Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Ticketmaster Conundrum

As many of you have probably figured out, I am a huge fan of music, especially live music. I go to concerts all the time, although since the kids have been born, that number has dropped drastically. In my concert-going career from age 13 until now, I’ve probably gone to over 500 concerts. Until the last decade, I kept all my stubs in a drawer. With e-tickets and print at home options, that old tradition of saving stubs has gone by the wayside.

Despite all the fun had at these live shows, the dark side of concert-going always rears its ugly head. I’m talking about actually purchasing the tickets. I’m not complaining about the price of the tickets themselves (except for maybe in the instance of Bruce Springsteen.) I’m peeved about all the surcharges added onto the original price of the tickets. Someone is making a ton of money, and it’s not the artist or the venue.

So, I was trying to buy Tom Petty tickets earlier. General admission seats are $40 each. After adding surcharges and fees, they ended up being over $100 for the pair. Needless to say, I got angry and didn't get the seats. (I just found out that the tickets are now sold out. I lose.) I cannot fathom such a discrepancy between face value and actual costs.

Let's talk about the surcharges. There are four of them: the Service Charge, Building Facility Charge, Processing Charge, and the Shipping/Will Call Charge. Ticketmaster controls three of the four charges. Only the Building Facility Charge is determined by someone other than Ticketmaster. Breaking the other three down, it appears that two of the charges really are the same one forced upon the consumer twice.

What is the difference between the Service Charge and the Processing Charge? According to their own website, the Service Charge is for the general service or providing tickets. The Processing Charge is a fee for making the tickets available. I don't see the difference here. It just seems like another way to soak the customer for more money, something they can do since they have almost no competition in the market.

Now let's take a look at the last surcharge. This is the fee for actually obtaining the tickets. After they've charged us twice for the luxury of actually ordering the tickets, we now have to pay another charge to get those tickets in our grubby little paws. I generally get two tickets for each show. To have those tickets sent to me via the US Postal Service, there is a charge of $3.50 per ticket. There is no way that it costs anymore than 50 cents to mail two pieces of paper to my house. In fact, I know it doesn't. The last set of tickets I purchased had a postal mark of 47 cents on the envelope.

That brings me to the most egregious case of industry scalping in the ticket industry. To print the tickets in the comfort of my own home, using my printer and my ink, I could pay the nominally low charge of $1.50 per ticket. Are you kidding me? How can anyone in their right minds believe that this is a tolerable business practice? Why do we, the consumers stand for such nonsense? As long as Ticketmaster knows we will let these charges slide, they will continue to tack on these extra fees.

My first concert cost me $12. I was 13 or 14, and for me that was a lot of money in 1986. My first Grateful Dead show cost me $20. Since then, concerts costs have skyrocketed. Surcharges can now amount to 50% of the actual ticket price. Not accounting for festivals that I've gone to, the most I've ever spent on a concert was for a Bruce Springsteen. That one was almost $100 per seat without the surcharges. (I love the music, but I hate his politicking during the show. I spent way too much money to listen to him talk about the government between every song. Just play, man!) Never again would I spend that much money on a concert ticket.

Ticketmaster has seen it's share of controversy with bands complaining about their business practices. Most notably, Pearl Jam boycotted the business in 1994 after Ticketmaster refused to lower its surcharges. The band even appeared and testified before Congress alleging that Ticketmaster, "used anti-competitive and monopolistic practices to gouge fans." Despite the attention, the Justice Department abruptly closed its probe, citing that there was a lack of evidence for the investigation to continue.

In 2003, The String Cheese Incident sued Ticketmaster over its practices. The lawsuit focused on the "Exclusive Use" contracts that the ticket company had with nearly all the major venues in the country. By virtue of this clause, they argued, Ticketmaster was breaching the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, something Pearl Jam discovered a decade earlier when they tried to book their own tour without the assistance of the ticket giant. The suit was settled in 2004 with terms undisclosed.

The concept of Ticketmaster violating the Sherman Anti-Trust Act only gets deeper when you consider that Ticketmaster and Live Nation merged in 2010. What we end up with is a virtual monopoly for ticket sales in every major venue in the United States. Only the smaller venues escape the crush of Ticketmaster/Live Nation. Approximately 70-80% of all concert ticket sales were controlled by Ticketmaster. I could not find newer numbers, but I would assume with the merger, those numbers would be significantly higher.

Considering all the money that Ticketmaster has taken from its customers over the years, you'd think they'd have enough money to have a better web presence. I've had an account online with them from almost the beginning. No matter how many times I log in, it always states that my user name and/or password are incorrect. Every time. A couple months ago, I purchased tickets for a show. I got that same old message,. So, I went through the steps of changing my password and finally logging in. I even wrote down what the change was and stuck it to my laptop so when I logged back in to print my tickets I didn't mess anything up.

Fast forward 6 weeks to the day of the event. I went to log in using the credentials I had written down previously. Incorrect user name or password combo. I even showed Wendy what I was inputting. Still no love. So, I went through the whole process again. I wrote the new credentials down. Fast forward to this week when I tried to order Tom Petty tickets. The same thing happened again. Every single time I try to use their website, I have nothing but problems.

And don't get me started on their so-called reimbursement for overcharging us over the past 16 years. None of the vouchers ever worked for me, and most expired the same day they showed up on my account. It was a never-ending mess. So, despite over charging us each time we order tickets, they are also providing sub par services. Meanwhile, I'm sure Michael Rapino is quite enjoying his $10 million a year. I begrudge no one for making a lot of money, but please don't do it while gouging the consumer.

Listen, this is all my own opinion. Granted, this column appears directly after another annoying, inhospitable interaction with the company, but I question the amounts charged to the customers. I especially have an issue with them charging me to print on my own printer. It is my belief that they are taking advantage of us because we really have no other choice.

So, what can be done? We could boycott the shows, but that hurts the artist more than it will ever hurt Ticketmaster. Possibly a concerted effort on all our parts to overwhelm them with letters of complaint would work. Again, I doubt it. Possibly the only thing that could neuter this behemoth would be action by the US Justice Department. As we've seen a couple times already, that doesn't seem to be much of an option. So much for consumer rights.

Craig Bacon tries to get his tickets directly from the artist rather than give Ticketmaster any of his money. That only works sometimes, though. In the meantime, he plans on rocking the stereo so loundly that the neighbors think they're at a concert.