A Fine Alternative to Ticketmaster

While the rock world chafes under the yoke of Ticketmaster, other parts of the entertainment firmament are trying to do something about it. For several years now a group of fine-arts institutions in Chicago have been looking into an alternative ticket-selling network. It’s not clear that the grand designs of the group will ever come together, and it’s interesting to note that they’re not even primarily motivated by frustration with the organization rock fans know and hate. But they do think they can create a better system, one with three distinct advantages: First, the groups could train ticket sellers to deal with the sophisticated demands and expectations of the fine-arts audience–everything from knowing how to pronounce a painter or conductor’s name to discussing the merits of various subscription programs. Second, of course, a nonprofit setup might make the charges cheaper for buyers. And third, a customized system could open up a brave new world of promotion and marketing opportunities–for example, by creating vast new mailing lists for the organizations involved.

The project–dubbed “the fine arts ticketing consortium” by participants–had its genesis at the CSO, an organization that, primarily for reason number one above, has always had an in-house phone-ticketing system. In 1991 finance directors at the CSO, knowing they’d have to update the system eventually, began talks with groups like the Art Institute, the Goodman, and finally a whole spectrum of mostly nonprofit arts groups. Different participants had different motives: smaller groups–say, theater companies with no permanent box office–were glad of any opportunity to make it easier for prospective patrons to buy tickets; other, larger companies were concerned more about costs, staff quality, and, some say, the looming monopoly of Ticketmaster, which had recently bought out Ticketron. After “one thousand and one meetings,” as one participant put it, the group approached the Joyce Foundation for a grant to fund a feasibility study. The completed study bore the good news that a system that included major ticket generators–primarily the CSO and the Art Institute–could break even its first year. “It made sense for us to do it together,” says Tom Hallett, the orchestra’s director of finance. “We could save money, open new markets.”

The group, also hearing that the idea had worked in other cities, started entertaining proposals from a number of interested parties, including the European version of Ticketmaster and several stateside pretenders to its mantle. Some participants were wowed by the possibilities. “There are [computer] programs that let you go into the theater and visually look at the stage to see what your seat location is like,” marvels Kendall Marlowe, company manager at the Goodman.

One group that didn’t make a proposal was Ticketmaster. The company was aware of the group’s plan; from the start, in fact, some participants were worried about the reaction from the Pritzker family, which controlled Ticketmaster until last year and has members on quite a few fine arts boards. Participants speculate that the company was turned off by the program’s demands, which included a much lower ticket volume and much higher maintenance.

Some enthusiasts see the consortium as necessary for the continued growth of fine arts institutions in a greatly competitive world. “Ticketmaster is great at selling 20,000 tickets to a Neil Diamond concert in two hours,” says Marlowe. “But if I’m a subscriber at the symphony I might call and want to exchange a pair of tickets and inquire about the program, and then order a sweatshirt and put a down payment on next year’s subscription.”

And sooner or later the larger and more old-fashioned insititutions will need to start taking advantage of late-20th-century marketing practices. “The performing-arts organizations [as opposed to the museums] are of necessity light-years ahead,” notes Marlowe. “We wouldn’t dream of having someone come here and not make an attempt to capture their name or address. If they’re a single-ticket buyer this year, we want them to be a subscriber next year.”

Consortium members still haven’t agreed to do business together, and the less-than-impulsive nature of the institutions involved–each with specialized needs and a set of traditions developed over decades–makes it possible that they never will. On the other hand, it’s likely that as the larger institutions begin modernizing their box offices, they’ll agree to use compatible systems. This could eventually evolve into a true alternative to Ticketmaster–at least in the fine arts world. “I hope it does happen,” says the CSO’s Hallett. “In the long term, the benefits are great; in the short term, there are some hurdles to get over.”


The Lookingglass Theatre Company’s new production, Joe Orton’s Up Against It, was originally commissioned by the Beatles; the playwright’s submission–which, as Lookingglass notes, sees its four characters “become exiled, deflower virgins, experiment with cross-dressing, have their hearts broken, get their teeth knocked out, assassinate a public figure, start a revolution, and still manage to find happiness in married life to one another”–was summarily rejected. Orton was refashioning it into a film for A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester when he was murdered. The play is traditionally put on with original music inserted where the Beatles were supposed to have performed; music for this production is being composed by the ensemble with help from Didjits leader Rick Sims, who’ll be appearing in the show as well. It opens at the Goodman Theatre Studio July 17….David Grubbs’s Gastr del Sol played the Vienna jazz festival last week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.