Free Markets, Free People

Why theater tickets cost so much

The answer, partially, is unions. While the talent of a Broadway show may cost a pretty penny, many of the "aspiring" among them most likely aren’t making as much as the stagehands.

At Avery Fisher Hall and Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center, the average stagehand salary and benefits package is $290,000 a year.

To repeat, that is the average compensation of all the workers who move musicians’ chairs into place and hang lights, not the pay of the top five.

Across the plaza at the Metropolitan Opera, a spokesman said stagehands rarely broke into the top-five category. But a couple of years ago, one did. The props master, James Blumenfeld, got $334,000 at that time, including some vacation back pay.

Now I’m not one to begrudge high salaries, if they’ve been earned. And I’ll be the first to tell you that any CEO who earns a bonus when his or her company has a down year shouldn’t get one. However, that’s really not the point here. These are wages (the top paid stagehand at Carnegie Hall makes $422,599 a year in salary and $107,445 in benefits and deferred compensation) driven by unions. The first figure mentioned is the average salary at Lincoln Center. If I were a lefty, this would probably fall under the "corporate greed" category. The jobs are neither highly skilled nor technical.  But they’re locked down and belong to only one entity – the union. The pay is at that level for one simple reason – power and the willingness to use it, even when it really isn’t necessary.  And that power engenders fear:

How to account for all this munificence? The power of a union, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. "Power," as in the capacity and willingness to close most Broadway theaters for 19 days two years ago when agreement on a new contract could not be reached.

Wakin reported that this power was palpable in the nervousness of theater administrators and performers who were asked to comment on the salary figures.

Kelly Hall-Tompkins, for one, said, "The last thing I want to do is upset the people at Carnegie Hall. I’d like to have a lifelong relationship with them." She is a violinist who recently presented a recital in Weill Hall, one of the smaller performance spaces in the building.

She said she begrudged the stagehands nothing: "Musicians should be so lucky to have a strong union like that."

Right – and musicians would be playing to empty venues if they did since the cost of their entertainment would be beyond what most wage earners can afford.  Instead musicians exist in a much more competitive world where their earnings are tied to their talent.  Ms. Hall-Tomkins, for one, would prefer the IATSE model, I’m sure.

But you’ll also notice that she, and apparently others, were afraid to comment on the story for fear of ruffling union feathers.

Unions had a place once – and I’ll even say that their existence today can be a good thing if they represent their members properly, that is make sure they’re paid a competitive wage and benefits as well as being treated fairly.  However, in many cases, like that above, they end up demanding exorbitant salaries and benefits only because they can. 

Where are the Bernie Sanders of the world yelling “when is enough enough”?   As long as the theater owners, administrators and artists refuse to speak out about those sorts of salaries and benefits that drive up ticket prices, the union will continue to push.  And some stagehands will earn more than the President of the United States (although I think our current President is more suited for the roll of stagehand than his present job).

In the world of leftist “fairness”, this would seem a prime target for those who like to go after CEOs and “greedy corporations”.  But expect not a peep about this union, public sector unions or any union for that matter.  After all, while they may be as “greedy” as any corporation the left could name, they’re “family” and thus exempt from such criticism.



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21 Responses to Why theater tickets cost so much

  • I’ve done this kind of work … for free … as a hobby.  Damn.

  • If you look at states where union membership is not mandated by the state, unions have less power.   In New York, you can be required to join a union to get a job in many fields.  If that were not the case, then broadway would not shut down.  They’d strike and the venues would go “really?  Well there’s a line of people behind you who would love to do this job for less thank $200k per year”.

  • A skill set that can be mastered by a high school drop out?

  • Unions had a place once – and I’ll even say that their existence today can be a good thing if they represent their members properly, that is make sure they’re paid a competitive wage and benefits as well as being treated fairly.

    I thought the free market was supposed to do that.

    • It didn’t and doesn’t. Hence, unions.

      • Respectfully…BULLSPIT.
        Unions came to the fore because the free market was not permitted to work in labor.  The ONLY reason they exist today is because they are exempted from a butt-load of laws that apply to everyone else, and there is a tradition of turning a blind eye to their thuggery.
        I once held an “O” (organizer) card from the Brotherhood of Operating Engineers.  That’s one of the LESS corrupt unions in the U.S.  There is nothing more stupid than working on a union job…IMMENSE waste of time, talent, skill, and money.

