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…
Out on the road to West Marin...
That is the company Bill Graham was affiliated with. I am looking at a Cal Expo ticket stub from 1989 with a $2.50 service charge.
But I agree with Jackstraw...they know how to sell tickets.
I do not miss:
1) Standing in line. For hours, freezing my tookus off, only to come up empty. There was a Springsteen show where they announced the on-sale time about an hour before to prevent the "camping out" crowd. I was in my car when the announcement was made, drove directly to the outlet, about 20 mi away. 30F and howling wind, I was dressed for getting in and out of my car, not for queueing up for 2 hrs in the weather. I got to the point that I was just hoping to make it inside to warm up, tickets or no. Tickets no, made to within about 20 feet of the door.
2) Standing in line with the lottery. Again, to break the "camping out" crowd. You stand in line and then someone draws a number and THAT becomes the beginning of the line. I once had the person directly in back of me become the first person in line. That made me the last. No tickets.
3) Hitting "redial" over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and so on. Maybe tix, maybe not.
4) Online sales through dial-up connections. One time I got in right away for a stadium show, a 2-night stand, got very decent field seats for night 1, pushed the "buy" button...and waited and waited and the transaction timed out. My cc number was already on file, so they had my money, I said "yes" to seats. Back to the end of the line, like the Ticket Nazi saying "No tickets for YOU!" I ended up with night 2 tickets, last row in the stadium. The video screens were a godsend, but we were so far away that the sound didn't sync with the screens, looked like a badly dubbed movie.
Fortunately, I get to more theatre shows than large venues, and a lot of them use independent ticket agencies for their sales, and they tend to work out quite well...thus avoiding them bastids and seeing some pared-down fees.
For the big places, the TM system works very well. The charges are higher than the face price of tickets used to be (another story entirely, I know). Would I pay that much for the service of avoiding some of my bad ticket experiences of the past? Well, obviously I am, but it isn't exactly what I'm thinking about when I'm looking at the screen screaming, "HOW much???"
I was perplexed a few weeks ago when Furthur changed venues from the Walnut Creek Pavilion to much smaller downtown Raleigh Pavilion. Not only did my seats move up 12 rows, I got a refund of $6 on my cc. Couldn't figure out why for a while, then driving to the show I realized...the first venue had "free" parking, the second had no parking. So I got my parking money back, at least, and spent $5 to park. With that extra $1 I was able to buy 10% of a beer...
those days are still there!
just in the memory, that's all. and we all know how important that can be. inhalation and pass it on. wistful but burning bright. a paper pass to enlightenment!
remember the good old days? SASE in the mail for stanford and the greek. the ticket trip was ritual, followed by the rite of walking into those cool venues.
those days are gone.
Bill Graham had nothing to do with starting Ticketmaster. He can be accused of many things (though I remain one of his biggest fans) but Ticketmaster is not one of them...
gained by queuing all night on the pavement outside the Hammersmith Odeon (London), on a very cold February night back in 1972. Rewarded by centre stage tickets 3d row. No processing charge, just good old first come first served. Can't recall how much it was now - £5? £7 maybe. Happy daze
My first experience with tickertron was back in 1978 for the spectrum shows that May.
A bunch of us waited outside all night in front of this walk-up window. When they finally opened that morning I was the first in line. I then watched the guy behind the glass print out hundreds of tickets and stuff them into a bunch of envelopes for at least 30 minutes. I finally got tickets that were upper level as far from the stage as possible. I did'nt buy tickets again from an outlet until1999 for the Dylan w/ Phil and friends at the Meadowlands where I actually got to the record store right at opening time, walked in and scored VIP general admission tix that put me front row center for the show. My last concert. Dylan was absolutely incredible that night. He did at least four encores. Look up the set list I beleive it was Nov. 13, 1999.
Are the true evil. That's where the scalpers live. That's where scalping has become legalized. TM sucks (people say) because they charge a fee. I don't like paying more $ then I have to but every outlet charges their own fee and I will say this that TM knows how to sell tickets. They have the bandwith to handle literally 10s of 1000s of people at once. Too many times I have been on low rate outlets where their servers crash and you lose out on tix altogether. Come on you know what I mean - did you try buying tix for The Dead in 2009 form Music Today? Don't you remember that fiasco? TM would not have crashed like that. Obviously walking down to the venue and buying tix with no fees is ideal but I'd rather purchase them from my living room. I am not defending their fees but they do their job well - which is sell tickets.
"I won't take your life won't even take a limb just unload my shotgun and take a little skin"
is it worth it, all things considered.
just buying the hard-to-get venues on this upcoming furthur tour has me pissed. I'm only buying those tickets for shows I feel may have the chance to sell out. the rest I'll buy day of the event to avoid service, convenience & electronic delivery fees.
MF Bastards! Fight the power!