I didn’t know it at the time, but I was part of a historic ticketing injustice.
A few years ago, tickets were going on sale for a Bruce Springsteen show at the Oracle Arena. Now, I’ve had very bad luck buying tickets for big reserved-seat shows the past several years. Aside from the fact that I can almost never afford the best seats, by the time I usually get through for my shot—in the old days on the phone, more recently online—there’s nothing good left.
On this particular Sunday, however, it looked like my luck was going to change. Less than five seconds after the digital clock on my computer hit 10 a.m.—just about the first instant a home computer could get through for tickets on Ticketmaster.com—I was “in”! No queue, no “your approximate waiting time is” (often a sign of certain doom). I pressed “click here to buy tickets,” visions of Bruce’s sweat flying onto me as I danced in what I hoped would be the best seats in the house.
But a curious thing happened. I was immediately redirected to a resale site called TicketsNow, where there were plenty of great seats available, but for double, triple and more over list price! This is literally half a minute into the official on-sale time! I was majorly bummed out, and clicking back didn’t take me to a place where I could actually buy tickets that weren’t pre-scalped. By the time I’d gone through the whole process again, and gotten through to the correct ticket-buying portal, and waited in a queue for a few minutes, the seats that came up for me were in the last five rows of the farthest upper section from the stage. Er, no thanks. I’m not seeing Bruce that way (or anyone for that matter … I have some dignity left!)
This scenario was apparently repeated quite a few times during the on-sale days for several other top acts, but when news of this blatant scam reached Springsteen’s camp, they were appropriately outraged, and they succeeded in getting word out to the press. Ticketmaster immediately stopped linking folks automatically to TicketsNow. But beyond that nothing changed.
I suppose the episode further exposed the greed of Ticketmaster (who were in the process of merging with Live Nation), and also confirmed what many of us have suspected for a long time—that good seats for concerts are not really available to regular people. There has always been corruption at every level of ticketing—blocks of seats that go to scalpers or resale agencies or to the friends of the promoter or the people who work for whatever ticket company is involved. We expect that to occur. But it has gotten much, much worse through the years.
Although I certainly like the convenience of buying tickets online, I sometimes miss the days when we’d line up outside a ticket outlet, or, better yet, the box office of where the show was taking place, knowing that where you were in line actually was a predictor of where you might end up in the venue. In the very early days of my concert-going life, I didn’t know anything about on-sale dates and such, and that’s why I never got primo seats for any Dead show I saw at the Fillmore East. I was always in the far rear of the downstairs or the back of the balcony. Just never could quite figure that one out. (I did sit close for several other acts—Quicksilver, Ten Years After, Pink Floyd—that apparently weren’t as in-demand as the Dead.)
The first sign that my affection for the Dead was starting to become borderline obsessive may have been the Saturday morning in December 1970 when I eschewed playing in a semi-final championship game for my intramural basketball team to instead freeze my buns off waiting for hours outside the Capitol Theater in Port Chester to buy tickets for the Dead’s February ’71 shows. (I’m not sure I admitted the truth to my teammates. We won anyway, but lost in the final.)
By the following year, the main place to buy tickets for rock ’n’ roll shows was a department store called John Wanamaker at the Cross-County Shopping Center in Yonkers; definitely not in my neighborhood. It was a staid and proper clothing store, and the well-dressed types who worked there hated it when Dead tickets would go on sale, because suddenly the ticket outlet on the second floor would have a huge line of scruffy hippies lounging around and partying in the store! (I must pause a moment to salute my late mom, who, while I was vacationing in California after graduating from high school, drove all the way to Wanamaker’s, lined up and bought me tickets for the Dead concert at Gaelic Park in the Bronx later that summer of ’71. Thanks, Mom—they played “St. Stephen” and all sorts of other cool stuff!)
When I moved to the Bay Area in the fall of ’73, I was delighted to learn that Bill Graham Presents always put aside a few hundred tickets for every Winterland show, so if you didn’t mind sitting outside for a few hours on show day, you could get into just about any concert. My experiences in New York had made me paranoid enough that I always tried to score tickets on the first day, but there were two or three shows that I did the Winterland Wait for; I don’t think I ever got shut out there.
During the late ’70s and through most of the ’80s, my job working as a writer in the music biz usually meant I could get free press tickets for reserved-seat shows (yes, I know how fortunate I was). But I never lost my fan instincts—I wanted to be up close in clubs or general admission arena shows, so I thought nothing of waiting outside a venue for long stretches in the chilly night air. I think it was the few times I risked life and limb outside Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City in ’72 and ’73 to get up close to the Dead that taught me that a good spot inside is always worth the wait. And I have nothing but fond memories of lining up outside Discount Records on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley waiting for tickets for this or that show to go on sale on Sunday morning (and later on at Tower Records and other outlets). There were always like-minded people to chat with, and it was hilarious when a few big shows would go on sale the same morning—you had Dead Heads and Neil Diamond hardcores and REO Speedwagon fans all mingling together in the line.
As the number of computer ticket outlets increased over time, and eventually included areas way outside the region of the venue, the harder it got to get good seats at your friendly neighborhood record store. Then, when online ticket sales really exploded, suddenly you were competing with people from everywhere, and the whole ticket thing became a total crapshoot.
So here we are now, decades down the line from my first shows in New York City, and about the only ticket-related pleasure I get now is the hour I spend every few months decorating my envelopes to send off to GDTS TOO. I’m not that skilled an artist, but I do put some work into my crude offerings—which usually involve cut-out pictures of the band along with some colorful but not-very-well-executed felt-tip marker designs front and back—and I like to think that perhaps my envelope will jump out at one of the good folks filling ticket orders. (Not that my handiwork would ever be confused with that of the real artists who decorate their envelopes.) The jury is still out on whether this works. I’ve gotten great tickets for a reserved-seat shed like Shoreline Amphitheatre, and I’ve also gotten terrible seats there. (“Was my art that bad?” Sniff, sniff…).
But I like knowing there are still human beings involved with the ticketing, and I’m happy to know that my “service charge” is helping keep some very nice people employed. I also like that a couple of times a year I’m keeping my hard-earned dollars away from Ticketmaster. Because lord knows I’ve already given them sacks of dough through the years. It’s a little victory, but I’ll take one when I can get one.
It was a lot of fun to be buried in Europe '72 for a few months when I was writing those. Now I'm eagerly awaiting my copy of the box, which I have not seen, nor heard...
Y'know, I confess I had no idea who "Derek & the Dominos" were when they popped up on the Capitol marquee and in ads a couple of months earlier. Had I known, I definitely would have gone to see them. I was a major Cream fan and of Clapton in general. But of course one of his things back then was that he didn't want it be "Eric Clapton & the Dominos."