The Ballad of Lefty Pitdweller and the Ticket Master

ticketmaster springsteen

NOTE: What follows is a long, winding, bumpy, and circular road, even for this blog. Caveat reador.

My relationship with Ticketmaster – the nefarious online concert access cartel – has been a long and contentious one, though never particularly complicated. My feelings on the subject are not at all mixed but, rather, pure as the driven snow. Ticketmaster stands not just in mere ideological opposition to me. It vexes me, tweaks me with purpose and zeal, and does just about everything during our regular, uncomfortable interactions but spit in my eye. It is my rival, my enemy, my nemesis, and the bane of my concert going existence, which has otherwise brought me so much joy, both fleeting and lasting, and memories built for a lifetime’s contented recollection. Ticketmaster is the sleazy, self-satisfied, and avaricious gatekeeper without whose help/leave I, admittedly, would probably have missed out on a solid 30% or more of the many, many, many concerts I have attended over the last fifteen years or more, though suffice it to say that I have paid – early, often, repeatedly, severely – for the privilege. Our true origin story – which, whether or not I realize it, was likely written well before then – mercifully eludes me now, but our ongoing business relationship has become such a by turns depressing and infuriating fact of life that, though one does exist, I now have to strain mightily to even recall a world without Ticketmaster. It was surely a far simpler time.

But enough pleasantries.

A grassroots, of/by/for the people band that never allowed runaway success to obscure its populist priorities, Seattle grunge institution Pearl Jam, then at the height of its popularity and influence, took Ticketmaster to federal court in 1994, claiming the agency was a functional monopoly that exercised unreasonable, oppressive control over the larger concert brokering industry. As a budding, unseasoned young concertgoer, I followed the case with some interest but limited understanding. At the time, I had not yet slipped the surly bonds of my small-town Tennessee orbit, or even begun using the then-nascent internet as anything beyond a novelty timekiller. This had two practical effects – first, area concerts of any real note or importance were vanishingly few, and, second, when the time did come, I was generally able to secure tickets directly from the box office over the phone, or, more often, by visiting a local music store. I had barely even heard of Ticketmaster and had certainly never been party to the extraction of one of its infamous “pound of flesh” per ticket service charges. I therefore have no reliable way to relate what those charges might’ve looked or felt like in the mid-‘90s, though Pearl Jam, a band that, if sufficiently motivated, could’ve set its own astronomical ticket prices with impunity, was outraged enough on behalf of its fans to make me think they weren’t exactly a mild ocean breeze. The Justice Department would abandon its investigation into Ticketmaster in 1995, frustrating band and fans alike, and relegating the episode to the dustbin containing other notable heroic but doomed principled stands throughout history.

I spent much of the remainder of the ‘90s obliviously purchasing my tickets from local CD stores whenever I worried shows might sell out, or, on those rare occasions where reserved seating made timing of the essence, camping out overnight at stores in anticipation of the on sale rush. For example, I was first on line to see Tori Amos at Knoxville’s Bijou Theater in 1997, and approximately tenth to see Pearl Jam (small world) at Thompson-Boling Arena in 1998. Like any reputable gangster, I have no doubt that Ticketmaster got at least a taste of the majority of all those transactions, but the pre-internet degree of difficulty involved in procuring tickets, not to mention a general lack of pricing transparency, kept me comfortably in the dark. Even then, I knew intrinsically that fees of some sort were involved. My modus operandi was always to, whenever possible, purchase tickets directly from the venue at the show itself, reasoning that even if I was paying slightly extra in “day of show” prices, I was also foregoing at least some of the associated broker fees. As the years progressed, as I went from being a veteran of a dozen shows to a hundred, to two, to steadily and increasingly more, as I moved from a town of 60K in Northeast Tennessee to the bustling capitol of Ohio, I found myself inundated with exciting new opportunities. Concerts went from being a quarterly treat to an indispensable feature of daily life.

