has to do with the ability of casinos to pay top dollar for acts, thus driving up the price for many of the so-called “heritage” acts. The downgrade in headliners was quickly apparent in Buffalo’s Thursday’s in the Square series, and later seemed to impact other concert series.

There was also the issue of repeat acts. When I was growing up, you could almost pick the date when certain acts came to town, but that was also when bands would typically work on an annual album/tour cycle. Many of the heritage acts have been playing virtually the same set of material for more than 10 years. Even when free, many people aren’t going to see the same show again.

Throw into the mix Darien Lake’s huge lineup, changing musical tastes, and the rise of satellite and Internet radio replacing the once-sacred local radio station. With that, free becomes a lot trickier because you have to pay big bands big money, and then you are at the mercy of the crowd spending enough money at the show, or sponsors being willing to accept exposure to subsidize the show. If you are really fortunate, the local government chips in a chunk of money as well.

When Artpark decided to charge, other promoters looked on to see if it would work. Not only has it worked, the level of talent in the second year of a small gate charge was actually better than the year before. The real question is whether that model would work in Buffalo, North Tonawanda or Lockport.

In Rochester, they started charging a mere $2 at the gate. Although the city did not officially state why it began charging a nominal fee, it’s obvious that a small charge will keep out a segment of the population you probably don’t want in your venue anyway. In other words, if someone can’t pony up $2, they aren’t likely to spend any money in the venue.

In addition, any band that is worth seeing is worth paying for, especially up to $5. Compare that to a major concert like Bruce Springsteen or Lady Antebellum, whose tickets will likely run, on average, around $100 a piece. The $5 and $10 charge is essentially equivalent to a free show anyway.

That’s not to say I don’t lament the impending end of free shows, but I understand it. Moreover, the reality is that even though the shows are billed as “free” we all know that somebody is paying for them, in the price of products, taxes or in other ways. If the concert-goer throws down a little cash, they have shown a commitment, and then the relationship between the artist and the concertgoer is improved.

Whatever the case, it will be interesting to see how the 2014 Western New York concert season plays out. For years, the success or failure of these shows had been solely in the hands of attendees, and now it will be in their wallets.

Thom Jennings writes a weekly column on the music scene for Sunday Lifestyle. Email him at