Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - More Ticket Tales

By Blair Jackson

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—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.)

Here’s a show I went to;
not my stub, however.
Can’t remember where
I bought my ticket.

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…).

From the GDTS TOO website: Definitely not one of my envelopes, sad to say…

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.


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Joined: Nov 2 2010
blair, i think i was trying

blair, i think i was trying to buy tickets to phish's comeback shows at the hampton coliseum around the same time that you thought you scored great tickets to see bruce. i was not toyed with as bad as you though in that i never even got "in," i was stuck in the god-awful "your wait time is fifteen minutes" screen, but as i was waiting in that screen knowing that the tickets to all three nights were being sold out as the seconds ticked by, i got a great view of the advertisement which took up a third of the screen for ticketmaster's "tickets now," resale website. The ad read something along the lines of "can't get the tickets you're looking for? come to ticketsnow for tickets to all major concerts, sporting events, broadway musicals, minor league hockey games, and underground chicken fights," or words to that effect. It felt like ticketmaster was laughing in my face. Well, i was right, the shows had all sold out in the fifteen minutes i had to wait. i never even stood a chance.
what i didn't realize at the time, but came to soon after is that the reason i didn't really stand a chance was because i wasn't just competing with fans for these tickets on my home pc, i was competing with the countless ticket resale companies that have sprung up in this internet age. Companies that had many computers that were far more powerful then mine to jam the system and scoop up as many tickets as possible, sometimes seemingly all of them. The more i thought about it the more outrageous it seemed. i am not old enough to remember concert ticket buying in the seventies, or the eighties even, but i do remember waiting in lines at tower records, hoping to get a bracelet that guaranteed you were one of the first one hundred people to buy tickets, and all the wonderful nervous anticipation that went along with that. It didn't suck any less to get shut out, but at least you felt like you had a fighting chance.
I understand that scalping has existed forever, and i understand that the internet has changed the game in the way of allowing people much greater access to sell the tickets they bought to someone who is willing to pay more money for them. i can't see the legalizing of companies whose sole goal is to buy up as many tickets to as many events as possible and then resell them to the public at a higher price with fees that will make you beg for "ticket-bastard" surcharges, as the answer. especially in this digital age where a company with some money's advantage is just insurmountable to the average ticket buyer. it all actually gets worse when you realize that there are some bands who will hold blocks of tickets to sell directly to the resale companies because they realize they're losing money in ticket sales by stupidly giving them all to ticketmaster/livenation. did i mention this infuriates me? I can understand how the mtv, pop-rock, radio crap music, bands that dominate our mainstream radio could allow themselves to practice something like that, as they've all sold out long ago and are fake anyway, but it's a practice i must think that any band with a loyal following that they can depend on would detest.

what's the answer? i don't know. the only thing i can think of is for bands like furthur, and phish, and others that have their own direct sales to their fans to demand a greater share of the tickets for them to sell directly to their fans, so at least the band may have a modicum of control over the end price.
ultimately for now i'm left with a "you can't fight city hall" feeling on this one, and if i'm forced to, i'll suck it up and go through a broker if it's a show i am dying to see. i've only done it a handful of times so far and each time it had been worth it - the dead at msg in '09, and furthur at radio city for two years running in the winter/spring...being in the buliding those nights was worth more then money.
small solace is that i am starting to notice at both phish and furthur shows the declining prescence of overpriced tickets. it's as if the ticket re-salers are realizing how many extra tickets are showing up on the lots and for how cheap they're being sold - it's enough to make you feel bad about having paid full price every now and again. there are moments where this form of unbridled captialism is running aground due to the sheer good nature of good people.

i know this is getting long, but one more quick story if you'll allow it...phish has obviously learned a lot from the grateful dead handbook, both musically and business-wise...phish has a mail order ticket lotto for their fans, they've always had mail order, now it's just electronic. anyway, after the horrible experience of trying to buy tickets to the hampton shows, or to the shows from their tour that summer in '09, we tried again in the fall. my friend won FRONT ROW tickets to two shows within ten days, two for a show at the wachovia center in philadelphia right before thanksgiving, and four for a friday night show at msg in early december. we literally hit the phish lotto. whether or not that was a glicth in the phish ticket lotto system, i don't care...two nights i'll never forget.

sorry for rambling, thanks for the time, as always blair, great blogs.

smarcus's picture
Joined: May 20 2010
GDTS and GDTSTOO are NOT the same!!!

