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…
Sorry, jonapi, gotta agree with Blair on this-- plenty of self-righteous condescension in your posts. Your posts frequently name-drop numerous obscure jazz or folk artists-- yes, they are obscure. What reason is there to name drop these obscure artists? I have interpreted over time that it represents a holier-than-thou attitude re: having a more open mind than the rest of us, which reeks of condescension. We all have varied musical interests, but this is a Dead blog, so most of us stay with the main thread here-- the Grateful Dead.
And Blair is also correct, there is usually a kernel of truth in your rants. While you may enjoy "The Damnation of Faust," others may enjoy Jackie Greene. As you point out, everybody picks their poison, yet you criticize how other people choose to spend their money. Others may think you are crazy to spend so much money to travel to England to see the opera or, if already there, to spend so much $ on that.
I have been to the opera on several occasions and found it an enjoyable evening, but I wouldn't trade it for a good rock and roll show anyday. Choice between Furthur and "Magic Flute" and Furthur wins every time. Re: Ornette Coleman, he grates on my ears. I bought his breakthrough cd (name anyone?) several years ago, started playing it once and got through maybe 15 minutes before it had to go. Haven't played it since.
But this is way off topic. Boy, do I hate Ticketmaster and their high charges. :)
You make some very interesting points.
I don't really care for Jerry with Ornette, either. ;-)
self-righteous condescension? what on earth are talking about my dear fellow? if you can point out to me where that is i'll be happy to clarify my position for you. i'm guessing you don't make a living from your writing then......!!! tee hee!!
and i'm not asking you to see eye to eye about music; although extremely worrying that you wrote "good music...opera..."obscure" jazz...puh-leeze". opera and jazz not good music eh? jesus christ....
(nothing obscure about those artists by the way; well known in music circles. while you're sucking up to Dead members and their record collection, remember that another world exists out there).
i do recall that you commented on one of my earlier posts regarding free jazz where you said you weren't a fan, does nothing for you, which is perfectly fair enough; something along the lines of "even Ornette Coleman is borderline for me..".
considering that Ornette's body of work contains some of the most coruscating, abstract, sheet-of-noise music out there, you wouldn't just happen to dig him because Jerry played on an album would ya?
it's okay to like something not connected to the Dead you know.
"opera..jazz...puh-leeze" ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!!!!!!!!
cheer up man, it's Friday.
have a good one Blair....
enjoy the Greenester with a complimentary $6.00 budweiser.
...there are a few grains of reason amid the torrent of self-righteous condescension, Jonapi... I'm afraid you and I will never see eye to eye on what good music is... opera...obscure jazz.... puh-leeze. I'll take the bearded guy with a guitar any day...
but to me it can seem like the when the music business whined about people downloading for free after having spent years and vast sums of money on "product" and throwaway garbage; they actively encouraged a whole generation to treat music as something disposable and then wondered why they failed to purchase something that was going to be discarded in a month's time.
the fact that some people are willing to spend nearly $40.00 on an evening of banality; the equivalent of a hollow beard with a guitar that would barely be adequate for an open mic night in a backwoods bar is what keeps Ticketmaster in a position to fleece the general public.
for $10.00 more i was able to get good tickets to see Terry Gilliam's staging of Hector Berlioz's "The Damnation Of Faust" at the English National Opera.
now before you get too pissed off, my above comments are a little tongue in cheek; one man's poison etc. i don't really have anything against Jackie Greene but he is a tad dull for my ears. but i think that by paying that kind of money for such an artist; i mean, 40 DOLLARS!!! that's outrageous to me!! god alone knows what a band like Phish or Widespread Panic charges for an arena show. for two or three tickets worth and you could get a plane ticket to another country and learn something, ya know?
i think it goes to show just how far we've come in our understanding and consumption of music. that tossing away such amounts for relatively little is commonplace and accepted as part of the deal. the very basics.
i do totally understand your point about making a living from live performance; but maybe some of these people should work other jobs. who said that every muppet with a guitar and some songs should be able to live off their output? is that what it's all about now? i remember reading that the drummer Susie Ibarra worked for a long time as a florist while recording and gigging. this is someone who puts a lot back into her community, doing workshops for children and has played with some of jazz giants; William Parker, Matthew Shipp, David S. Ware etc.
and that's just one example. there are a huge number of truly original artists that cannot afford to make a living from music; artists that have changed the musical landscape forever.
now i certainly don't begrudge anyone who can of course; absolutely good luck to them, truly. they are very lucky. but it shouldn't be some kind of god given right.
as i've mentioned before, the world is changing rapidly and a new way to present live music is needed. ticketmaster and other organisations exist because some with more money than sense are willing to fling money in their direction without thinking of the consequences. and i'm not some militant, vegan, corporate bashing, do-gooder who calls for revolution; but facts are facts. for any regular artist to have tickets to their shows costing that amount is borderline obscene. out of their hand probably i'm sure but still.
if we told our grandparents and earlier generations that we spent that amount of money on an average performer they'd be mortified and rightly so. and that's just concerning ticket prices never mind that carbon footprint you speak of. (i wouldn't stress over driving your car across the bay when big shows are dominated by excessive lights, power supply, food vendors and merchandise stalls).
please read that Bob Ostertag link i posted; on a different subject but i feel there are parallels there; the music market has changed and so should live performance.
I pay to see Jackie Greene because I like his music a whole lot I and want to support his art. He does not sell many albums (almost no one does anymore) so performing live is how he survives. I will pay a Ticketmaster fee because I want to see him at the Fillmore, which has a deal with Ticketmaster, and is a great place to see anyone. I could zip across the Bay Bridge and buy tickets at the Fillmore box office and save some (not all) charges, but between time getting over there, gas and toll, I wouldn't save much, and buying online, odious tough it may be, leaves a smaller carbon footprint than me driving to SF.
I'm not going to punish myself by not going. But I am more seelctive about what I go to, certainly.
post the link to the piece jonapi, you idiot.
what was that about mental virus?
a great piece written by musician, historian, journalist Bob Ostertag; one of my favourite artists. about the web's influence on our understanding of music. similar parallels can be drawn, i feel, regarding the need to reassess live performance and it's future presentation; ticketmasturbator should become unnecessary.
and more fool anyone who pays nearly $40.00 for a Jackie Greene ticket; more money than sense. the economic crisis as mental virus rather than wallet depleter.
Okay here is a question that has nothing to do with Ticketmaster...My credit card has been charged for the boxed sets, when shall I expect them?
Thank you, and Stay In Touch!