Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Ticket Bastards

By Blair Jackson

Ticketmasters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped (ECW Press) is a fascinating and informative book that explains in exhaustive detail how the concert business — and particularly the ticketing side of it — got to its current infuriating state. Is there anybody out there who doesn’t hate ticket companies (Ticketmaster — or “Ticketbastard,” as folks have been calling it for years — being the prime offender), who doesn’t feel cheated and debased every time you buy a ticket? Service fees, facility fees, processing fees, print-at-home fees, hidden parking fees… Suddenly what looked like a bargain ticket for $25 can cost up to 40 bucks! And that’s a cheap show! It’s all spiraled completely out of control over the past couple of decades, and as mere consumers—the people supporting the acts we want to see—we are seemingly powerless to do anything about it. And, of course, the deeper you go you learn it isn’t just the ticketing companies—it’s the promoters, facilities, management companies and bands, too!

Clearly and engagingly written by Relix magazine executive editor Dean Budnick and editor-in-chief Josh Baron, Ticketmasters traces the history of modern ticketing from its humble mid-’60s origins with TRS (Ticket Reservation Systems) and its pioneering work selling tickets for Broadway shows at stores equipped with clunky computer terminals, through the rise of various powerful (and now long gone) regional companies, the first real giant, Ticketron, that company’s long war with onetime upstart (and now despotic king) Ticketmaster, and how changes in the concert production landscape affected ticket prices. Promoters cut deals with the ticket companies, venues cut deals with the ticket companies, bands wanted larger guarantees, big companies gobbled up smaller companies and fashioned exclusivity deals to crush their competition …the deals go on and on, layer upon layer, but it always ends up with higher prices for the fans.

The saga of the ascendancy of Robert F.X. Sillerman and his SFX Entertainment empire—which begat Clear Channel and then Live Nation, now merged with Ticketmaster—is a truly disturbing tale of corporate greed run amok; a modern-day de facto monopoly (venues! tickets! merch!) that has irrevocably altered the face of the touring industry, and not in a good way. (OK, so the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger has so far survived antitrust investigations. It still feels wrong, and it puts too much power in the hands of too few. Of course, that’s the way this misguided country is headed in general.)

It’s an extremely complex story—a web of intrigue, back-biting, occasional good intentions, back-room deals and some out-and-out deceit. The authors take us into secret high-level meetings where deals were brokered, congressional hearings where our legislators preened and lectured and then usually decided nothing, and they methodically show us how the whole scandalous story evolved. Budnick and Baron are careful to let all the players speak their minds and tell their side of each story, and the writers generally steer clear of making critical judgments about the various episodes they recount. They were our eyes and ears as the story unfolds —always seeking to uncover more information about the inner workings of the maddening and mysterious industry. There might be more detail in this book than some people need, but I found it quite gripping and not without humor—after all, with all these blustering, over-amped, type-A personalities battling each other, there’s going to be a certain level of pathetic buffoonery.

Budnick and Baron are both fans of the Grateful Dead, and they devote a marvelous chapter to the Dead’s long history handling much of their own ticketing. Titled “A Bunch of Wooly Freaks,” after Bob Weir’s description of the good hippies over at GDTS (Grateful Dead Ticket Sales), the chapter describes how the organization grew to be so efficient yet stay so humane, the actual mechanics of the operation, some of the colorful folks who populated the staff (lots of Dead “family”), and their own giant battle with Ticketmaster, which was upset that the Dead routinely asked for and got 50 percent of the tickets for their gigs to sell themselves. Ticketmaster said this violated contracts they had with certain facilities and promoters (true) and that it would set a terrible precedent if allowed to continue. But in the end, after a heated meeting dominated by Ticketmaster’s Evil Emperor, Fred Rosen, and the Dead’s sharp legal eagle, Hal Kant, the Dead emerged mostly victorious — they did agree to allow Ticketmaster to maintain a larger percentage of tickets for stadium and amphitheater shows, but held onto their 50 percent for the other concerts. Yay!

The “Dead exception” that Ticketmaster agreed to (in part because the Dead were such a reliable and successful client year after year), led to other imbroglios. In 1995, Pearl Jam, who a year earlier had been unsuccessful negotiating with Ticketmaster for more fan-friendly ticketing, decided to try to mount their own tour completely outside of venues that had deals with Ticketmaster (i.e., most of the big ones). The band patched together an odd schedule of motley venues, but eventually it unraveled mid-tour. Publicly the band laid most of the blame on the difficulties of working outside the system, but Budnick and Baron reveal that the main problem with the tour stemmed from Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder’s complex physical and emotional issues, and were only partially related to the group's public battle with Ticketmaster. Still, the Pearl Jam fight is part of what led to the first congressional hearings on Ticketmaster’s alleged monopoly over ticketing, and it is an instructive cautionary tale of what usually happens when David battles Goliath. Another episode, involving String Cheese Incident, turns out much better.

The book deals in depth with the issue of fan club ticket allotments, the rise of VIP ticket packages and the battle against scalpers—and the disgraceful legal scalping that is epidemic now through numerous resale websites, including Ticketmaster’s own! It ends darkly by touching on the latest threat to low ticket costs: so-called “dynamic pricing.” This scam has already burned me a few times in my attempts to buy tickets for San Francisco Giants games: Prices (usually) rise as game day approaches, to the point where I paid $31 for standing room at one game, through the team’s site, not Stubhub or other scalp sites. Two years ago, a standing room ticket was $11 and remained at that price until game time.

