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The Summer Women Flexed Their Spending Power

By turning out in groups, women created a multiplier effect and propelled watershed success for the ‘Barbie’ movie, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

By Sarah Krouse and Anne Steele, WSJ

Aug. 10, 2023

A $1 billion-plus box office haul for “Barbie.” A run on bracelet beads ahead of Taylor Swift shows. Fringed cowboy hats for Beyoncé concerts.

Women splashed out big this summer, and tickets to major cultural events were only the start of the spending. Groups of friends, mothers and daughters traveled to Beyoncé shows, bought Barbie-pink outfits, and did their nails in multicolor homage to Swift’s musical eras. Then they went again with different friends and more family, amplifying the amount each group consumed and purchased.

Call it the women’s multiplier effect—their spending is a powerful force in the U.S. economy that propelled watershed commercial success for the “Barbie” film, Beyoncé’s “Renaissance Tour,” and Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour,” which is likely to become the world’s first to bring in $1 billion over more than 100 shows. Local economies have reaped the ancillary benefits, noted by the Federal Reserve in July’s Beige Book, which touted Swift’s tour for boosting the Philadelphia area’s hotel industry.

Greta Gerwig’s “Barbie” topped more than $1 billion in global ticket sales as of this weekend, according to research firm Comscore. It is now the first U.S. film by a solo female director to cross the billion-dollar mark. Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press (Published Aug. 7)

“Women have always been a deeply underestimated economic force,” said Blair Kohan, a partner and agent at talent agency UTA, the agency that represents “Barbie” co-writer and director Greta Gerwig. They embrace shared experiences across generations, she said.

Not exactly activism, but more than just entertainment, this summer’s hottest events drew crowds compelled by a common theme: art made by women that speaks to the experience of being female. The megastars on stage and screen seem otherworldly, but share stories that are familiar.

More than 80% of people who bought tickets to see Swift and Beyoncé purchased more than two tickets to the “Eras” and “Renaissance” tours, according to ticket reseller Vivid Seats. Purchases of three or more adult tickets represented 27% of “Barbie” movie ticket orders, according to sales site Fandango, compared with 20% of all movie ticket orders through the service this year.

Jody Gerson, chairman and CEO of Swift’s publisher Universal Music Publishing Group, said “Barbie,” Taylor Swift and Beyoncé tell stories of female empowerment in authentic ways at a time when many women feel powerless. “These are strong women who are not afraid to be in charge, and I think we’re responding to that,” she said. “We subconsciously have rallied around them because their power gives us power.”

Entertainment executives say they are learning lessons in branding and marketing from the phenomena, such as how a doll can be celebrated by adult women and men, too. Another takeaway: A brand or art needs to spark a cultural conversation to be a runaway hit. When a project catches on, it is essential to find ways to attract groups and encourage a sense of community for those that participate.

Some men go to events in groups, too. They might wear matching jerseys with their favorite players’ names and numbers on them when going to a sports game. They go to movies together, but this summer, it was women who gathered the biggest groups of movie and concertgoers and opened their wallets repeatedly on those experiences to an unusual degree.

“The rallying people together, that’s kind of the dream of these marketers, that you do their work for them and bring all your friends to the movie,” said Carolyn Sloane, an economics professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy who teaches a course called “Rockonomics: The public policy of creative sectors.” She said that happens more among women than men.

Gerwig’s “Barbie” explores society’s expectations that women be perfect and, in the blonde doll’s case, stay in their box. On Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” album, she sings “Break My Soul”—“You won’t break my soul, I’m tellin’ everybody”—and “Church Girl”—“Let it go, girl, let it out, girl.”

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Swift, who has tussled with streaming services for better royalties and reclaimed income from her albums by rerecording them under her own name, defied normal concert constructs with “Eras,” performing for 3½ hours at a time. When it rains, Swift plays on.

Ticket sales for women headliners in the top 25 tours are up over 400% from last year, said Lesley Olenik, global tour promoter at Live Nation. Sales of tickets for Beyoncé and Swift’s tours represent 66% of all the sales for the top 10 artists on tour around the world, according to secondary market ticket seller StubHub.

These groups of women are spending more on tickets to these artists and other female acts, too. Among the top 50 acts globally, the average ticket price for female artists is $660, compared with $245 for male artists, said StubHub.

Mary Ihedirionye, a 27-year-old program manager at an energy company, plans to see Beyoncé twice during her “Renaissance World Tour,” each time with friends and family members. The first show in her home city of Philadelphia with her cousin and a close friend set her back $1,200 for one VIP ticket plus about $300 for makeup and a new outfit—including a sparkly, silver, fringed Party City cowboy hat that looks like one Beyoncé has worn.

She bought a plane ticket to the second show in Atlanta later this month with a group of women, though the ticket cost far less there. She plans to spend a total of about $800 on the Atlanta trip. “They were the highlights of my summer,” she said.

Some of the event spending came from pent-up demand for entertainment during the pandemic, when many households saved money while they were stuck at home. Much of it was also stoked by a culmination of economic and demographic shifts that have been under way for a decade or more, economists say, from women having children later in life, if at all, to female wage increases and shifting household gender roles.

