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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NYsteve's picture
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A related note...

One thing that I'm very glad that never happened in our world is commercial sponsoring of tours. While other bands toured with the backing of Budweiser, Miller, Coke, Pepsi or any other corporate entity.....The Dead and any of it's off-shoots always did it on their own. THAT makes me very happy! I can deal with the service charges from the ticket retailers but STILL prefer to deal with GDTS...started with them back in the '80's and they still ROCK!!!

Thank you GDTS & Gypsy Cowgirl!!!! lol

..even a blind man knows when the sun is shinin'...you can feel it!..

jonapi (not verified)
free to do what you tell us

back to the ticket subject:

to be serious for a moment; say, for example, you took some of the larger bands in the "jam" community; The Dead, Phish, String Cheese, Widespread. all of these must have strong business credentials and sharp financial acumen; lawyers, marketing, accountants etc.
wouldn't it be a nice idea if they pooled their resources and invested in some venues, clubs, theatres etc. maybe initially, one on the West Coast, East Coast, Mid-West, North and South and ran it their way? own ticketing system, no idiotic fees or surcharges; first come first served. from the box office. how difficult would that really be? i know Bob & Phil have already made a start with TRI & Terrapin etc. but i'm talking venues here. haven't thought of it or can't be bothered?
now i don't know what a Phish ticket costs these days but i'm guessing it's fairly spectacular. and this links up with my earlier questioning of making a living from music. can the price really justify the rewards, hand on heart? i love Phish, cherish them dearly, but what exactly is the ticket cost paying for? if it's mainly to cover the overheads of the lighting and sound systems and technical/manpower of staging their show, is it worth it? everyone talks about it being the music thats important, so why not reduce?; shave a little of this juggernaut? we can't keep highlighting climate change and economic downturns and environmental concerns and still press ahead with large scale events. i do admire Phish in many ways regarding their more eco-friendly approach to their festivals but......i think it's time for one step further, something with a bit more gravitas. it's staring us in the face and we know it.
all of the above bands have expressed doubt at their scene and organisation getting too big; long gone the days when you could just turn up and play. so, no excuses, just change it. you can if you want to, you know. which makes me think of cosmicbadger's point about maintaining lifestyles; sorry, but it's not my fault you bought a large house/s and a couple cars and wish to keep them. it isn't necessary to have a good life. as i said, i don't begrudge anyone making a living from playing music, but that shouldn't be expected.
i don't feel that the investment in places to play is a pie-in-the-sky idea; why should it be? yes, it would mean a lot of people wouldn't be able to catch them in that venue necessarily but they can maybe see them next time, or go to a different city or, heaven forbid, just do something else. we are showing worrying signs of consuming music and art in ever-increasingly unhealthy ways; we have distorted the real purpose of this beautiful means of communication. turned it into a spectacle. the bands themselves have expressed concern, so naturally, this should lead to a reappraisal.
i'm well aware that some of my most beloved music from the Grateful Dead was created in huge arenas, stadiums and amphitheaters; but we all know that they could've, if they really wanted to, scaled it down to something more manageable and beneficial for performers and audience alike. but they didn't. facts are facts i'm afraid.
it contributes to distraction, destruction and disillusionment; same with String Cheese, same with Phish. (please let it be known i'm only mentioning these bands because they have a relevance to the "scene"; any large band or mid to large group charging ridiculous amounts are just as guilty).
there is no justification for it. no excuses about "well whaddya do?", "that's just the way it is" or worse still, nodding in agreement, furrowing the brow in mock interest, then continuing to sweep it under the carpet. if you don't do something about it, especially when you are in the position of being able to, then you are part of the problem.
there are possible exceptions and mild justifications of course. i guess. marye, you mentioned Zappa which is an important point. he took the money he made and routinely invested it in the latest equipment for the musicians and also funded his own bigger orchestral works; the transcribing and scoring/notation of his work, almost all of which he regularly made huge losses on. although his house looks rather nice, he poured an incredible amount of money and resources into his art, activism and future creativity. how many regular bands we know and love really do that? he was rather a one off, certainly in the "mainstream" world. many other artists do this too, in all fields of music; it's a regular occurrence of course, but lest i mention names that are outside certain others' pedestrian spheres, i shall leave it that. wouldn't want to be deemed condescending by a moron. maybe i couldn't get to sleep at night.

