Tickets gone before they're even on sale

Lion's share snapped up for resale

Staff writerMarch 7, 2010 

  • David Menconi has covered popular music for The News & Observer since 1991.

On a Friday morning in January, Brent Thompson logged on to ticketmaster.com at 9:55. Tickets for the band Wilco's March 27 show at the Durham Performing Arts Center were going on sale at the top of the hour, and he wanted to make sure he didn't miss out.

"Right at 10 a.m., I hit the 'Find tickets' button," says Thompson, who manages a restaurant in Raleigh. "Two at any price, any section. I did that repeatedly for a half-hour and came up empty. So I called the box office, but the young lady told me they were sold out."

Indeed they were. Wilco's show sold out in 17 minutes, a record for the 2,700-seat DPAC. But that doesn't mean no tickets were available.

That same day, Thompson went to ticketsnow.com - a "secondary" ticket-selling site owned by the ticket-vending giant Ticketmaster, which sells tickets for DPAC events - and found plenty of people selling Wilco tickets at jacked-up prices. Nearly two months after that 17-minute sellout, hundreds of Wilco tickets are still listed on ticketsnow.com, eBay-owned StubHub, ticket exchangeusa.com and other sites for many multiples more than the $35 face price.

Some of the people selling tickets through these secondary vendors are average citizens lucky enough to score extra tickets and looking to turn a buck. But others are professional brokers who find ways to buy low and sell high, such as the four men indicted in New Jersey last week and charged with hacking into Ticketmaster's Web site to buy up blocs of tickets to scalp.

Buying concert tickets used to be straightforward, but it's become a complicated process in which the public on-sale date (and the original ticket price) means almost nothing. In the case of Wilco's DPAC show, most of the tickets were gone before the "official" on-sale date. Out of 2,700 seats, only about 1,000 went on sale to the general public on Jan. 8, according to show promoter Frank Heath.

The other 1,700 tickets - almost two-thirds of the total - were held for various purposes, including guests of the band, media review tickets and 250 special "student tickets" that had to be purchased in-person at the box office. Many tickets were also sold in "pre-sales" for venue patrons and members of Wilco's fan club.

The proportions can be even more lopsided for truly hot mega-tours such as country/pop star Taylor Swift, who plays Raleigh's RBC Center on May 1.

Officials for the RBC Center and tour promoter Live Nation declined to provide figures for Swift's Raleigh show, which sold out in less than an hour when tickets went on sale in October. But when Swift played in Nashville last year, only 1,591 of the arena's 13,330 tickets went on sale to the public, according to a report on Nashville's CBS-affiliated television station. The other 11,739 tickets were held or sold through various pre-sales, including tour sponsor American Express and the fan clubs of Swift and opening act Kellie Pickler.

Who's to blame?

Pinning down who deserves the blame for so many consumers being at the mercy of resellers isn't easy, because secondary sellers are frequently anonymous enough that it's hard to tell who they are or where they got their tickets. The entity that tends to catch the most heat is Ticketmaster, which recently merged with Live Nation (the concert-promotion giant that operates Raleigh's Time Warner Cable Music Pavilion at Walnut Creek and hundreds of other venues nationwide).

"Seeing a bunch of high-priced tickets on ticketsnow.com, the official reselling place of Ticketmaster, doesn't feel right," Thompson says. "It just seems dirty."

Once upon a time, selling a $35 ticket for hundreds of dollars would have been illegal in North Carolina. The state's anti-scalping law prohibited selling any ticket for more than $3 over the original price.

But during the 2007-08 session, the legislature amended the law to allow "Internet Resale" of tickets at inflated prices. Mirroring similar laws in other states, the amended scalping law allows higher-priced online ticket sales in exchange for consumer protections, such as requiring online secondary vendors to issue refunds if an event is canceled.

So now, the main law applying to online ticket sales is the transparent one of supply and demand. All you have to do is log on to a ticket-broker site to see what the market will bear. Wilco's DPAC tickets have been selling for an average price of $96 on StubHub, ranging from $61 to $250. And the average StubHub price for Swift's RBC tickets (which have face prices ranging from $25 to $59.50) is $153, with a top selling price of $530.

Where you don't see transparency, however, is where those tickets came from.

"The million-dollar question is how many tickets are available when the actual on-sale takes place," says Glenn Lehrman, head of communications for StubHub. "You have no idea how many tickets are available. You're typing, hitting 'refresh' - and you've got no idea whether there are 8,000 tickets or one, and you're lucky to get in at all."

The people who make most of the money on scalped tickets are the sellers, who pay a percentage of the sale price to the broker sites that list their tickets. But sometimes, the sellers on secondary sites are the artists themselves, especially when it's the expensive front-row seats and the tickets are part of high-priced VIP packages.

The open secret

"That's the not-so-hidden secret of the concert industry," says Steve Knopper, a reporter who covers the concert business for Rolling Stone magazine. "You'll see the best 50, 100 or 200 Britney Spears seats up for auction on Ticket Exchange, Ticketmaster's exchange site, for huge prices. No one wants to look greedy, so a lot of that is completely underground. But it happens all the time."

Ticketexchangeusa.com recently listed four "Fearless VIP" tickets for Swift's Raleigh show for $1,120 each, a price that includes limo service, floor seats and pre-show dinner and drinks.

Officials with ticketex changeusa.com, Live Nation and Ticketmaster all declined to comment on the source of those tickets.

Some artists such as Nine Inch Nails go to a great deal of trouble to keep ticket prices low, battling scalpers by using paperless non-transferrable tickets or requiring identification at the gate.

But that's difficult and expensive. It's easier to go along and take the money - especially if you buy the free-market argument that if tickets are selling for higher than face price, artists should get that money.

"It would be hypocritical and unfair to fault artists for maximizing revenue," says StubHub's Lehrman. "I work for a company that's all for an open marketplace, and artists who want to maximize revenue have every right to do that. I just wish they'd be more transparent about it."

In North Carolina, at least, concert venues have the ability to fight scalping.

The amended anti-scalping law gives venues the right to prohibit the resale of tickets for greater than face price.

Bob Klaus, DPAC's general manager, decries scalping. But his venue has declined to prohibit it because, Klaus says, "There is no practical means for enforcement."

Billy Traurig, general counsel for the RBC Center, would also rather live in a world without scalping. But, he says, it's always going to go on whether it's against the law or not.

"Obviously our first goal is we want consumers to get tickets at the box office at face value," says Traurig. "But no matter what the law says, there will always be people attempting to sell tickets for much more than face price. It's beyond the reach of law enforcement due to the scope and nature of it. The current situation with secondary sites is not our optimum. But under the present circumstances, we don't see anything better at this point."

Time to revisit law?

Rep. Pryor Gibson ran the House version of the bill that amended the North Carolina scalping law on the floor of the legislature. He said that venues were the driving force behind getting the law changed and that he assumed venues were going to prohibit scalping. But that has not happened.

"If the venues say it's not working, then it's clearly not working and we clearly need to revisit it," Gibson says. "The intent of the law was not to legitimate scalping. That was clear on the floor of the General Assembly and in committee. But if that's what's happening because venues won't stand up to ticket resellers, maybe we need to revisit the law and start back over."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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