Don’t get me started! I’ve got a lifetime of good and bad ticket experiences behind me, and I’ll get into a few of those next week. For now, though, if you have any tales you’d like tell about tix, the floor is officially open…

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unkle sam's picture
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Joined: Oct 3 2008
50 to 100

What a ripoff, I wouldn't pay 50 to 100 bucks to see anybody, period. Just saw DSO last month and it was 25, no parking fees, no other fees, and they played for 3 and a half hours.
What really gets me is how much of that does the artist get? with fees for this and that and venues cut and promoter cut, sure doesn't sound like the artist gets much. Yet just yesterday SCI sold out in 20 mins, how can one afford to go to shows with cost that high? The days of catching a fall or spring tour (every show) are long gone, unless, you're a millionaire.
I think it should all go back to the old days, let the band print up their own tickets, sell them at the door or online through the bands web site, printable versions, or just take cash at the door and stamp everyone's hand, therefore no ticket needed at all, first come, first serve, no more than 1 ticket per purchase, make it so if you want to see the show, you've got to show up to buy your ticket, presales yes but only a month or so before the show, not three months or more and then, only one at a time, make it hard for a scalper to get more than one ticket.. Obviously there is a huge demand for live entertainment and as long as the demand is there, the sky's the limit for price.
I'm not advocating boycott of acts/bands, but how much is too much? 50 to 100 is too much for me. Thank the stars for file sharing and etree etc...
Saw Led Zepplin in 73 for 6 bucks, Pink Floyd the same year for the same, 6 bucks. So, do the math, that means that the concert goer's buck in 73 is now worth a dime in 11, man, talk about inflation.

gratefaldean's picture
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Joined: Jun 22 2007
Tiered pricing

I was just checking out prices for Todd Snider at a local, recently re-opened club (yay, Ziggy's!): $20; or $50 for "Gold Circle" tickets.

In a club? $30 extra for a private bathroom and a clear shot to the bar? For Todd Snider (and I love Todd Snider!)?? Uh, no thanks. It'll be interesting to see how large this area is (supposed to be 100 tickets, but what if they only sell 25?) and how many tix get sold...

cosmicbadger's picture
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Joined: Jun 13 2007
the price of file sharing?

Even before the extras added by the various agents tickets for major acts are absurdly high.
Most bands used to tour at a loss (subsidised by record companies) to promote albums. (Two of the few major bands that actually lived off touring were Zappa and of course the GOGD).

It seems that many veteran acts are now being forced out on to the road because they no longer make enough from their back catalogues and indifferent new releases to maintain their lifestyles. File sharing/piracy is, I suspect, a major reason for this. So you get the music for free and pay crazy money for one last chance to see your favourite acts live.. $100 for Tom Petty..crazy. Van Morrison's latest UK tour costs £100 for a front row seat ($160)!!. And I just saw that Glen Campbell is touring the UK even though he has moderate Alzheimer's. Brave or desperate?

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Joined: Jun 6 2007
Tiered pricing...

...is nothing new. At my first-ever concert--The Doors at Madison Square Garden in the winter of 1969--top ticket was $6.50 for the closest seats (a lot for the time) and I was in $6.00 seats a little futher back. I think it was $5.00 up in the boonies...
Tom Petty (who I do love) charged over $100 for most seats on his last trek through here; not exactly the people's friend these days...

antonjo's picture
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Joined: Jun 4 2007
by the way

I got to see Ornette Coleman play a couple years ago. One of the most face-melting performances I'll ever see. My friends and I are still trying to make sense of what we witnessed. Incredible.

antonjo's picture
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Joined: Jun 4 2007
marye......

Gotta say, I'd trade the incredible convenience of online presales in a heartbeat to return to the days of parking lot camping for tickets. Then, at least, the most dedicated fans got the best seats. And that was fair.

At some point, ticket sellers switched to lotteries, no matter who was first in line.....and that was the beginning of the end.

Then one year (I wanna say '92 or '93) Rod Stewart brought his show to town and ~ WHAT'S THIS? ~ charged tiered pricing: more money for the good seats. Completely preposterous. UNHEARD OF for a rock show.

A year later, half the rock acts were doing it, and all these years later it's long since been the norm. Hats off to Tom Petty (whose music doesn't move me much personally) for refusing this policy last time he came to the Rose Garden in Portland. He said he wanted his fans to have the first five rows, not corporations. Hear hear!

Another GREAT benefit of online ticketing, though ~ there's a record of your purchase, and it can be replaced. A few years ago, a phone service man stole my pair of Who tickets out of my bedroom drawer. A quick call to customer service, and those were deactivated and new ones sent to me. Never could've happened 20 years ago. Would love to have seen that guy's face when he was turned away at the door ; )

Gypsy Cowgirl's picture
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Joined: Aug 14 2007
"Enough with the pissing match!"

that's right, smarcus....just a "hippie cowgirl"........:)))

smarcus's picture
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Joined: May 20 2010
We didn't hire no cowgirls!

We didn't hire no cowgirls at GDTS!!! ;-)

Thank you, and Stay In Touch!

Gypsy Cowgirl's picture
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Joined: Aug 14 2007
Lamagonzo......

that is too funny.......& to quote Blair's article "after Bob Weir’s description of the good hippies over at GDTS" thank God, I was one of them.....being the only cowgirl of course......:)))

lamagonzo (not verified)
Enough with the pissing match!

Both Jonapi and Mr..Blair bring certain things to the table. And each has cojones.

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