My 1994, with a then unprecedented dozen rock solid shows, was bookended by road trips into the heart of North Carolina for what still stand as two of the best concerts I ever saw – Rush supporting its terrific album Counterparts, and nine inch nails on the legendary “Self Destruct” tour. By contrast, I saw twelve shows in August of 2000 alone, all in Ohio, and only one that was more than thirty minutes out of town. For a voracious music lover who’d grown up geographically sheltered, Columbus was the land of milk and honey. I had the good fortune in those lean, early, transitional years, during which my ratio of income to expense fell right in line with your average sixteen-year-old, to be a fan of heavy metal, though I nevertheless found myself getting progressively touchier and irritated over Ticketmaster’s invasive business practices the more exposure to them I gained. Those days comprised for me a basic primer on the economics of concert going. Basically, there are small bands and large, just as there are small venues and large, with, in both respects, many points wedged in between. You ideally want to keep your operation as low key as possible – smaller artists + smaller venus = affordable tickets – and, in so doing, expand theoretically both your musical palette and sphere of opportunity, neither going broke nor accumulating massive credit card debt in the bargain.* This battle plan even neatly accommodates the occasional big show. Over the course of fifteen+ Ticketmaster-abetted years in Ohio, I didn’t just stick to small game. I saw my own personal great white concert whale, The Dave Matthews Band, thirty times if I saw it once. I saw Rush seven times in a variety of large venues. I saw multiple Iron Maiden amphitheater shows and each time thought I was in heaven. I saw The Rolling Stones, Foo Fighters, and Eminem (separately, of course). I saw Springsteen sell out Cleveland’s Gund Arena for a 3-hour 2004 political fundraiser turned full-on rock and roll tent revival. R.E.M. opened.

*Much of any credit card burden I’ve ever carried is, of course, directly attributable to my insatiable hunger for live music. Apparently determined to go big before going home, I charged the aforementioned NIN show to my college “training wheels” card, because – and this logic has served me (well?) ever since – I simply wasn’t going to NOT see that show. I still remember my mother, who co-signed for the card, looking over the statement, sighing deeply, and saying, simply, “I hope you know what you’re doing.” Twenty+ years later, and the reality reflected in those words is obviously open to all kinds of interpretation.

There is no such thing as a “small show” in Ticketmaster’s eyes, however. Its prickly service charges are basically written in blood, cast in stone, and utterly non-negotiable, unless, of course, the trending direction in question is “up.” Ticketmaster’s fee structure, as a matter of course, grafts a service charge of at least $7 and likely more onto each individual ticket, then tacks another few dollars onto the entire order for “Convenience.”** That may seem like nothing, but a baseline $10 surcharge per order still adds up. Say you see ten shows a year (weakling). Well, ten single tickets will cost you all their arguably already inflated face value, plus an extra $100 just for playing, and that’s just if the fee levels, which are regularly given to wild, stock market-like fluctuation, choose to play nice. Whether or not you believe it, many more people want to see the Dave Matthews Band live than can comfortably afford to. The proletariat/bourgeois (depending on your viewpoint) must thus be weeded (i.e. priced) out, lest an amphitheater show like the one I saw (and wrote about) recently in Cincinnati risk devolving into an undervalued, overcrowded waking nightmare. Now, I understand why Matthews and his cohorts charge what they do, more or less. They bring a titanic backdrop of lights and LEDs to augment their terrific 150 or so nightly minutes on stage. Despite multiple logistical issues and a healthy touch of rain, I had a spectacular time in Cincinnati, as I do at most all DMB shows. No number of outside factors, however, can account for the reason why my single pavilion ticket with an already wince-inducing face price of $71.50 should’ve somehow ballooned to a patently absurd $94 by the time I was done with purchase.

**Local independent radio station CD102.5 occasionally throws its listeners a giant bone in the guise of a “Low Dough” show, a concert by a then up-and-coming alternative or indie rock act in a bigger room than perhaps they’re used to, one invariably filled to the brim thanks to the frigging amazing $5 base ticket price. Many bands once granted this treatment have since moved on to much bigger and better things. I personally saw Flogging Molly, J. Roddy Walston & The Business, and Muse each headline their own Low Dough show, and, because they were all sure sell outs, paid approximately $15 apiece for the $5 privilege through Ticketmaster. This isn’t even meant as a complaint, just an anecdote. It would hardly be the last comic disparity/juxtaposition between something that somebody offered and what Ticketmaster actually delivered.

