WhySucks

Ok, we've had enough. Largely by chance, we discovered that Henry Rollins was doing a spoken-word show in Tempe on Monday - since a cousin is visiting from Australia, we aren't able to go to the box-office, so visited ticketmaster.com in order to pick up tickets. Four tickets at $20.75 = $83.00, right? Not by Ticketmaster's math:

  • Face Value:                20.75
  • Building Facility Charge:   1.25
  • Convenience Charge:         6.75

Total cost = $115, including $32 in total charges, an almost 40% surcharge. And that's not even including the $2.50 they'd charge, had I wanted to print the tickets out on my own computer - using my own paper and ink. Are they taking the piss? Apparently not. This is part of the reason why they are widely referred to as Ticketbastards.

No-one would argue that they are entitled to cover their costs and make a reasonable profit, but what they are doing goes well beyond both. It's both ludicrous, and entirely unjustifiable, not least because the charges are arbitrary. For a Merle Haggard concert, the add-ons are $2.00 and $8.25 - that's at exactly the same venue, so why is the "building facility" charge different? And why is it suddenly $1.50 more 'convenient' to buy Haggard tickets than Rollins ones? Is there some hidden expense associated with the former? No - the only difference is the face value, and hence how much money Ticketmaster can gouge out of the buyer.

Unfortunately, these days Ticketmaster are an unstoppable behemoth. Complaints about their behaviour go all the way back to at least 1994, when Pearl Jam cancelled a tour as part of their battle with the company. It serves as a nice illustration of how the company operates, and why it has become such a monster.

It started when Eddie Vedder and his mates objected to Ticketmaster adding their (strangely variable, but even back then, extortionate) fees to concert tickets, whose face value had been kept deliberately low at $18. A couple of dates in, after selling tickets through other means, they discovered that across the country, Ticketmaster had a monopoly on sales at a lot of venues, and was enforcing it aggressively. For their compliance, the venues, on their part, got what can only be described as "kickbacks", funded by the service charges. These were sometimes as much as $500,000/year, in addition to what Ticketmaster paid them up front for the monopoly. Little wonder places have no interest in exploring other avenues.

Equally as bad, the company also had exclusive contracts with promoters, locking them in with Ticketmaster. So even at an independent venue, if the event promoter is contracted with Ticketmaster, the result's the same. In the end, the problems proved too much for Pearl Jam to overcome, and the tour was cancelled, costing somewhere around $3m. They complained to the Justice Department, and two members, Jeff Ament and Steve Goddard, testified before a House Committee that Ticketmaster were a monopoly bent on eliminating competition. Aerosmith's manager testified too, saying he had no choice but to use the company, even though he hated doing so.

In 1995, the Justice Department decided against investigating Ticketmaster; Pearl Jam became Ticketmaster's bitches, and since then, things have got worse. Much worse. Ticketmaster has gobbled up competitors such as Ticketweb, to such an extent that in 2000 it was estimated that the company controlled 90% of the market, and in 2001, they sold $3.6 billion worth of tickets.

Another part of the problem is their "exclusive agreement" with the very worst of the media companies, Clear Channel, through the latter's SFX Entertainment subsidiary. This cosy cartel of venues, promoters, and the media means the chances are slim of you hearing about any other means of getting tickets - especially if you listen to one of Clear Channel's 1,200 radio stations, which control 60% of all rock programming in America.

[As an aside, in August 2001, Nobody In Particular Promotions sued Clear Channel charging it "used monopolistic, predatory, and anticompetitive practices to prevent NIPP and others from offering concert promotion services in that area." The irony is, guess who owns the venue Henry Rollins is playing at - which is just down the road from where Ticketmaster started? Yep: Nobody In Particular Promotions.]

This August, String Cheese Incident were the latest to suffer. They sued Ticketmaster, frustrated because the company refused to let the band sell tickets direct to their own fans. They were unable to play in San Diego, because every appropriately-sized venue was exclusively tied up. See Pearl Jam for details, boys - the band may have changed, but Ticketmaster's tune remains the same: "We're in the Money".

The company now have exclusive rights to 90% of the nation's large arenas, and over 70% of the clubs and theatres. This pretty much allows them to charge whatever markup they want - and as the example at the top of the page shows, they take full advantage of the opportunity. It's interesting to note that Ticketmaster get their claws in at both ends. If they sell your band's tickets, they charge 3.5% commission on gross sales, plus a further "administrative fee" for credit/debit card fees. The latter is particular interesting, removing wholesale one potential justification for what they add to the price of a ticket.