@iceninedog, the original GDTS (Grateful Dead Ticket Sales) operated from February 1983 until March of 1996, and handled only Grateful Dead concerts and a few special benefit concerts....GDTSTOO, Inc. (we were NOT allowed to refer to us as Grateful Dead ANYTHING by the lawyers) Formed in April of 1996. This means that ANY mail order tickets you got for Grateful Dead shows were from GDTS NOT GDTSTOO!

@blairj, in the early 1970's the assistant manager of Discount Records in Berkeley was Hale Milgrim, who went on to become President of Capitol Records from 1988-1991...

Concerning concert holds, I can only talk about Grateful Dead holds when I used to allot them in the last few years of Grateful Dead...My/the band's policy was to not to hold any tickets in the first ten rows of Arena/Shed shows. and nothing in the first 15 rows for stadium shows. and then we would hold about ten rows for all the various holds: band, promoter, building, record label, promotional stuff and sometimes even Ticketmaster holds for their employee's. Depending on the show there could be as many as 2,000 holds for reserved seat shows...starting in 1991 at many shows I would go into the audience and ask where the person got their tickets. About 85-90% of the people with GDTS tickets said they got them from GDTS. The rest got them from friends and a few from scalpers (in my mind there is no such thing as a "broker" they are all scalper scum...) Of the Ticketmaster tickets about 85-90% bought them from scalpers.
(I am talking about the seats in the first 10-15 rows...

Thank you, and Stay In Touch!

Joined: Jun 6 2007
If 2011 is the good old days...

... we're in big trouble!

jonapi (not verified)
i love me some '84!

yeah, it's true Mike! some of us will be looking back at Sept 2011 and saying how good we had it!!

and wouldn't that be a crying shame.

Mike Edwards's picture
Joined: Jun 17 2007
Day of Show

In the fall of 1984, I showed up at the Worcester Centrum without tickets the first day of the run. It was about 10 in the morning when I arrived, so, on a whim, I decided to try the box office. I ended up with 3rd row on Jerry's side the first night, which was a smoker with Iko opening the first set and Terrapin the second, and I was about 20 rows back the second night, where we got a Help > Slip > Franklin's > Jack Straw > He's Gone > Smokestack for the second set before drums. After that, it was onto Augusta, Maine, where I wasn't so fortunate, but still managed to get tickets at face value in the parking lot for both shows, but if I had a point to make here, it was this: sometimes nostalgia is all that it's cracked up to be.

jonapi (not verified)
pyramid pulsations

yeah, they really should've; loved reading in Phil's book about he & Jerry climbing Glastonbury Tor and visiting Stonehenge/Avebury.
one of the most disappointing attractions now, for anyone thinking of visiting; railed in, crappy kiosks; distinctly un-spiritual.
Dark Star as the sun set? Drums/Space as the night draws in and the mushrooms making the countryside glow? unequivocally "yes please"!
oh well, it happened in my head, anyhow.....

cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
standing on the corner

well I am sure my plight was very amusing to you skanky regular Oxford Circus dealers selling your bags of oregano and oven cleaner to hapless tourists.

