A call for the musical equivalent of Occupy Wall Street.
By Fred Mills, Blurt Editor
I’m just enough of an old fart – actually, the charitable term would be “old school,” so let’s go with that – to remember buying tickets to see Led Zeppelin at the Charlotte Coliseum in 1971 and they cost $8.00 apiece. If memory serves, I got them at a head shop (what you’d nowadays call a smoke shop) called Infinity’s End, and most likely I bought a trippy black light poster too. My mom drove me to the shop. In another year I’d have my license and be driving to the shop myself to buy rolling papers, but that’s another story.
A few years later, in 1974, when Bob Dylan announced he’d be touring with The Band as his backing group, the ticketing on-sale for was structured as a mailorder lottery: you’d purchase a money order and enclose that in an envelope along with a letter indicating the number of tickets you wanted (probably limited to 4 per request) plus a SASE, and mail it all off to the venue box office – but not postmarked before a specific date to ensure that the process was fair and democratic. This meant all over the US, kids like me were lining up at their local post offices on the assigned date, handing their envelopes to the window clerk for hand-canceling, then heading home and waiting a couple of weeks to see IF they would get tickets in the mail or their money orders returned. (The latter scenario was mine; the demand for the Charlotte show far outstripped the available seats and I didn’t get to go to the show.)
I’m also old school enough to remember: (a) the public indignation with the Rolling Stones when they were the first to set ticket prices at $20; (b) camping out all night in front of a local Sam Goody’s in hopes of being close enough to the front of the line to score tickets for some upcoming concert; (c) actually working in a record store which had recently installed an electronic ticketing terminal and being absolutely flabbergasted at the size of the crowd clogging our parking lot the morning of an on-sale for Grateful Dead tickets; (d) the public indignation with the Eagles when they were the first to set ticket prices at $100; and (e) marveling at the speed and ease with which my first online ticket purchase went down, all from the privacy and convenience of my home one fine Saturday morning.
“Online” was supposed to level the playing field. No more having to camp out on a hard, cold sidewalk. And for awhile, it did, or at least it seemed to. Anybody with a computer and a modem could click on the website of a venue or the Ticketmaster site and voila! Your tickets would show up via the mail or UPS soon. You also had the option of lining up at the box office, totally your choice. Soon enough, though, reality kicked in, and that utopian dream dissipated. For a really in-depth, and compelling, read, check out the 2011 book Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped; it will open your eyes while literally making you nostalgic for the analog world I outlined in the first three paragraphs above.
So here’s your weekend reading assignment: over at USA Today, a publication to which I subscribe in order to get my fix of national and international news even though there are more times than not that I feel like the entertainment/music coverage is ridiculously lightweight and celebrity-driven, there’s a point/counterpoint editorial on the current state of the ticketing business. The main article, “Concert Tickets’ Expensive Rockonomics: Our View” makes no bones about the fact that ticket brokers and the ticket resale industry in general has made concert tickets a de facto exercise in gouging the customer that goes well beyond the general, democratic notions of supply-and-demand, additionally noting that with declining recorded music sales, artists have turned to the road as their primary source of income. Did you know that ticket prices have risen “by nearly 400 % [since 1981], much faster than the 150 % rise in overall consumer prices”? This has led not only to anger among fans, but when you factor in the leech-like presence of intermediaries – ticket brokers, aka scalpers – a huge level of frustration has kicked in as well: think of all the times you’ve tried to buy tickets to a hot-demand show online, only to discover that 15 seconds after 10 a.m. all the tickets are gone, but hey, over at multiple brokers’ sites there are plenty of tickets miraculously available, and only 50 % higher in price than the original face value (200 % for non-nosebleed seats).
USA Today advocates – and I applaud the paper’s stance – for stricter regulation of the ticketing industry along with built-in measures adopted by the venues and promoters to “deter resellers scheming to purchase an excessive number of seats.” It’s an ongoing dialogue that’s been happening for years, and I will readily admit I don’t know the answers to a thorny problem. I do know, however, that it used to be illegal in most states to resell tickets more than just a dollar or two above face value, and that – here’s a quaint image – scalpers were banned from flogging their wares within X number of feet or blocks of the actual venue. What’s a scalper, you ask? Just look for the sleazy scumbag in the trench coat, lurking over there in the alley, bro!
Meanwhile, in the companion article “Concert Ticket Resale Market Helps Fans: Opposing View,” Gary C. Adler, general counsel and executive director of the National Association of Ticket Brokers,” attempts to prop up his group’s point of view by citing a stale Economics 101 argument:
“Open competition ensures ticket prices are naturally adjusted based on market conditions. Restrictions that limit consumer choice result in less supply, higher prices and, arguably, the monopolized experience consumers suffer at the initial purchase stage.
“Laws that put artificial price caps and other restrictions on resales have fallen by the wayside. This is because an open secondary market provides the choice consumers crave. Robust competition serves to establish the most favorable prices, in many instances below the initial sales price.”
How disingenuous. How Republican. Can a lesson from Adler in supply-side (voodoo) economics be far behind? Let’s have a tutorial in fuzzy math while we’re at it!
No, Gar, while you try to paint the NATB as staunchly on our side and intent on doing the right thing by us (“[We] believe that consumers should have fair access to tickets at public sale”), the truth is that you’re just the modern-day equivalent of that scumbag in a trenchcoat.
The cynic in me can’t help but feeling that we, the fans, have already lost. We’re no doubt complicit, too, and if you don’t believe that then you have obviously never had an anxiety attack when trying to get tickets for a show by your favorite band and was thwarted at every turn and subsequently sniffed around at the resell sites or eBay or Craigslist to see what you could scare up.
But my cynicism shouldn’t stop the rest of you from keeping this dialogue alive and even letting the artists know that you’re mad as hell and aren’t gonna take it anymore. Venue operators and promoters and even some artist managers could care less, but it’s the artists who are sensitive to public relations and how they are perceived by the fans. You can bet that if an artist starts to feel like the public is blaming him for any of this, fairly or unfairly, he’ll investigate the matter and take some steps to repair his damaged image.
As USA Today notes, “there’s no musical equivalent of the Occupy Wall Street movement” – but if you think about it, what’s stopping us?