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…
a time to unravel, reduce and redirect.
too much time and money spent on fighting and talk. a major change is needed. why not labels, management and like-minded musical travelers pool their finance and resources and rent/purchase bars, clubs, theatres and land and operate their own system? bypass the current option and reinvent; ignore ticketmaster and forge ahead a new plan of presentation.
maybe shows will not be on the same scale but do we really need that scale anymore? is it necessary for the music to penetrate and alter consciousness? to effect our lives in profound ways; to induce epiphanies and let us transcend. i don't recall John Coltrane or Alla Rakha needing computerised lights or velvet-lined balconies to irrevocably alter our Souls and move the human race ahead a step; Gyuto Monks, Son House, Yabby You, Sun Ra, Olivier Messiaen, Boredoms, Taj Mahal Travellers, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Doc Watson, Nick Drake, Albert Ayler, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Fela Kuti, early Detroit Techno, early Psy-Trance; none needed anything but a space, any space to play and fellow cosmo-nauts to merge Minds and link become One for a duration.
I don't remember the Grateful Dead at the Old Renaissance Faire Grounds requiring anything more than scaffolding, wood and a power supply to bring us Truth. John Butcher and Akio Suzuki engaging with the acoustical properties of caves in Scotland offering more meaning than the vast quantities of bands on any circuit you care to mention.
create our own spaces, our own ticketing practices; slide right outside the established patterns and forge new alliances and relationships. scale it down a bit. think about what's important.
many links are already in place. promoters, managers, artists, writers and music lovers. leave those other venues to the vacuous and the greedy who play for profit not transcendence.
Major labels ruled the roost until people with vision followed through; we started our own labels. we chuckled at the major's monopoly and downloaded (always respect the artist of course).
maybe through such a collective, a space for live performance could be bought and shared in cities in each state.
shake your heads, laugh, walk around and continue on a different path. then watch them bitch and whine.
Isn't funny how one of the Dead's biggest supporters Bill Graham started this whole mess, I mean Ticketmaster was pretty much his baby right?
Oh how I loved to get my SASE in the mail and feel the tickets in the bottom left hand corner of the envelope before I opened it. One thing that was nice too, is they would give you a ticket for another night of the run if your requested night was out. I can't tell you how many times those extras got me into another show later on the tour.
I never got shut out on a mail order, there was a post office in my home town with a 6:00am pick up, so my postmark was always in the initial onslaught.
Oh, and I remember seeing U2 in Madison in 1992 for $35.00. I waited in line the old fashioned way! How I miss that.
How has scalping become legalized? I HATE this. The good tickets are gone before anyone not making $75,000 a year or more has a chance. NFL sanctions scalping, MLB sanctions scalping, the jerks at Stub Hub.
Darn it, now I'm mad. Were is my time machine so I can go back to 1970 and wait in line for some Fillmore tickets?
I'm not a U2 fan, but I have some friends that love them and follow them like I used to follow the Dead. They rarely missed a show. As a gift, I bought them tickets to see a pair of shows in Worcester, Mass. Now we all lived in Los Angeles at the time. I bought the tix, Ticketmaster charged my card, my friends bought their plane tix... But the concert tix didn't show up in the mail. It's about a month before the show and I call Ticketmaster and they claim that I can't have the tix cause I'm out of state. When I challenge that, they tell me it's a rule of U2's. So I make some calls and manage to get to someone in charge of all things U2 and they promise me that U2 has made no such request and that it's all Ticketmaster. I call Ticketmaster back and the woman I speak with relents. I tell her it was a birthday present for friends, they already have plane tickets... She says if I fax her the plane tickets, she'll sell me the U2 tickets. Remember, they've already charged my credit card! Though they claimed they were going to reverse the charges. I fax them the plane tickets and... No response. I call, they put me on hold. Forever. Again and again. I finally get through to the woman and ask her if she is directly ignoring me. She says "Yes." Since that day, I have never bought any tickets through Ticketmaster. I have never been mistreated to that extent by any company (and believe me, I've had my share). My friends flew to the east coast, tried to scalp tickets, didn't get in. Luckily, they caught other shows on the tour, but like we all know, that doesn't change missing the shows you did miss. It's painful. They did reimburse my card for the charges however. Little consolation for the frustration and stress it caused everyone involved. A nasty piece of work, Ticketmaster. This was a number of years ago and things have only gotten worse.
i read bout this a while back, but thanks for a lil more insight than what i read a while back. im curious about the String Cheese episode that turns out better, sorta left us hangin on that.
GDTS practically charges the same prices if not more than ticketmaster, not to mention all the issues lately with it where you dont even know if you'll get a ticket til they are sold out so if u choose to go with GDTS theres a chance you'll get shut out completely for tryin to buy from them. your article makes it sound like the band/fan based ticketing is the way to go, well i dont see it that way, all ticketing is messed up in one way or another, sad to say but its true. doesnt stop me from spending every extra dollar i got seein as many shows as i can,
is there any hope of ticketmaster and such crap changing?
One the great things I remember (and share stories) about Dead shows was getting tickets. The vibes were so great - if you NEEDED a ticket - one would show uo for you.
the only way to fight them is to not buy tickets. the wallet talks, and nothing else.
ask yourself if the the performer is worth supporting a monopoly in order to go to a show.
Or, just keep in mind to add 25% to whatever ticket price there is.
in any case, give 8/10/82 a listen.