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Ticketmaster Update

In the course of the several congressional hearings held so far to look at Ticketmaster’s control of the ticket-selling industry, representatives of the company have made some rather farfetched statements. Several–including the firm’s contention that its profit margin is almost nonexistent–sound unlikely but are effectively uncontradictable. Others are more vulnerable to challenge, like the company’s galling pronouncement that it always prints the amount of its service charges on the tickets it sells. As anyone who’s bought one knows, those charges are almost never on the tickets. Indeed, for some shows–most recently the Eagles’ performance at the World this summer–the company won’t even tell you over the phone what the charges are.

At the most recent set of hearings–held, for some reason, before the Transportation and Finance Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee–Congress began considering a new bill that would require the agency to print those fees on tickets. During the meeting, held at the end of last month, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group presented the results of a small study. (Ten PIRGs contributed information on a total of 80 concerts across the country.) Unsurprisingly, they found that two-thirds of the time the agency did not print service charges. They also found that the average service charge for the events they analyzed, which included both concerts and lesser-priced “family” events, was $5.10. The group purchased their tickets one at a time over the phone, which will skew findings a bit higher because of the per-order fee Ticketmaster adds on to phone charges. But it’s still significantly higher than the $3 average the company claims.

Bill Wood, an advocate for the national PIRG office, presented the findings to the subcommittee. Among other things Wood represents Illinois PIRG before Congress. He told Hitsville that the study also noticed that for “family” events, Ticketmaster has slightly different policies than for rock shows. Charges tend to be $1.75 or less per ticket. Further, the company “caps out” service charges at $7 per order for family events. As fans know well, that’s not the policy for rock shows.

“We found all kinds of complicated ways they rip people off,” says Wood matter-of-factly. “At some venues the box office itself is a Ticketmaster outlet. In other words, you can’t get a $15 ticket for $15. It doesn’t exist.”

The legislation the subcommittee was considering died with the congressional recess this week, but Wood notes that it was small game anyway. He said PIRG would like to see Congress ban the company’s contracts with venues. “These are long-term exclusive contracts that effectively prevent competitors from getting into the market,” he says. He also wants Congress to stop “what some have called kickbacks,” where Ticketmaster routes a portion of the service charges back to the venues. Finally, the group would like to see service charges held to 10 percent of the ticket price, or a new flat charge per order instead of per ticket. A lot of problems could be alleviated by competition, Wood notes. In Portland, Oregon, one city from which they drew information, service charges were a lot lower–about 20 percent lower, in fact. The reason was apparently that a competing ticket agency operated there. “We call [Ticketmaster] the 800-pound gorilla of the ticketing industry, and in most cases they’re the only gorilla in town,” says Wood.

Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll

The life-style has taken its toll on numerous rockers, in forms dramatic (plane crashes) and tawdry (choking on one’s own vomit). But those who survive the dangers of youth are not out of the woods: they simply face more mundane perils. From the health file, just in the past few weeks:

The Eagles canceled several shows because of unspecified problems with Glenn Frey’s colon. Insert your own joke here, or calculate how much a pain in the rear costs when it stops shows that would’ve grossed $2 million-plus a night.

The Crosby, Stills, and Nash 25th-anniversary reunion tour has been put on hold because David Crosby needs a liver transplant.

John Cougar Mellencamp has canceled the rest of his current tour because of a clogged artery.

Roger Daltrey has canceled the rest of his current tour because of undisclosed “respiratory problems” that put him in the hospital.

Final Stones Item (Maybe)

A recent issue of Billboard credited the Rolling Stones’ pair of shows at Soldier Field with earning $4,194,000 plus change–a gross record for the venue. One funny thing: both shows were reported to be sold out, but Soldier Field’s capacity was given as 45,000. That’s a lot lower than the numbers given for other recent sold-out shows there, including 55,000 for the Grateful Dead and 51,000 for Pink Floyd. Were the Stones fudging the capacity so they could pat themselves on the back for undeserved sellouts? No, says Jam’s Scott Gelman. “Capacity is decided by the guys who come out to advance the shows,” he says. “You can’t compare different [tours]; each one’s vastly different.” One other Stones tidbit: a backstage denizen at the two-night stand says both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were assisted by telepromptered lyrics.

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