Tight-Lipped on Ticketmaster

One of the difficulties in writing about the controversy over Ticketmaster’s escalating service charges–a spate of class-action antitrust suits, as well as Pearl Jam’s ongoing “holy war” against the company–is that most of the local principals won’t talk. Ticketmaster refers inquiries to a publicist who won’t discuss specifics. And some key local organizations–Jam Productions, for example, a major Ticketmaster client–are keeping their mouths shut as well. In Jam’s case, it’s because the company’s caught between a rock band (Pearl Jam) and a hard place (Ticketmaster) that are both officially “good friends.” Most difficult is just getting the raw details of how Ticketmaster works. But some information is available.

The company, as might be expected, treats venues differently according to their size. The Los Angeles Times has reported that Ticketmaster will sometimes pay large venues to maintain exclusive contracts. This apparently goes on in certain facilities in Chicago, though no one will specifically say so. For smaller venues, however, Ticketmaster actually charges them for the privilege of generating service-charge income. In these cases, the clubs pay Ticketmaster about 3 percent of the per-ticket price–30 cents on a $10 ticket–in addition to the $3 or so the company collects from consumers. Here, Ticketmaster makes money off everyone in sight.

FitzGerald’s owner Bill FitzGerald has been rethinking his involvement with Ticketmaster for some time. He rarely sells out his club, and so the advantage to actual ticket buyers is generally nil. “One thing I don’t like about [advance ticket sales] is that it creates this fear in people that ‘If I don’t get a ticket early I won’t get in,'” he says. “It does happen, but not enough in my club to the point where [Ticketmaster’s] worth it.”

On the other hand, Ticketmaster has at least one fairly satisfied customer in town. White Sox exec Howard Pizer says that the ball club was Ticketmaster’s first client in Chicago, in 1983, and that the team had come on board with alacrity after years of hassles with competitor Ticketron. “We weren’t fond of them,” Pizer says flatly. “It was a constant battle between our personnel and Ticketron.” While the relationship with Ticketmaster in the years since hasn’t been entirely smooth, Pizer says, he stresses that the company has been “extraordinarily responsive to problems when they arose.” He cited as examples that Ticketmaster retrained a corps of operators after complaints that they were not familiar enough with Comiskey Park, and that they’d rerouted some telephone systems to allow the club to transfer callers directly to Ticketmaster.

Are the White Sox one of the organizations that Ticketmaster kicks money back to? Says Pizer, “I can’t comment on the nature of our contracts.”

Another defender of Ticketmaster is the head of a company that does business with the firm but wouldn’t talk on the record. He argues that Ticketmaster has an enormous capital and personnel investment. And, he says, “They’re far and away the best ticket company out there.”

But isn’t there at least the potential for abuse–as evidenced by the flap over the hidden $15 service charge on tickets for the upcoming Eagles concerts? This source insisted that the marketplace determines whether ticket charges are too high. “Ticketmaster does not abuse the public,” he said flatly. “If they did the public would stop buying tickets. No one wants to cross that threshold: we’re trying to increase business, not decrease it.”

Pizer agrees. “What matters is the total cost. What’s the difference what the [service charge] is? We’re all free to go or not go to a particular event.”


Speaking of Bill FitzGerald, his roomy roots-rock roadhouse remains one of the great music venues in the area; for his annual American Music Festival he tents the parking lots and presents two stages of music over four days. This year’s edition, like many previous ones, lists strongly toward Austin. Former Arc Angel Doyle Bramhall and NRBQ star Thursday (June 30); Saturday there’s the marvelous Hackberry Ramblers, expressive singer-songwriter Jimmy LaFave, and rocker Stephen Bruton; Sunday’s highlights include David Halley, Marcia Ball Band, and LaFave again….Poi Dog Pondering fans will note that bandleader Frank Orrall’s new offshoot group, Palm Fabric Orchestra, celebrates its debut release at Lounge Ax July 4….Steve Albini, in his now-famous billet-doux to the Reader some months ago, went out of his way to stress that he was attacking Urge Overkill, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Liz Phair on professional grounds, not personal ones. Here’s the hypocritical little bastard in a recent profile in New York Press: “[Phair] is a rich suburban girl who made a name for herself [by] having an incredibly aggressive publicity campaign come to bear on her.” This is underground puerility at its best: Albini must be making a careful distinction between the advantages Phair had and his own, which include attendance at tony Northwestern. Phair’s alleged publicity campaign, of course, is entirely chimerical. Albini completists will want to see the whole article, which includes some enjoyable sniping between Stevie and various members of Sonic Youth. Send Hitsville a SASE for a copy.

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