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…
I thought it was "Sales" but presumed the authors had gotten it right! Oh, well. Steve, I thought you came off very well in the book. As did all the Dead folks...
I've fixed it now...
Also, Bill Graham had nothing to do with Ticketmaster. His only official connection with BASS was that he committed to using them for every show and in many cases exclusively.
He really disliked Ticketron (not Ticketmaster) that much.
Thank you, and Stay In Touch!
A point for Blair, the name of the organization was Grateful Dead Ticket Sales NOT Service! For some reason Dean changed the name in his book...(and you, Blair, of all people should know this!) @ Grateful_Deadhead, you must be talking about GDTSTOO, not GDTS because when GDTS was in operation (1983-1995) our top service charge was $2.50 a ticket plus the post office fee for a money order which was $1.00. At that point the Ticketmaster charge was at least $3.50 per ticket plus a per order charge over the phone which was more than GDTS...Also with GDTS 99% of the time your tickets or unfilled order came back BEFORE the outlet onsale date.
To all of you who did use Grateful Dead Ticket Sales, thank you very much and Stay in touch!
Steven Marcus, manager GDTS 1983-1996, voice of the mail order hotline (1988-1998) voice of the official Grateful Dead hotlines (1991-1998)
Intersperse the hired hands through the line to increase the odds of getting near the front. I did that with a group of friends once, and spread across 2 or 3 outlets, worked out pretty well, actually.
Too funny GDean! No tickets for you, but plenty for the scalpers.
In '91 I met up with people paid by the scalpers to wait in line -- paid well!!
about how we used to spend the nights on the sidewalk outside of BASS in downtown Oakland in the depth of winter in the days before GDTS. Probably for Oakland Aud tickets before it was Henry J, or maybe the first Frost? Camping, Deadhead style. I came to it fairly late, but it was pretty clear there were people who had been doing this for years, and I bet they were even happier than I was not to have to freeze all the time.
Though I also seem to recall that we had it organized in shifts, and that people would periodically show up with provisions and encouragement.
I've purchased hundreds of tickets over the last 30 years, the vast majority through TM. I have to admit I am always relieved to hear that TM is handling the ticketing. I can't think of one mishap from TM in all that time, and plenty of problems I've had with the other options. They charge a little more, but not too much more, in my experience. It's worth it to me for the piece of mind. I hate the idea of patronizing huge mega-corporations, but, hey, sometimes they do a good job- so do Wendy's, Motel 6, etc, etc....it's a dilemma
Always seemed to be my sister-in-law's successes. She'd go to the ticket outlet in Bangor, ME to buy tickets for Boston-area shows. First in line, usually the only person in line. That worked out quite well, many excellent seats, while it lasted. That particular Filene's was getting shaky towards the end, though. The tickets their machine printed kept getting fainter and harder and harder to read (time to replace the ink, maybe? C'mon!). There was one set that was so hard to read that I was not entirely sure of what our seat numbers were. I was sweating it that we wouldn't get in the door. Fortunately, that was well before bar code scanners were used, and we talked our way in...
This sounds like an interesting read, Blair. I didn't even know this book was out there. Personally, I try to avoid TM as much as possible, but sometimes using their services is unavoidable. As others point out, the fees are terrible, but they do their job well overall. I was wondering about that new system of "dynamic" pricing. Sounds like a terrible deal unless a team is doing poorly and need to give tickets away.
I had varying degrees of success with ticket purchasing from Ticketron/Ticketmaster outlets in the late 1980s and 1990s. As a Wisconsinite, Alpine was my favorite venue, but I never, ever could score tickets in the pavillion. Two times I was second in line (both times ran into an old buddy, too) and could only get lawn tickets to Clapton (1988) and the Dead (1989). Will say this, at least I got all three nights to Alpine 89. Lawn was better than nothing obviously. Tickets at that time, I believe were $16.50!
Success stories also-- second in line got me 10th row Clapton in 1993 and I even did well with a lottery for Dylan tickets in 1999. That lottery for Dylan was interesting-- I was first in line for the lottery and the guy behind me is the lucky one. He went first and the rest let me be 2nd-- they deemed it wasn't quite fair to send me to the back of the line. Got me 2nd row for an excellent show (he had an amazing band at that time, still does).
...tickets for Jackie Greene at the Fillmore this morning from TM: Face value: $25.50. "Convenience" Charges: $12.50, about half as much as the ticket! Ridiculous!