        • Why was the free market not permitted to work in labor?  It certainly couldn’t be because all those saintly and enlightened bosses interfered, could it?

          You may have had an “O” card, but I bet it wasn’t anywhere near the coalfields of W. Va. or Penn. They could tell you a thing or two about company thuggery and exploitation. Pot, kettle, etc.

          • Yep.  There was a LOT of coercion to go around…and that is NOT a free market feature.
            Lessee…no bombing, murder, arson, beatings, etc. on the union side…right?
            Believe it or not, Texas (deep East Texas) was a steel/iron production center…and highly unionized at points.  LOTS of union violence, too.

          • “…no bombing, murder, arson, beatings, etc. on the union side…right?”

            Nope. Plenty on *both* sides.
            There were reasons other than pure greed that  caused unions to come into existence and why they continue to exist.  

          • Like…???
            One of the few I’ve ever heard was training.  But I’ve worked both union and non-union in things like crane operation and rigging.  Unions have nothing to offer that you can’t find elsewhere.

          • A union is nothing but a cartel. Do we need to explain what that means?
            Also, recall that the original Luddites were unionists. Does that indicate anything?
            As for violence, you might be indoctrinated to misremember that the overwhelming majority of violence against unions (whose exploits of violence and murder are legendary) were again those who trespassed on company property (yes, property rights pertain to corporations, too), committing mayhem, sabotage, arson and other sundry actions.

          • “Like…???”

            Uh, didn’t you say you were a union organizer once? What reasons did you give prospective members?

            “Unions have nothing to offer that you can’t find elsewhere.”

            Then why did men risk their lives and the lives of their families to form unions?

            “A union is nothing but a cartel. Do we need to explain what that means?”

            No, but you do need to explain why it is relevant. Like it or not, unions are legal and were created as a response to valid problems and complaints. Refusal to admit it is not really useful.  

  • Ah Ha!  So….these are the….wealthy rich (no doubt Republican!!!!) fat cats that Joy Behar and Ed Schultz are always foaming at the mouth over.
    These are the rich so and so’s the b@st@rd Republicans in Congress gave the government’s money to by extending the tax cuts for the wealthy!
    I hope now that it’s become public knowledge, DearVacationer will appoint some czar in some agency to put some kind of agency plan into place to make sure that these rancid theater profiteers are brought under government control!

  • I hate to disagree but the answer is DEMAND > SUPPLY.
    Generally I don’t care about the internal economics of why a product or service is expensive. It is what it is. Depending on my need (want) I can pay up, find a substitute or go without. What’s remarkable is how many non-necessary products and services are expensive compared to necessities. Event tickets are generally ridiculously expensive. Food on the other hand is generally pretty cheap.
    As crusty as I’ve become over the years, it’s still amazing to step back and think about the many wonderful things our mostly free market provides. If you are of a certain age then you remember when “computers” meant that big hunk of iron located in the bowels of the university not the sleek box sitting on your desk. Or when the idea of “going out to eat” was a big deal. Or when you had to make a weekly trip to the bank so you could “cash” your check because the idea of having access to cash money on nearly every street corner was inconceivable.
    What this tells me is that aside from providing basic public services, the true imperative of government should be identifying and eliminating restrictions on the free exchange of goods and services.

  • I don’t see how supply and demand are truly in effect in a closed (Union) shop environment.  You can only get your supply of stage hands from one source.  If you choose not to use that source, you cannot do business, by law.
    You can’t go out and develop a new source of stagehands say, by putting an add in the NYT that says you’ll pay a starting wage of $80,000 plus generous benefits package  – qualifications are –  must be able to preform manual labor and follow direction.  Potential for raises up to as much as $120,000.  You’d need a police cordon to control the lines for applicants.
    Wages like that….sounds like racketeering to me.

    • I think he is referring to the demand for theater tickets.

      • Ah – sorry – gospel truth as to the demand for those.   THAT makes sense.
        My apologies for my misunderstanding.

  • Theater tickets are expensive because its a signal that you are rich and cultured to go to the theater instead of watching a movie. It also keeps the riff raff out.
    Those wages could be high because their skills really are good. They truly may be the BEST set creator in the world.
    Your point about the average wage probably hurts my argument though.

    • “They truly may be the BEST set creator in the world.”
      But a stage hand is not a set dresser.  Think “lumper” versus “graphic artist”.

  • If you have to ask what the stage hands are paid, you obviously can’t afford to attend!