as Bill Hicks said, "i'm just trying to plant seeds, that's all".

jonapi (not verified)
honey don't ya want a man like me

my dear dear estimated-eyes:

your interpretation is entirely up to you, sunshine; we always criticise what we can't understand.
the fact that your knowledge may be fairly limited does not make something or someone "obscure". just means you don't know it exists. there are hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world who know who these artists are, support their music, buy their releases and see them in live performance. i mention these artists in various topics to either highlight a relevant point i'm making or usually in the "what are you listening to now" post because.............that's what i'm listening to.
i have also frequently mentioned Warren Haynes, Allman Brothers, The Band, Gov't Mule, John Coltrane, the GRATEFUL DEAD and many more. not all of us have to check our Dead books to see what's in the band's orbit to inform our choices; the fact that you choose to see this as grandstanding or reeking of condescension or one-upmanship tells me exactly where your head is at; insecure maybe? how you can possibly decide that someone's musical taste or listening habits are only in place to show off or belittle another person's is bizarre. why on earth would set out to impress you? you're not that special, buddy. apologies that i like something you don't like, sorry you haven't heard of it. name drop? don't be an idiot. you need to get out the house more.

the only reason i mentioned Jackie Greene was that Blair did; don't mistake having a different or strong opinion for self-righteousness. two completely different things. i wrote quite clearly that some comments were tongue in cheek; i don't mind the guy. i have some recordings of him with Phil & Friends and the footage i've seen so far of Trigger Hippy (someone should pull a trigger on the arsehole who thought of that name) looks like they have a pretty cool band there.
also, i mentioned Susie Ibarra because that was the first name that came into my head in regards to the day job point; could substitute her with many others. same with the opera; i mean, take your pick of the thousands of other examples i could have given. it was used to highlight the scale of what those dollars could afford. Blair made a post explaining what his tickets cost, ending it with ""Convenience" Charges: $12.50, about half as much as the ticket! Ridiculous!"
that would suggest to me a kinda outrage. and yet he still bought them; why?
you're the one who choose to interpret that as snobbishness. must be a whole bag o' chips located somewhere on your shoulder area no doubt. and for Blair to post back with a knee-jerk response of suggesting opera and "obscure" (to him) jazz as "puh-leeze"; ie, "don't make me laugh" is frankly, cretinous. whether one chooses to like that kinda music, whether it touches one emotionally is entirely up to each individual. but to disregard such music as in some way being without merit? that's the monkey part of the brain working.
i'm surprised that as a music journalist, a little research wasn't in order; again, you may not dig the jazz artists i mentioned but a quick wikipedia scan would've given a little history. the loft scene in New York was massively influential in the rich story of american music. jazz period; from it's origins in congo square to it's emancipation of black citizens to it's influence of improvisation on a certain band we all know and love.
don't like the sound? fine. but don't dismiss it.

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Cubensis - $10

The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue
People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.

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Ticket time and other scams

Tickets were always the worst part of any concert experience, the waiting the wondering where the seats actually were located, the price was high but manageable (1983 - $12.50 per show for the Dead/Greek, minimum wage $2.65)
Music is magic for the whole of humanity, every note makes someone feel something, but I am still ...., I mean, when do we get our turn, they play the 50's and early 60's stuff, they play disco, they play the alternative stuff they play the pop hits from 65 to 75 but the true music is rarely broadcast (only when a station begins do they play the true music then they slowly start sneakin' in the crap> Ex. 1 When was the last time you heard, House Burning Down, or Key To The Highway or You Don't Love Me or Eyes Of The World or Simple Twist Of Fate or Heroes and Villans or Karn Evil 9 or Gate Of Delirium or By-Tor And The Snow Dog or Inside Looking Out or Out On The Tiles or Tripe Face Boogie or Never Been To Spain or Sunshine of Your Love or Dark Star or Lovelight or Viola Lee or Morning Dew or Medicated Goo or Thick as A Brick or Interstellar Overdrive or Saucerful Of Secrets or Victoria or RAT FACED DOG, I mean what the ....
still the business of music continues to plod forward, at least the power to record has been made more available to the masses,
Indie Rock lives (South by Southwest, North by Northwest and many other fine indie fests)

