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The Half-Price Ticket Biz Heats Up

Within the next few weeks the League of Chicago Theatres will unveil redesigns of its two Web sites, Hot Tix and chicagoplays.com. After a $130,000 makeover (paid for by the state, the MacArthur Foundation, and Boeing) chicagoplays will offer geographic searches, links to tourism sites, and according to new league director Deanna Shoss, a “more dramatic” appearance–but Hot Tix will remain a mere listing of what’s available. To purchase half-price tickets, you’ll still have to drag your ass to one of Hot Tix’s three booths or Tower Records (in which case bring cash) and hope the show you want hasn’t sold out by the time you get there. Shoss, getting up to speed after less than a month on the job, says online ticketing for Hot Tix is still “in a discovery phase.”

While the league diddles, the competition has tiptoed into town. Its Web site may say “coming soon,” but California-based Goldstar Events is already offering half-price online tickets for selected dates at Chicago theaters–including Steppenwolf and the Goodman. CEO Jim McCarthy says they’re not out to cannibalize Hot Tix; he claims that Goldstar, which offers a range of events including music and sports and works with sites like Daily Candy, is marketing to a “mainstream” audience Hot Tix might never reach. On the other hand, last week he had click-and-get tickets for 32 Chicago events. You have to become a Goldstar member to order, but that’s painless: an e-mail address and zip code does it; next thing you know, you’re getting a weekly newsletter with event listings and alerts to late additions.

Goldstar was launched in 2002 by McCarthy (a Geocities vet) and two buddies he’d worked with at a failed education-software start-up. They capitalized it with $1,000 and a year or so of their own unpaid labor. In LA, their best-established market, about half the events they list are small theater performances. The theaters “identify the performances where they can predict that they’ll have inventory–no different from an airline or a hotel,” McCarthy says. Goldstar gives them the opportunity to reap half the ticket price from those potentially empty seats and to expand their reach. There’s no cost to the venue; Goldstar makes its money from a fee paid by the customer (usually about $4 per ticket, slightly more than what Hot Tix charges). According to McCarthy, Goldstar has 130,000 members, mostly in California (they now operate in San Francisco and San Diego as well as LA), who also function as a source of rapid e-mail feedback on events they see. He declined to reveal annual sales.

McCarthy says the response from venues here has been warm and the competition is not with Hot Tix but with movies and DVDs: “We’re trying to grow the pie for live entertainment.” Terence McFarland, executive director of the league’s Los Angeles counterpart, the LA Stage Alliance–which sells its half-price tickets on the Internet–says Goldstar is getting some business that would otherwise move through his organization. Even so, he adds, ticket sales for LA Stage Tix are up 17 percent over last year. Shoss says Goldstar called the league office, but they haven’t talked yet.

A Leg Up for Chicago Dance

Meanwhile, seechicagodance.com is set to launch September 6, offering discounted tickets online for any dance company that wants to sell them. At a marketing boot camp at the Cultural Center last weekend, PR firm Carol Fox & Associates rolled out a preview of the site. They’ve got a graceless, puke-colored dot of a logo that looks like it was inspired by BP, and a certain amount of their data reinvents a wheel already set in motion by the Chicago Dance and Music Alliance–but never mind. This is a focused, consumer-oriented, state-of-the-art Web presence that could be the first step in building a visible profile for the Chicago dance community, and it got an enthusiastic response from about 100 people who hung in for the second day of the workshop. And why not? Their companies will get free, searchable performance listings, pages, and links on the site; exposure in a monthly online newsletter and weekly e-mails; and Internet sales of discounted or specially packaged tickets. (Buyers will pay a fee of $2.50 to $4.50 per ticket; sales will be handled by Ticketmaster’s smaller-venue provider, Ticketweb.) Additional e-mail blasts and ads in the newsletter or on the site are available at start-up rates that range from $25 to $300 for nonprofits. Besides all that, for a onetime $200 setup charge, regular ticket sales can be handled on the site as well. If it hadn’t been 100 degrees outside it might have been Christmas.

The Web site launch is the final phase of the Chicago Community Trust’s four-year dance initiative. CCT senior fellow Sarah Solotaroff says the foundation’s effort is over and that from here on it’s up to the community itself. But cut loose from the CCT, the audience development project is an odd creature. It looks like it should belong to an association controlled by its members–but there is no such entity. It has Hubbard Street Dance as its fiduciary agent, Hubbard Street head Gail Kalver as its director, and Carol Fox as its manager. Fox’s firm is being paid for its services, but she says a lot of the work is being done pro bono. The project, budgeted at $340,000, has raised $200,000 in donations so far (half from CCT). According to Fox, that money paid for a limited amount of new research, the Web site and logo, an initial meeting last fall, the boot camp, and a limited amount of advertising. The remaining $140,000 will keep the site running for a year and pay for more advertising. The hope is that once it’s established, ad revenue from the site and $1 of the service fee on each ticket sold will support it.

Help an Artist, Step on a Toe

Judy Robins’s letter to the editor of Chicago Artists’ News, the Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s monthly newspaper, got prominent play in last month’s issue. Why is it, Robins wondered, that Cultural Affairs is such a copycat? “For the past several years, the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs has been blitzing the Chicago visual arts community with lectures, workshops, and demonstrations (i.e., tax workshops, how to find artists’ living spaces, etc) that mimic what the Chicago Artists’ Coalition has been offering the Chicago visual art community for 30 years,” Robins wrote. “Doesn’t this hamper CAC’s struggles to get grants and membership? . . . CAC offered many . . . services to artists that no one else could (i.e., insurance and emergency funds). Why now is the city stepping in and using CAC’s ideas . . . when money is so tight and grants extremely hard to get?”

Members say there’s an irony here: the Chicago Artists’ Coalition was instrumental in getting the city to establish the Department of Cultural Affairs. And outgoing director Arlene Rakoncay says a good relationship with the department is vital. But she also says a situation that started with beneficial collaborative programming has morphed into something that has CAC feeling usurped and wondering why a similar amount of attention hasn’t been given to, say, writers or dancers. In a written response, Cultural Affairs spokesperson Kimberly Costello said the department has collaborated on many programs and consulted with CAC on the development of others. “Hopefully,” Costello wrote, “most CAC members realize that our efforts complement theirs, and that more is more when it comes to services for the arts community.” CAC finished a dicey fiscal year at the end of June in the black, but only after soliciting donations from members.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Paul Dolan.