Median weekly earnings for women in full-time and salaried roles have climbed 28% over the last five years to $1,001 in the second quarter of this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Workforce participation among women ages 25 to 54 increased to 76.4% in 2022, from 74.5% a decade earlier, while the percentage of women with children under 18 who work also rose during that period.

“Instead of women making decisions about purchasing traditional goods that are in some sense a public good for the family, they’re actually using their resources to purchase goods and experiences that bring them joy,” said Misty Heggeness, an economist and professor at the University of Kansas.

“They’re controlling the household purse but a lot of that income is coming from the women themselves,” said Heggeness, who took her 15-year-old daughter to see Swift in Kansas City.

She was struck by the crowd’s mood: they were patient with each other in lines, where it could take more than an hour for the chance to buy a coveted T-shirt or sweatshirt.

Heggeness French-braided the hair of a woman she met in the line for drinks.

At shows, which are at once girlfriend raves, rallies and retreats, attendees trade friendship bracelets with strangers, a tradition among Swifties who have drained craft stores of their bead supplies in cities where the singer performs.

At craft retail chain Michaels Stores, demand among Swift fans for beads has exceeded the additional inventory the company forecast and ordered in anticipation of her shows, particularly in alphabet beads that fans use to spell out lyrics or other Swift sayings, a spokeswoman said. In cities the “Eras Tour” has visited, there has been a 300% sales lift in beads and jewelry in the days ahead of a concert, and a more than 500% increase in its jewelry category sales in Swift’s home state of Pennsylvania.

“There’s this continued movement toward sisterhood and celebrating each other and being kind and inclusive and being positive,” said Lisa McKnight, chief brand officer at Barbie maker Mattel. “What the ‘Barbie’ brand stands for is in support of all of that,” she said.

Women are traveling ever-longer distances to be part of a community of fans, setting this summer’s live events apart from past tours of the same artists. The average distance traveled for Taylor Swift’s “Eras Tour” is more than 300 miles, more than double what it was for her 2018 “Reputation Tour,” according to Vivid Seats. Beyoncé fans traveled 46% further to see the “Renaissance World Tour” than they did for “The Formation World Tour” in 2016.

San Antonio mother Ashley Jackson’s plans to attend one “Eras” show in Houston with her daughters ages 14 and 16, and a friend turned into two back-to-back shows on an April weekend. Four seats for Sunday night’s show in the lower level cost $1,200 each and Jackson allotted her daughters $100 each to plan their outfits—each woman dressed as a different “era” from Swift’s music.

She drove about three hours from San Antonio to Houston on Saturday, paid for a hotel room and went with the group to get their nails done. As their excitement built, she couldn’t wait for the next day and texted her friend “This is so fun, let’s just go tonight.”

Jackson bought four more seats for $1,500 each an hour before the Saturday show. “I literally told the lady doing my nails ‘no color, we need to go,’” she said.

That money amounts to the cost of a car or family vacation, she said. “I recognize that it’s crazy. But my daughters truly believe those were the best two nights of their life,” she said.

Jackson and the same friend are planning a trip to Portugal with their entire families next summer to see Swift perform there.

Many women feel powerless in the wake of the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade last year. The crowds at these cultural events showcase women’s agency and voice.

“It’s a sense of solidarity that women are willing to pay good money for,” said Katherine Wintsch, CEO of The Mom Complex and author of “Slay Like a Mother.” “The tanks of women are empty. They are willing to pay a premium to fill them back up and that’s what happens at these events,” she said.

Movie site Fandango said some 65% of “Barbie” ticket buyers have been women, compared with 50% of all ticket buyers so far this year.

Jeff Goldstein, president of domestic distribution, at Warner Bros. Discovery, said that while initially ticket sales skewed female, they have been roughly split 50-50 between male and female attendees since the film’s July release.

The company and Mattel blanketed the globe with pink marketing materials, and in the trailer said explicitly that the film was both for people who loved and hated Barbie.

That messaging was part of a marketing evolution for Mattel’s brand, as was letting the film poke fun at the company, including in a scene featuring a group of men in its board room.

“As a brand steward, why would I ever support putting the word hate with my brand? Why would I ever put that out in the world?” said Mattel’s McKnight. “I had to get comfortable being uncomfortable. While that’s never going to come easy, that’s something we have to take with us as we work on future franchise and brand building efforts.”

Doing so meant the film broadened Mattel’s audience to more adults and made Barbie popular among women and men of many ages.

Warner and Mattel intentionally released a limited number of images and snippets of content gradually to build excitement while not revealing the plot. They made plans to put life-size Barbie boxes in theaters that would allow fans to take group photos together. Shots of women in their Barbie boxes flooded social-media accounts.

In making the film, they included a wardrobe for Barbie that mimicked what the dolls had been wearing since the 1960s and included a lot of costume changes just as people playing with a doll would do, he said.

When Warner prescreened the film nationwide with theater owners, it insisted that they view it in full auditoriums, rather than with smaller groups because it wanted them to feel the group feeling, he said.

“Some of it is luck,” he said. “It’s hard to capture magic.”

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