Consumers Seek Alternatives to Ticketmaster

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Ten years ago, the rock band Pearl Jam embarked on an ill-fated legal battle with the company that holds an iron grip on event ticket sales. Today, Ticketmaster remains, charging high per-ticket charges. Consumers are looking to other methods for buying tickets. From member station KQED, Alex Cohen reports.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in 1994, the rock band Pearl Jam filed an unsuccessful antitrust complaint against California-based ticket vendor Ticketmaster. The band claimed Ticketmaster's service charges were too high. More than a decade later, Ticketmaster and other major ticket vendors continue to charge steep fees, but as Alex Cohen of member station KQED reports, many consumers don't have a choice but to pay the price.

ALEX COHEN reporting:

If you live in New York and want to see the upcoming "American Idol" concert with a friend, tickets are $35 apiece, but when bought through Ticketmaster, your final bill for a pair of tickets will be nearly a hundred dollars thanks to Ticketmaster's various charges. If you're in Chicago, you could see the new musical "Wicked." Tickets for that show are 77.50 plus the $9.60 per ticket convenience charge and a $2.50 building facility charge. Oh, and there's the order processing charge of $4.05 plus tax. Grand total for two? $184.03, including more than $25 in fees. Percentagewise, ticket fees get even steeper for smaller shows. Some cost more than 80 percent of a ticket's face value, and that's made many concertgoers reluctant to buy tickets through Ticketmaster.

Ms. ESTHER KIM (Los Angeles): I hate it. They suck.

COHEN: Esther Kim of Los Angeles and five of her friends just bought tickets to see the band Early Mart at a club called The Troubadour. The club only sells tickets at the box office on the night of a performance. Kim says they were worried the show might have sold out by that time, but they refused to buy through Ticketmaster.

Mr. KIM: I didn't want to pay the surcharges, yeah. Service charges are ridiculous. I don't want to pay for that.

COHEN: Just what do these fees go to? Ticketmaster refused to answer. NPR made numerous requests for an interview with the west Hollywood-based company. A Ticketmaster spokesperson repeatedly denied these requests.

Ticketmaster is a division of Barry Diller's IAC/Interactive Corporation and sold 98 million tickets valued at $5 billion last year alone. Carl Thomas has worked in event production for the past 15 years, including a stint as head of sales at one of Ticketmaster's competitors, a company called Tickets.com. Thomas says one of the major changes in the ticket-selling industry over the last decade was the introduction of the Internet. Before that, he says, consumers had to wait in line at box offices to get tickets to concerts or sporting events.

Mr. CARL THOMAS: Well, it turned into an event of itself, right? You took blankets or sleeping bags and you hung out and actually had a good time waiting in line.

COHEN: Fun? Yes. Efficient? Not at all, Thomas says. Thanks to the Internet, the public can now buy tickets anytime, day or night. They can see which seats they're getting, sometimes even print out their tickets at home, but all those services cost money, from the labor needed to develop software to the printers needed to produce tickets to the Internet connectivity to keep ticket-vending Web sites running. Thomas says the only way for ticket companies to make money is through their various fees.

Mr. THOMAS: And it's a business model that's been in the marketplace for the better part of 20 years, and it's sort of the benchmark now today of how the business is conducted.

COHEN: That model works well for many concert halls, clubs and sports arenas. The popularity of online ticketing allows them to cut back on box-office staffing. What's more? Companies like Tickets.com and Ticketmaster often give part of the profits from ticket fees back to these venues. And Ticketmaster has exclusive contracts with many of its venues which means artists and consumers aren't left with much of a choice when it comes to buying tickets. Gary Bongiovanni is the editor of Pollstar, a Fresno-based trade publication that covers the concert business.

Mr. GARY BONGIOVANNI (Editor, Pollstar): Most people seem to opt for Ticketmaster because of the reliability of what they do and the network that they've established. As a tour, you have to play Ticketmaster buildings, by and large, especially if you want to play any of the major arenas in this country.

COHEN: In recent years, some smaller venues have started looking for ways to help consumers get around high ticket fees. Dawn Holliday is the general manager at Slim's, a nightclub in San Francisco. Holliday says she aims to give her customers choices when it comes to ticket fees.

Ms. DAWN HOLLIDAY (General Manager, Slim's): We have everything from zero to Tickets.com's exorbitant rates, and the zero method is that you send us a check two weeks before a show and we hold tickets for you at the door and there's no service charge that way.

COHEN: Holliday also offers tickets through a Web site called virtuous.com. The standard service charge for virtuous is $1. The company also donates part of its profits to local food banks, shelters and other social services. Virtuous founder Billy O'Connell says he wants to bring back what he sees as the real purpose of live performances, providing entertainment, not making money.

Mr. BILLY O'CONNELL (Founder, virtuous.com): We simply ask that clubs give their customers a choice, that they let them choose between our company and our competitors.

COHEN: Given that choice, O'Connell hopes most people will vote with their pocketbooks, in which case he says virtuous will win.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen in Los Angeles.

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MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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