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Book Review: Ticket Masters: The Rise Of The Concert Industry And How The Public Got Scalped by Dean Budnick and Josh Baron

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In Ticket Masters: The Rise Of The Concert Industry And How The Public Got Scalped, authors Dean Budnick and Josh Baron offer a detailed account of how the business has virtually destroyed itself. This being an arm of the music industry, is there any real surprise that greed is at the heart of the matter?

The story begins in 1966, when Jack Quinn and Harvey Dubner rolled out a computer system for ticket sales. Theoretically all of the ticket inventory for an event would be housed in the data base, which would allow for a controlled system of distribution. At the time, hard tickets for shows were hand-delivered to various outlets in the area, such as record stores and department stores. There were a couple of glitches to this pioneering method however.

First of all, there was strong resistance from ticketing agents who were making a great deal of money by skimming off the best seats and selling them to scalpers. As Budnick and Baron illustrate, that particular form of collusion dates back at least as far as a reading tour Charles Dickens undertook back in 1868. The customer would make their way to the ticket window, only to be told that all the tickets had been sold. Standing right next to the booth would be an man offering seats at ridiculously inflated prices.

The second problem was that the venues would not release their entire inventory to Ticket Reservation Systems (their original name, later Ticketron). The third difficulty was in the capital investment for such an arrangement. Each outlet needed the technological equipment to tie-in with TRS, and this was not cheap. The early solution was to rent out the computers and monitors to the locations – to be offset with a rebate on each ticket sold. This rebate was called a service charge, and the cost was borne by the customer.

Over the course of the next three decades, the basic model of Ticketron was refined and expanded in many ways. There was also competition, primarily from a company calling itself Ticketmaster – who bought out Ticketron in 1991. Ticketmaster successfully convinced the industry that to do their job properly, they needed to have exclusive access to the tickets. To grease the wheels on this arrangement, additional service charges were employed – again as rebates to the venue, paid by the ticket buyer.

This was the world Pearl Jam stepped into in 1996, with their celebrated “war on Ticketmaster.” As the book explains, Pearl Jam were kind of duped into being the poster boys of the whole thing. At least according to the band, they were one of many groups who were objecting to the excessive fees charged by Ticketmaster. When they testified before Congress however, they became the face of dissent.

Ticketmaster’s de facto monopoly of the system was basically endorsed by Congress at the end of this charade, as no legislation or penalties were enacted. Pearl Jam famously tried to tour alternate (non-Ticketmaster) venues the following year, which turned out to be a disaster. They were one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, yet in the end were forced to submit to the “evil empire.”

Strange as it may seem, those days of Ticketmaster’s service charges could almost be looked back upon as the golden years. The mind-boggling combination of deregulation and mergers over the past 15 years has basically destroyed the concert business. Budnick and Baron detail the complex arrangements that have taken place during this time to bring us where we are today – and the various revelations are stunning.

Suffice to say that the era of massive service charges, outrageously priced tickets, and parking fees imposed whether you drive to the venue or not – have taken their toll. Many fans (my self included) have basically given up on ampitheatre shows. It’s too bad, because these used to make for a pretty enjoyable summer diversion.

The problem is not exclusively Ticketmaster/Live Nation/Clear Channel’s greed however. As the authors point out, massive artist guarantees are another factor in keeping ticket prices high. There is another artist-driven trend developing now as well. There are many acts who are selling the best seats directly to the scalpers (euphemistically re-named the “secondary market”) these days.

In short, it’s a mess – and a complicated one at that. All that is certain is that the fans will continue to get screwed unless they simply opt out of the whole thing. Which is exactly what seems to be happening.

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