On charging for VIP access

My friend, Adam Thomas, highlighted this on Twitter the other day:

There seem to have been lots of different takes. All sorts of insinuations and guesswork has gone on. So, I just thought I would parse some of the issues here.

Some have objected to the existence of a tour at all. How can we be using Christian music – especially of the kind we sing in church – to make money? Personally, this doesn’t bother me at all. Musicians go on tour and charge for their tickets. If you’re happy going to listen to the Messiah, and pay for tickets at Christmas, I’m not entirely sure what the difference is here. Likewise, if you would happily listen to secular bands at a gig, why shouldn’t Christians do the same? If you are equally happy to listen to Christian bands (that is, bands whose members happen to be Christians) perform their not-explicitly-but-obviously-Christian-informed songs at a gig, I think we are straining gnats to worry about it only because some of us might choose to use those songs in church (not least when many of the songs we sing in church weren’t always written for church, we just co-opted them for that purpose!) I see no reason why an artist – Christian or otherwise; explicitly writing hymnody or otherwise – shouldn’t be free to tour and charge those who want to go to see them.

Some don’t mind a tour, but feel this is close to simony? Would Jesus have charged people to hear the gospel? Well, no, obviously he wouldn’t. But he did, I presume, charge them for his carpentry! Maybe it only becomes a problem because the Getty’s use Christian words in their songs? Which would, presumably, mean that Jesus could have charged for a table but not one with anything religious carved into it.

Of course, they are trying to draw a comparison with Jesus’ gospel ministry and the Getty’s music. The problem with that being that Jesus wasn’t ‘going on tour’ with a publicity machine behind him announcing ‘an evening with Jesus’ at 15 denarii a pop. He wasn’t aiming to entertain his listeners; he was announcing the kingdom of God is at hand. The Getty’s, by contrast, are going on tour, specifically with the view to entertain those who would like to hear their original songs sung live by the artists that wrote them. The two things aren’t really comparable. Jesus came to announce the coming of the kingdom, he wasn’t doing a live tour. Neither are the Getty’s charging for the gospel. They are charging for the ability to hear them play their music live in concert.

Others don’t mind a tour but do object to the price of the tickets. It’s not simony, they suggest, but over-priced and therefore grasping and not appropriate for believers. Frankly, I think the ticket prices are high and I wouldn’t pay that much to go and see the Gettys sing, but I have no idea how the price was reached. Nevertheless, if you don’t object to the tour in principle and you accept a legitimacy to charging at all, the price is moot. If you think it is extortionate (much like I do), it is not an affront, it is just a reason not to book them yourself. That isn’t a sin issue, it is a matter of value. If somebody else feels like the pricing is right, or so loves the idea of a Getty gig that they’d re-mortgage their house to go, well that is for them. It is not morally wrong, it is a matter of value. I may not think it worth the money, but if somebody else does, that is for them. There are all sorts of things I think are a waste of money but people are free to do; just as I no doubt spend my money on things people would not see the value in either. I see no issue, beyond that of wisdom and value, in the ticket prices. If you think it’s over-priced, fine. Don’t go. If somebody else doesn’t, let them go. Dear tickets are not evidence of sin on display.

Some have sought to argue that the Getty’s do a lot of good and the money may well be used for the gospel. Well, okay. Who knows? But the point is moot. It is either wrong for them to go on tour and charge for these things or it is not. Unless you think all pastors ought to run their household budget past their churches for approval each month, being as they are paying the salary, I’m not sure this is a credible line of reasoning. Whether the money is for their salary, or for gospel work, or whatever is not really at issue. None of those things would be wrong and, if a tour that charges isn’t wrong in principle, neither is them living off the proceeds (or, if it is the case, giving all the money away for gospel ministry). It just isn’t a point of concern.

Thus far, then, I see no particular issue with a tour, charging for tickets nor worrying about how the artists might use the proceeds thereafter. But I do see one particular issue. Or, two issues that both stem from the same thing. The issue of access for VIPs.

The fact is, this is an issue with a wider culture. There should be no problem with Christian artists going on tour and charging people to see them in concert. There is something more distasteful about charging other believers to be VIPs so they can eat with the celebrity Christians. Whilst I didn’t agree entirely with his article here, Dave Williams is absolutely right when he says:

What it offers is the experience of privilege and elitism in exchange for more money. It separates and grades believers on the basis of wealth. It offers entrance into an inner circle and access to those we consider to be celebrities.

One person on twitter said, ‘I’ve been involved at conferences before with a dinner for extra including the chance to talk to speakers. I understand the concern over celebrity culture but I don’t see this as out of the ordinary in terms of an event/concert’. But that is precisely the culture at issue. It may not be out of the ordinary, but how is cash for access ever right? I don’t think it is any more right when it is a big name speaker offering you access to Big Eva any more than when it is a big name singer. We don’t let our parliamentarians do it for good reason; I’m not sure what business anybody in the church has doing the same.

The very fact that we have celebrity Christians is a bit of an issue. Now, to be fair to many, they haven’t necessarily set themselves up as celebrities, they just happen to have a wide platform. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But those in such positions should be doing their best not to encourage any sense that their word carries more weight because of their platform. But in this case, not only is the existence of celebrity at play, it is actively encouraging the very tiered system of believers that the Bible is clear we should have nothing to do with. Not only encouraging it, but profiting off it to boot. That is the problem here.

Many have rightly said, if this was Chris Tomlin or Hillsong doing this, Conservative Evangelicals would be all over it as yet another example of prosperity gospel, celebrity Christian nest feathering. But that it is a couple that many of us like, whose songs and – more importantly – theology we happen to enjoy, it is seen as a less of an issue.

I will say again, there is nothing wrong with Christian musicians – even those whose staple is congregational songs for church – touring and charging to hear them play their music live. That, to me, is a valid outworking of the worker being worthy of their wages. It is equally a no different to selling albums – either on CD or to streaming services – for people to enjoy at home. It is a product, worked on by an artist, that is worth something should you want to access it. It is perfectly valid for people to enjoy such a concert and for people to be expected to pay for the work that has been put into it.

But what seems less right is to use your celebrity status for profit of itself. It is, as far as I can see, cash for access. I can accept that well-known songwriters will end up with a platform and some celebrity status. That, in many ways, is difficult to avoid. We all have platforms to a lesser or greater extent. You cannot avoid people knowing other people and holding them in high regard. But to use that platform as a means of increasing profit, with the promise of access to people for who knows what reason, seems particularly unseemly.

Perhaps it would be better if, after the concert, the Getty’s just made themselves available generally to whoever is there and wanted to talk? Maybe they could use their access for whoever wanted it? Maybe, rather than charging for access – not least having already charged people to come to your concert – the gospel impulse would be to use your position to grant access to those who would not be able to afford it? Indeed, it is sad that there is a need for access at all. But such that it exists and might be helpful, wouldn’t the gospel be better served by granting it without payment? It is one thing to charge for a live performance intended to entertain, but the access is only valuable inasmuch as people need something from you. Knowing that the kind of access is only going to be into the world of well-known evangelicals, and those wanting it are likely to have reasons for needing it, offering it to all without profiteering from it would seem the more appropriate gospel move to make.

More to the point, as Dave Williams rightly notes:

We have a money, power and privilege problem.  It’s not about a few individuals selling some tickets. The marketing guys have worked out that there is demand among Christians for such experiences. 

That is where the problem lies. Until we no longer venerate celebrity Christians, there will continue to exist a market for access to them. The issue of access matters, but it is the culture we have all created that allows it to continue.