As if gouging in this manner weren't enough, in September the company announced plans to auction off the best tickets to the highest bidder - effectively becoming nothing more than touts, driven entirely by market forces. The worst thing is, laws against scalping are ineffective, since they apply only to the resale of tickets, not the initial purchase. Again, they'll be laughing all the way to the bank.

Paul Allen - Owned not
one, but two companies
loathed by millions...
I'm a huge fan of the free market - but for a truly free market, competition is absolutely essential, and is conspicuously absent in this field. It's difficult to see how Microsoft is a monopoly, but Ticketmaster isn't - the latter deserve investigation equally as much. [Interestingly, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, was at one point the main Ticketmaster shareholder] The arrogance, selfishness and greed they display leaves me wishing they get splintered into a thousand pieces for their dubious business practices.

Downloading may or may not be killing CDs, but the leech which is Ticketmaster drains the vitality out of live entertainment just as badly. Most people don't have an unlimited budget, and these hefty "convenience charges" inevitably mean fewer events will be attended. Ticketmaster have certainly succeeded in making us think twice about what concerts we go to.


August 2007 Update

Little did I think, when I wrote this article in January 2004, how popular it would become. I've received more feedback than anything else I've ever written, and was delighted to discover the piece is now on the first page when you Google 'Ticketmaster'. Looking at the referrals which brought people here, it's clear that 'Ticketmaster sucks' is at least as popular as 'Ticketmaster', which says a great deal about the perception of the company. Here's a quick experiment: type 'Microsoft' into Google, and you get 379 million hits: type 'Microsoft sucks' and you get 3.56 million, or less than one percent - 0.94%, to be exact. That's about par: hell, even 'Bush sucks' gets you only 1.15% of the hits that 'Bush' does. But do the same thing for 'Ticketmaster'/'Ticketmaster sucks', and the ratio climbs to 2.81%. That's worse than the Yankees, f'heavens sake. And everybody hates them.

The good news is, Ticketmaster has suffered some significant reverses. Here's a few updates and significant news changes:

  • November, 2005: CIPPIC (Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic) file a complaint against Ticketmaster, alleging "failures on the part of Ticketmaster to clearly identify what it does with personal information once collected, to protect information transferred to third parties for processing, to obtain proper consent from customers for secondary uses and disclosures, and to respond adequately to access to information requests."
  • 22nd December, 2005: Ticketmaster forced to settle with the Department of Justice over claims it violated the Americans With Disabilities Act.
  • 20th April, 2007: Ticketmaster sues StubHub for selling tickets to shows which Ticketmaster claimed it had "exclusive" rights.

    Of course, competition is not a good thing when it doesn't actually make any difference. Part of the reason for updating this piece was because Henry Rollins was, once again, back in Tempe, doing a spoken-word show. As you may recall (see the top of the article if not!), it was the horrendous "service fees" tacked on top of tickets to see him, which provoked the original article. But now, the venue promoters have joined the flood of venues abandoning Ticketmaster: let us rejoice at the huge savings to be enjoyed! Er, except that four tickets for this upcoming show courtesy of 'Ticketforce' - hah, Ticketfarce, more like! - cost... $114.50. A whole fifty cents better than Ticketbastard, three plus years ago. It seems that where one gouger succeeds, other greedy bastards will inevitably follow.


    Feedback

    Cliff Dickinson: "I just want to thank you for the article and links you have posted concerning Ticketmaster's schemes. I only wish there was a way to warn more people of their rip-off tactics before they buy. Here's a copy of my note to their customer service email-box. Fat chance of it getting anywhere with them..."

    "I purchased two tickets to the Cher concert last night in Daytona. The start time for the concert, printed on the ticket and published on your website was 7:30 PM. We rushed to get there after work. The show did not start until 9PM. We learned from the Event Director that Cher's contract stated 9 PM start time. We also learned that Ticketmaster recieves a commission from Centerplate for concessions. Sounds like Ticketmaster has a problem with the truth. I paid a $25 "convenience fee" to get these tickets plus a $5 fee to get to print them out on my printer, on my paper. Then to top it off Cher played for 1 hour and 18 minutes. Thus, we spent more time sitting, with no act or entertainment than the combined opening act & Cher's concert. That's hardly what we had in mind for a great concert. Ticketmaster is responsible for a lot of frustration for my wife and me last night. Unless, Ticketmaster resolves this matter with us, I will make it a policy in our household going forward that, if we cannot buy tickets directly from the event location or somewhere other than Ticketmaster, we will not go. I look forward to your response.


    Further reading

    Ticketmaster Customer Experiences

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