Every year there were rumours that the Dead would play Glastonbury. One year apparently Michael Eavis even went to California and signed them up only for them to pull out. But it was never to be..shame because it was somewhere they should have played. Gong, Steve Hillage, Tim Blake's Crystal Machine, Hawkwind were indeed some compensation..

jonapi (not verified)
young ruffian

yeah, i remember you; shifty eyes, incoherent, puddle forming around the shoes as the fuzz emptied your pockets. hadn't laughed so hard for years.....

heh heh!
yeah, London policemen in the mid-seventies not all that friendly; truncheons for the express purpose of breaking black heads. rather unpleasant.
good story though; didn't know about those shows. would've been mighty fine though. nice lineup.
as Mickey said, "well...Bill was wrong about a lot of things..."!!
heard that was the reason Bill was ruled out of promoting the Egypt shows as he wanted to bring along Santana; tried and again and still failed ha ha!
would loved to have seen the Dead at those early Glastonbury festivals; still, Gong more than made up for it!

cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
smiling on a cloudy day

1976. And it is announced that the Grateful Dead are going to be playing at Wembley Stadium with Santana and NRPS in a huge event in August called ‘Greetings from San Francisco’. I will be my first chance to see the Dead! The only way to guarantee getting good tickets was to go to London to buy them. So 16 year old badger collects the cash from a bunch of friends and heads on the train from his small country town to London. If you know Oxford Circus underground station in London you will know that it has many exits. I did not then know the area well and I spent a while wandering round and up and down stairs and streets trying to find Shaftesbury Avenue. As I am standing in the street looking this way and that I am suddenly grabbed from behind and surrounded by four guys in jeans and sweatshirts and shoved up against the wall. A warrant card is shoved in my face. POLICE.
“We’ve been watching you hanging around here” they say “what are you selling?”
“ Nothing” I say, totally freaked out.
I am forced to turn out my pockets
“ Where’s all this money from then” a cop announces triumphantly waving the ticket money in my face
“I’m going to buy some concert tickets” I say
“Who for”
“The Grateful Dead”
“ Never heard of ‘em. Stop lying to us son and tell us where the stuff is”
Now a crowd of people is gathering. They are told to move on while my interrogation continues and every pocket and even my shoes are searched in the street.
After 15 minutes of interrogation and searching I am released and told not to hang around there again. Bastards. It is my first encounter with the heavy side of policing and I am shaking like a leaf. I finally make my way to Shaftesbury Avenue and get the precious tickets. It’s all been worthwhile because at last we are going to see the Dead.
A few weeks later the show is cancelled. Bill Graham and Harvey Goldsmith were overambitious thinking they could sell 80,000 tickets. After another cancellation in 1978 it was not until March 81 that they finally came. Of course I sent back all those unused tickets from 76 and 78 for refunds. I guess they would be worth a lot now.

jonapi (not verified)

well, if you're foolish enough to see Springsteen............

only kidding!!!! ha ha!! only joking my good man!!!

yeah, i guess we don't know the half of it regarding tickets put aside and vip nonsense; i remember having a similar experience when Tom Waits announced his first UK shows in many a moon. 2003/4?? absolutely no purchasing or any other deals until a particular day; even had other friends on the phone bombarding the ticket office before it opened, right up until the clock struck 9.00am just in case. amazingly got put through, only to be told that seats in Row Z at the back of the balcony were all that's left; a mere snip at £120.00!!!!

one of the reasons why big shows just don't appeal anymore; terribly sad as i love some of these artists but i'm just not prepared to waste that kinda money. last stadium show i went to was Rolling Stones in '95 i think, at the old Wembley Stadium. kinda ok i guess; the main reason anyone would go see them being Charlie and Keith of course. great to hear the songs i grew up with; big staging etc. great view even, fairly near the front on the floor. but worth paying for? absolutely NO WAY!!!! luckily, mine were free tickets.
and agree regarding complimentary tickets/guest list, blair; i feel the same way. i'm involved in music and can get freebies sometimes but i just don't feel comfortable really. much prefer to be selective and pay for it. if someone's creating real art, i want to pay for it.
so that's why i generally stick to smaller venues; the vast majority of artists i'm interested in aren't associated with arenas and stadiums. and if they were? well, i can live without seeing them.
Japan is even worse!! even for a relatively low key foreign artist, you were looking at £40.00 for a real small club show. and you have to pay a drinks surcharge.....even if you don't want a drink!


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