but if you want to have the true experience come on by the PCH club in Long Beach CA on a Friday night and catch Cubensis.

The Sky Was Yellow And The Sun Was Blue
People Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand.

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clarification

of COURSE lawn seats at Merriweather were less than pavilion......but that's an open field vs. reserved seating. No difference anywhere under the roof till the mid-nineties.

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wow, I'm surprised.....

No tiered ticketing in my neck of the woods in the late '70's (when my older brother started seeing shows) or from my first concert in 1980 (Jethro Tull, 8 bucks) through around Steely Dan in '92...this would include Baltimore Civic Center, Landover Capital Center, Merriweather, Spectrum, Hampton and others. Guess I was just lucky.

Not as lucky as ye who got to see The BEATLES, Doors, Jimi, and Zeppelin (which was to be my first concert in '79 if their planned tour hadn't been so tragically removed from possibility).

I remember people in '84 thought it was criminal that the Jacksons tour was $30, and the Stones in '89 was still only $35. Mid-80's Hampton tickets were only ever 13-15 bucks. So the big leap really did occur in the nineties. I'm sure we all remember Glen Frey's "parking included" comment.

I'm really tired of the super-ticket, I'd see so many more artists if prices were reasonable ~ must've been amazing in the 60s & early 70s to see whoever you wanted....which I assume was true even granting six bucks (or $ 3.50!) DID equate to more then than it does now.

I will say, Paul McCartney makes sure you get your hundred dollars' worth ~ and with nothing more than four other rock 'n roll recruits surrounding him.

Anyway, I do think the current state of ticketing is criminal.....but it's true that as a society we put entertainment (including/especially sports) way above healthcare & education.

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I was gonna say

they had tiered pricing when I saw the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964!

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Tiered Ticket Pricing

The first rock concert I went to was The Beatles in 1964 ticket prices were "tiered" with the top price $6.00(I think). Same with Rolling Stones in 1966, Dave Clark Five in 1965. In fact ALL concerts were tiered pricing at reserved seat shows. Jimi Hendrix at the Oakland Coliseum in 1968 $6.00-down to $4.00, earlier that year tickets were all $3.50 at Winterland and he played two 90 minute sets!

If you really want to have even the slightest clue about ticket pricing today you've got to read this book! The latest thing is that the major acts get 100% of the door plus a percentage of the ticket fee's. The promoters mostly get their money from beer, hotdogs, etc. (This is for almost all Live Nation shows, the smaller independent promoters get some of the door...)

Thank you, and Stay In Touch!

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inflation

Interesting comments on how to get tickets unkle sam. If only the world could make it happen. I think it would be amazing to see artists and venues take control and sell tickets via their websites rather than relying on promotors/agents/ticket agencies.

We all write about how much we paid for a ticket in certain year, so I thought about inflation and how it jives with ticket prices today. Using an inflation calculator on the web and to use your example of the Led Zeppelin tickets at $6 in 1973, those tickets should cost $30 today. What would be a comparable band in terms of career track to LZ ca. 1973? And how much are tickets to see that band today-- likely much higher than $30 and probably in the $75-100 range.

As a society, we have put a premium on entertainment at the expense of taking care of more important responsibilities, so ticket prices for most events have gone through the roof. I'll keep from getting political on here, but sometimes I think our national and personal priorities are a bit out of whack.

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