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The price ain't right

By Mu Qian
Updated: 2010-07-13 00:00
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The price ain't right

More than a month before Taiwan pop group F.I.R.’s Hong Kong concert, many of their mainland fans had already group-purchased tickets through a fan club.

Although the group-purchase offers only better seats, not a discount, most of the fans grabbing such tickets believe it’s a good deal, since the price is already cheap by mainland standards.

The tickets for F.I.R.’s concert at the Hong Kong Coliseum were priced at HK$280 ($36), 380 and 580. In comparison, the group’s Beijing concert in March started at 380 yuan ($56) rising to 1,180 at the top. No wonder many fans, especially those in Guangdong province, happily went to Hong Kong to see their idols.

This is not an atypical case. Almost all Hong Kong or Taiwan singers’ concerts are more expensive in the mainland than elsewhere.

A ticket to Taiwan singer Jay Chou’s concert early this month in Beijing cost 280 to 1,680 yuan, while his concert in Taipei on the same tour was NT$800 to 5,500 ($25-171), which means they were 30 to 40 percent cheaper.

Tickets for Taiwan singer Rene Liu’s recent Beijing concert cost 380 to 1,680 yuan, 55 to 60 percent higher than the price of the same concert in Taipei (NT$800 to 3,200).

Perhaps this explains why Hong Kong and Taiwan singers flock to the mainland. In a huge market with little indigenous original music, all promoters vie for overseas stars with high offers. This, plus the costs of touring, are eventually borne by concertgoers in the mainland, whose average income is still much lower than that of their counterparts in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It seems paradoxical that many local shows also cost more here.

Beijing-based singer Sa Dingding’s Guangzhou concert on Friday cost from 280 to 1,080 yuan, while her concert in Hong Kong earlier this year was only HK$100 to 430, with tickets for students starting at HK$50.

The drama Five Acts of Life, produced by a Beijing company, was priced at 180 to 1,280 yuan when staged in Beijing. In comparison a ticket was sold for HK$150 to 280 when it toured Hong Kong in March.

What makes shows so expensive in the mainland?

It’s not because of lack of sponsorship. Most performances here are sponsored, but instead of bringing the prices down, the sponsorship just pushes them up. According to an insider, in return for the sponsorship, promoters need to give sponsors some complementary tickets.

Under such circumstances, if the organizers set higher prices, the complimentary tickets seem to have more value. The top-priced tickets also have more value when promoters use them in exchange for advertisements in the media.

In addition, some companies like to buy expensive tickets as gifts for their clients.

So, the expensive tickets are purely symbolic, and it is always the lowest ranks that sell out. However, even the midrange and low-level tickets are often an extravagance for most people. Performing arts seem to be reserved for the well off, as promoters believe that performances ought to be expensive.

In a market where rules are yet to be established, promoters can set whatever prices they like. It reminds me of a joke about how a sex worker telegrammed her friends from a newly established special economic zone in the early 1990s: “Stupid people. Lots of money. Come quickly!”

But people will not always be so stupid. Prices disproportionate with the economic situations cannot last forever. When there are more choices, sponsors and collective purchasers are using their money more wisely, and without the involvement of individual customers show business will not have a future. Promoters are already complaining that it is much harder to make money nowadays than 10 years ago.

According to a survey by the department of cultural market, Ministry of Culture, the acceptable price for a performance for most Chinese is 50 to 200 yuan.

Performances with prices within this range are mostly small theater dramas by grassroots troupes and music in smaller venues, which have no sponsorship but survive on box office receipts.

These shows cannot compete with lavish big productions, but they are on the rise, because there are many people who want to spend less than 100 yuan to enjoy a live show.