It’s little things like that, computerized throwaway gestures from a giant, soulless company that sees its customers as beneath contempt, that make me crazy.*** For over fifteen years, those personal slights have accumulated, even as Ticketmaster’s general indispensability to concert goers has unfortunately grown and its catbird position has solidified into a bronze monument. I’ve never been happier that my abiding love remains underground heavy metal (and, increasingly, indie rock) and not arena-filling pop, though even smaller shows are selling out with troubling regularity in recent years, in effect forcing consumer hands toward Ticketmaster. That’s part of the trade-off, I suppose, in moving from seeing wonderful but obscure artists in charming holes in the wall in remote Southern communities of 60,000 to seeing those same bands in equally challenging venues in a city whose combined population pushes 2 million. There’s little use denying that Ticketmaster is, indeed, convenient, or at least in those cases where the service works like you want it to. Unlike some, I wait for onsale times with bated breath, and tend to pounce on shows that I have reason whatsoever to worry over. That said, I’ve still often felt, at the end of the white-knuckle online ordeal, lucky to get a passable ticket at all, and have been frozen out altogether on several occasions, including three times now (and counting) as I’ve attempted to cash in my Schlesinger vouchers. “Wait, what are those?” I can practically hear you asking…or, rather, I would, if I knew anyone who hadn’t already been burned or at least philosophically disappointed by one.

***Since a single, fairly benevolent corporation owns four of its most prominent concert venues, I find myself making a pilgrimage to Columbus’ Arena District a couple times a year for the distinct pleasure of cheating the system by ordering tickets in bulk from an automated kiosk. Seriously, Columbians, if your show is at EXPRESS Live, the Newport Music Hall, The Basement, or the A&R Music Bar, run to the EXPRESS box office, don’t walk. You’ll save at least $5 per ticket over the same product from Ticketmaster. It’s a little unseemly how pleased I am with myself on those occasions when I walk away with, say, five tickets at a combined $40 in savings. It’s gotten to the point that it’s not even about saving money so much as it is sticking it to Ticketmaster in at least some small way. I know, I know. SMH.

Schlesinger v. Ticketmaster caught me and most everyone I know completely off guard. I’d read in passing about the massive class action suit, in which House Bolton, err Lannister, err Ticketmaster was finally taken to task for its predatory fee structure, but that was well over a year ago. I remember smirking in solidarity at the time and nodding my head with 10% extra vigor, though I still doubted anything particularly good would come of it. Fast forward to that glorious morning a couple of weeks ago when the news was sprung on us, like a surprise party for the nation’s entire complement of second graders. Somehow we’d won! I had seventeen pairs of ostensibly free ticket vouchers waiting in my Ticketmaster account to prove it! Further details were sketchy at best! Online America hyperventilated from shock and excitement, and began dreaming out loud about all the shows it would soon defiantly, flamboyantly even, begin attending without paying for. Ticketmaster had finally fallen, or had, at any rate, been humbled! How did it feel to be laid low? When exactly would the next time be that I or anyone I knew might actually pay for tickets? In retrospect, it was a grand sort of spontaneous, coast-to-coast hallucination, and the possibilities seemed both limitless and intoxicating. Befitting the occasion, I had an historic surplus of questions and doubts, and, as I’d worried, the reality was far less generous than we’d imagined. Victorious Schlesinger plaintiffs were pointed toward a cumbersome fifteen-page (now seventeen) document on the Ticketmaster website which detailed an initial outlay of some 450 (now 800) shows nationwide that qualified for the free vouchers. Beyond creeping frustration and involuntary eyestrain, the page’s additional caveats, which render it essentially useless to formerly hopeful souls like me, were pretty ingenious.

If Ticketmaster is the Capo of today’s concert mafia (think Pacino in Godfather II), then Live Nation, the promotional powerhouse it acquired in 2009, is part straight-laced frontman (think Kevin Spacey in Casino) and part professional kneecapper (think Joe Pesci in Goodfellas). As penance for decades of shaking down its loyal customers, the settlement of Schlesinger v. Ticketmaster stipulated that Big Donny T hand out many millions of dollars’ worth in free tickets to the righteously aggrieved, but, in what already stands on a shortlist of the least punitive punishments in the history of jurisprudence, apparently largely left the details to be worked out by the dirty, dirty dealer itself. Ticketmaster’s freebies were not quite the bottomless pot of gold many envisioned. First, the shows qualifying for free ticket vouchers would only take place at venues owned by Live Nation, effectively eliminating a preponderance of venues nationwide, including the vast majority of all those small and mid-sized spots Joe Pesci clearly has no time for, not to mention, just for an example, absolutely everything in Columbus, Ohio. If I want to gather any of those particular crumbs from Ticketmaster’s table, therefore, I’ll still have to drive three hours north (Cleveland), east (Pittsburgh), or west (Indianapolis) before I can eat them. Second, the seats are, almost without fail, general admission offerings for larger shows that have already been on sale for months, meaning that not only is Ticketmaster using the Schlesinger complaintants to paper over holes in its thriving lawn club – thus giving away seats for free that it would’ve been highly unlikely to sell otherwise – any chance of being within “Beatles at Shea” screaming distance of the artist you drove all that way for would be squashed flat. Of those thirty already not-exactly-affordable Dave Matthews Band shows I mentioned earlier, do you know how many I purposely watched from the lawn? Care to venture a guess as to how many DMB shows I noticed while skimming Ticketmaster’s eye-crossing, unsortable, barely usable list of qualifying events? That’d be zero, in both cases.

