LAST WEEK, the hated concert-ticket monopoly Ticketmaster announced a $2.5 billion merger with Live Nation, the world’s largest (and equally hated) concert promoter. The reaction was swift and vicious: music fans took the deal as a sign of the apocalypse, and Democratic legislators began an anti-trust investigation. Bloggers pooh-poohed Ticketmaster’s press release, insisting that there’s no way this match made in hell will result in anything but higher prices. Commenters sharply reprimanded columnists brave enough to voice optimism. (A Minneapolis Star-Tribune reader called the new entity “Ripoff Master,” insisting the marriage will help the pair “screw people over better and longer.”)
Ticketmaster’s press release enumerates several vague promises for the new company, none of which are likely to win over the haters. They plan to expand the “all-inclusive pricing” they tried out on the Philadelphia Eagles, but that only means rolling their ridiculous fees into the ticket price. As the Los Angeles Times’ music blog notes, their promise to “increase event attendance” likely means that they’ll put the power of the Live Nation synergy—merchandise and eventually digital music sales—to work shutting down artists who don’t sign on. At this point, there’s no evidence that the merger will do anything but wedge out the majority of the population who’d like to get a decent view at a concert without paying for a VIP package.
In our state of dismay at this unfortunate blow to live music, let’s review the long list of grievances that fuel the national ire. Almost every regular concertgoer has a Ticketmaster story—the time the company charged them the whole ticket price over in hidden fees, the time the website locked up during a high-demand presale. Ticketmaster and Live Nation both insist that they don’t set ticket prices, but wildly overpriced seats certainly contribute to the overwhelming sense of thievery that comes from doing business with them. The rest are problems that could easily be fixed if the pair really had to worry about keeping customers.
Most recently, Ticketmaster bungled a Bruce Springsteen tour that went on sale February 2 after prominent advertisement during the Super Bowl. The Ticketmaster site denied fans tickets to shows from New Jersey to Washington, D.C., even though they were ready the instant the shows went on sale. Fans were shuttled to TicketsNow, Ticketmaster’s legal scalping site, where they were “helpfully offered seats at $500 a pop.” (Many swear that the websites were unclear or led them to believe they were purchasing regular-price tickets when they were in fact paying up to eight times the face value.) Ticketmaster blamed the problem on ticket scarcity (“he’s really popular, you know!”) and a technical glitch; Springsteen lashed out publicly, saying he was “furious.”
The same day, Live Nation’s new ticketing system produced an “epic fail,” according to fans of the jam-band Phish, who got waves of error messages when they attempted to purchase tickets. (Rolling Stone’s Rock & Roll Daily blog reported entering credit card information three times before ordering successfully.) Live Nation crowed about the new system’s “success,” (every show sold out by the end of the day), but the trying ordeal of entering and re-entering information left many fans seething.
I’ve had equally hellish experiences with the two companies, particularly during the now-infamous Radiohead debacle at Nissan Pavilion in Bristow, Virginia, last year. The purchasing process went smoothly enough if you ignore the exorbitant $13.50 fee Ticketmaster added to the $77.00 ticket price. But Nissan is a Live Nation venue well-known among northern Virginians as a concert-experience deal-breaker: only realistically accessible by helicopter, it sees traffic meltdowns before and after every major show. Add a Genesis-scale deluge the afternoon of the show, and you have a recipe for disaster. Accidents and traffic jams made many ticketholders late to a “rain or shine” show that most certainly should have been rescheduled. Live Nation employees turned away latecomers in droves, claiming the show was cancelled. It wasn’t, and thousands of fans drove for hours through the torrent only to be denied entry at the gate.
But worse than website glitches are when they combine with fee extortions, essentially forcing you to pay more than you wanted for seats you didn’t want. Planning to attend a Coldplay show in Dallas this summer, I logged in early last Saturday morning and completed my first ticket search within seconds of the on-sale time. I wanted tickets for eight, but had no luck getting as many as two adjacent seats. A good 70 percent of the venue was selling for $97.50—way too much to pay for a Coldplay show. I kept searching as the website constantly required me to re-enter information, but had to settle for single tickets in three different sections, with a $28.50 “service fee” on each. Grand total for three people to sit in different sections? $350.00. As one Dallas blogger put it, in a post righteously entitled “Live Nation is the Devil”: “Are you f—ing kidding me?”
Sure, the prices are outrageous, and artists should be ashamed of inaccessible entry fees. ($100 per ticket when you probably made more money last year than any band in the world? Doesn’t exactly combat the perception that you’re an opportunistic sham of a rock band.) But the jaw-dropping fees, unusable websites, and incompetent disaster planning? It’s a wonder anyone goes a show that bears the Ticketmaster or Live Nation names. Musicians and venues have a right to make money, but will music fans ever endure the pain of staying home long enough to protest the abuses of their patronage?
Since even greedy bands and metal-and-wheels capitalist enterprises are unlikely to keep music fans away, here are a few ways the new ticket-selling monopoly can work on rescuing its reputation:
Honestly enumerate the terms. Publish the ticket prices before they go on sale, so cheapskates will realize the show is out of their price range before they start clogging up the interwebs with extra searches. If the system will limit you to two adjacent seats, don’t say the maximum is eight. Don’t ship people off to another website without alerting them clearly. Customers have much more patience—and probably more tolerance for higher prices—if they don’t feel they’re being cheated. (I would have grumbled about an up-front Coldplay price of $125, but wouldn't have been outraged.)
Improve the technology. A national ticket website should have no problem handling the heavy traffic on sale day, and should be able to manage multiple ticket searches without reporting “no seats found.” And it should operate on a real first-come, first-serve basis, without arbitrary seat limits or two-minute site timeouts. Users should only be required to login or type a verification code once.
Deal with the artist. If Coldplay demands $100 per ticket, making your fees and taxes add up to the price of a flight to their studio in London, then maybe they’re not the best fit for your company. Or maybe you take a lower profit margin in hopes they’ll bring in more ticket buyers than usual, or insist that they agree to a more reasonable base price. It’s your choice, but when you're charging up to 60 percent of the ticket price in fees, you're in danger of the fires of hell.
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David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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