Sold 'out'

Consumers are the victims in a concert ticket system for which no one wants to take responsibility.

March 12, 2010 

Fans who can still afford to go to a popular music concert these days have something in common no matter whether they like hard country or the latest, wildest rock and roll. Namely, they stand a good chance of getting stuck paying an inflated price for a ticket because of so-called "sell-outs" that often are not that. Not exactly.

A report by The News & Observer's David Menconi last Sunday detailed a ticket-selling system in concert venues large and small whereby ticket "brokers" of one sort or another resell tickets they've often acquired in blocks at inflated prices.

Sometimes, the performing artists themselves, and their promoters, are in for a cut of the proceeds when they hold back a number of prime tickets that are then sold at high prices.

If this sounds like old-fashioned "scalping," that's because it essentially is exactly that. And if this were something confined to individuals who accidentally wound up with a couple of extra tickets for a show and wanted to make a few bucks, it might be rather harmless. But the Age of the Internet has turned the resale business into a very big business indeed, one that sticks it to would-be concert goers who dutifully wait until the day tickets go on sale, go online to buy, and find out that the show is a sell-out.

Only it's not. A little more rummaging online can turn up secondary ticket sale sites where admission can be had - for a high price.

This is all pretty much out in the open, and in fact Ticketmaster, king of the concert ticket business, owns ticketsnow.com, a site where tickets to often sold-out shows can be had. In effect, the site is Ticketmaster's own scalper.

All the parties in the concert business, from the venues such as the RBC Center and the Durham Performing Arts Center and many others to artists' representatives to ticket brokers, are in a wink-and-nod game here. If they talked at length about it, the gist of what they all said would be the same: Gee, it's too bad that fans wind up at the mercy of scalpers, but gosh, there's just not much that can be done about it. We're really upset about it, though.

As Menconi reported, North Carolina used to outlaw scalping. The law was amended, apparently with good intentions, in the 2007-08 legislative session to allow "Internet Resale" of tickets at higher prices (meaning higher than face value) in exchange for giving consumers a little protection - guaranteed refunds from vendors if a show was canceled, for example. State Rep. Pryor Gibson of Wadesboro, who led the change through the House, says he figured the concert venues would prohibit scalping, but they didn't. So merrily the scalpers roll along.

No one - not the venues, not the first-line ticket sellers, not most of the artists and certainly not the scalpers - wants to change the system. So here's a first step for the people who are supposed to take on difficult tasks to protect consumers, the members of the General Assembly: Force concert venues to ban scalping.

That won't solve the problem, but it will be a first step, after which legislators can consider, perhaps in consultation with those from other states, what to do to pull the reins on scalpers for good. Sitting around and fretting about how this is all so complicated that nothing can be done about it just isn't good enough, and never should have been.

It is past time for some old-fashioned, get-tough consumer protection.

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