Hey, now the blood’s starting to bubble again! I’ve forked over enough in ill-gotten service and convenience fees in my time dealing with the TM Cartel to pay for those exact same thirty premium tickets at least twice over. If you really care to make amends, Ticketmaster, don’t make me jump through hoops for the privilege – which I don’t mean to discount – of seeing Black Sabbath’s final tour from the lawn, three hours away in Indianapolis, and then offer error messages when my voucher still won’t work after repeated attempts. Don’t act like you’re doing me some kind of favor when the likelihood I’ll have used 1/4 of my total vouchers by the time they all expire in 2020 already seems pitifully remote, and, for the love of all that is holy, don’t feign contrition when you still routinely engage in prison favor exchanges of the sort that jacked up my most recent DMB ticket by over 30% just in the time it took to check out. Suffice it to say that, after all that time spent digging for something truly worthwhile and multiple earnest attempts to the contrary, I won’t be seeing Sabbath in mid-July, though at least with this last artificially enhanced push, that concert’s a sell out! Everything on that list is now! I’m glad somebody can use their vouchers, and ever hopeful for the day I might join them. My own personal concert calendar sprawls out from July into the fall, full to bursting with great shows – Alice in Chains, Carcass, Kiss, Melvins, S.C.O.T.S., Slayer, Clutch – at venues that, whether or not they’re technically independent, at least don’t pay Live Nation for protection. As it was in the time of peak Pearl Jam, I’ll be paying full price for them all, and then some. All the while, Ticketmaster gets to humblebrag (in large font) about its court-ordered charity work.

It’d be foolish for me to have thought Ticketmaster might possibly pay for me to go one or any of those shows, let alone all of them, whatever the legal mandate. Somehow I knew they’d find a way to weasel out of the bulk of their responsibilities, to magically finagle a deep corporate discount on something they’re technically providing for free. Though I’m a dreamer, I’m no fool. Toward the end of The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger’s Joker is finally subdued, dangling by one leg from a snare outside an under construction skyscraper, but still just as chatty as ever, gleefully telling an exhausted, demoralized Batman, “I think you and I are destined to do this forever.” Sometimes, I feel uncomfortably like that with Ticketmaster – beaten down and disconsolate, watching a scarified freak with slathered on greasepaint prank me, set my money on fire, and then cackle endlessly about it. But then I think about the recent proliferation of alternate ticket sellers like Brown Paper, TicketFly, Songkick, and TicketWeb. Though we’re forever away from a time in which a healthy marketplace might seriously dent or even upend Ticketmaster’s monopoly, these companies are all worth your time and support. Though anything in attitudinal opposition to Ticketmaster is aces in my book, I also unreasonably enjoy results. To wit, I just bought tickets through TicketWeb to see L.A. prog metal tsunami Intronaut, owner of the #4 album on my 2015 list. Each ticket had a $2.80 fee attached. I couldn’t help smiling. Ticketmaster probably charges its employees that much per rest room visit.

Yesterday, I received my ticket for next week’s “Weird Al” Yankovic show from Songkick. The per ticket fee was $3. I beamed with satisfaction as well as all the attendant anticipation, though my enthusiasm dipped a notch upon closer inspection. On the tear-away stub portion of the ticket, I noticed, was printed a logo that might as well be tattooed like a futuristic barcode on the back of my neck, bearing the word, “Ticketmaster.” I admit my heart sank, if only for a second.

The struggle remains. The struggle is real. Though #$%! it…I’m still seeing Al.

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