When Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO) returns to BOK center this Thursday night, December 16, for its third show in as many years, you can be sure there will be many returning faces in the crowd. After all, the band that major labels probably wouldn't take a risk on today has become a perennial favorite on the holiday touring schedule.
When speaking with TSO founder Paul O'Neill last week, he pointed out that the group is now in its 11th year of touring and last month Pollstar showed the tour to be #2 in ticket sales and #20 in overall cash sales. "That's because we're the only band in the top 50 with no 'golden circle' tickets," he was quick to point out. Not that he's worried about those tickets -- in fact, it's quite the opposite. If anything, he's proud of standing his ground and keeping tickets reasonably priced -- especially during the holiday season.
For those who aren't familiar, 'golden circle' tickets have become an industry norm, making the very best seat available at a premium price -- often hundreds of dollars -- and sometimes packaging them with special band meet and greet opportunities or merchandise packages or discounts. The practice started in response to the aftermarket sale of premium seats by ticket "brokers" or scalpers, with the artists attempting to make a premium on those seats instead of letting the scalpers capitalize on the market.
Make no mistake, there have been long discussions and O'Neill has been pressured to follow the trends, but he hasn't bought in. "The practice wasn't started for bad reasons," he explained to me. "Generally speaking, scalpers will get 25-40% of the best 2000 seats. The idea was to put a premium on those seats, to limit the scalping, but unless you're a corporation or extremely wealthy, most people can't really afford them."
"I just couldn't do that to our fans," he continued. "When tickets go on sale, the kid that rakes your leaves has just as good a chance to get those seats as Steve Jobs."
Of course, some people still get miffed that the scalpers can get hold of that many of the prime seats, but O'Neill prefers to view it as 60-75 percent of those seats going to the fans.
When discussing TSO and his vision for the band, O'Neill admits that he feels very lucky that the group has succeeded, especially as the music industry has changed. "When I started in music in the 70's," he shared," there were 45 major labels. In 2009 there were only four and since EMI just went bankrupt, there are now three."
"We were one of the last bands to get an old-fashioned development deal," he explained. "When the first album came out in '96, it didn't sell 100,000 copies, but they told us to keep going. By the time the third album came out in '99, the band exploded."
O'Neill is fully aware of the fact that a similar scenario would never happen in today's market, and he admits he feels luck every day that TSO continues to thrive. "Last year we were worried that we wouldn't do as well as 2008, but we went out and did even better, and this year we were worried that we wouldn't do as well as 2009, but we're doing better yet again. Especially with the economy, we've been very fortunate."
But exactly what keeps people coming back to see Trans Siberian Orchestra? If you haven't yet caught on to the phenomenon, its best described as a classic progressive rock band: a combination of classical music and rock and roll extravagance, combined with an intricate story.
The band's first three CD's: Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic and The Lost Christmas Eve, weave together in concert with music and acting to tell an elaborate Christmas story. When combined with 24 voices, a rock band, electrified orchestra and rock staging and pyrotechnics, it becomes an unforgettable concert experience while still retaining something innately special and heartwarming -- especially in the story of an old man's redemption on Christmas Eve.
Although the band has now expanded beyond the initial Christmas trilogy with Beethoven's Last Night and last year's spectacular Night Castle release, the band's success on the holiday concert circuit has not only seen it grow, but has called for it to split into two separate touring troupes, with one touring east of the Mississippi river and another touring the western part of the US.
Possibly the most amazing part of the band's appeal, however, is the spread in its audience's age. "We're very lucky in that the average age in our audience is 21," O'Neill acknowledged when speaking with me. Although he initially found it shocking, when reflecting on it, he realized that it's because of the spread of attendees -- from children to grandparents and with a 51/49 split between women and men, he likens TSO to the appeal of Lord of the Rings: the older people in the audience negate the younger, evening out the mean age of the audience.
"Unless you are in your 80's," he reflected, "you grew up on rock and roll -- and that's our advantage: everyone has rock in common and everyone likes a good story."
Even amidst a struggling economy, TSO continues to thrive -- not just because of the music, but because of the value of the show. O'Neill admitted that when approaching this year, management asked if he didn't want to take it out on the road or cut back production. Instead of cutting back, O'Neill decided to approach it with the most elaborate show yet, but still insisted on keeping ticket process between $25 and $65.
According to O'Neill "Every human is entitled to a moment of pure joy, whether it's a perfect night or just a moment of peace. If someone's facing a speed bump in life, when they come to our show they've got three hours where they can't do anything but absorb what's going on around them."
"If they can't worry," he continued, "the stress is relieved and they can recharge a little. And, God willing, hopefully they'll be a little better prepared to face those speed bumps in life after they leave."
Over the course of the afternoon, O'Neill openly discussed TSO, the state of the music industry, the economy and politics. When boiling TSO down to its core, however, O'Neill's ultimate vision is simply to put on the best show possible and bring his audience that moment of joy. That's why it's so important to him to keep tickets reasonable and make sure the price is spread out from $25 to $65 -- in order to give anyone and everyone an opportunity to attend the show.
In turn, TSO has become a holiday tradition for a new generation. When discussing that, O'Neill laughed in appreciation: whether it be the father who works a little overtime in order to make sure and take the family to this year's show or our former editorial manager, Bart Pohlman, who emphatically stated "It's not Christmas until I've heard 'Christmas Eve, Sarajevo'," Trans Siberian has become part of a holiday tradition. That tradition lives on as TSO brings its biggest production yet to the BOK center this Thursday evening, Dec. 16 at 8pm.
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