Rock 'N' Roll's Holy War

  • Some of her fans would pay just about anything to see Barbra Streisand live in concert this summer. But only a few can afford to pay what it takes -- as much as $1,000 to obtain a ticket with a face value of $350 for a seat down front at arenas like Anaheim Pond and Madison Square Garden. When the New York Rangers, who haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1940, looked like they would finally do it on home ice last Thursday night, scalpers outside the Garden on game night were asking as much as $5,000 for a ticket with a face value of $125.

    When it comes to getting tickets for the hottest entertainment and sports events, it's money that counts. Big money. And as the most star-studded summer concert season in years gets under way -- with such performers as Streisand, Billy Joel and Elton John, the Rolling Stones, and the 30 top bands that will appear at Woodstock II -- a "holy war" over outrageous ticket prices has broken out, forcing the music industry to choose up sides. Last month Pearl Jam, the popular alternative-rock band from Seattle, called down the wrath of the U.S. Department of Justice against Ticketmaster, by far the largest distributor of sports and entertainment tickets in the U.S. (1993 volume: 52 million tickets). Pearl Jam claims that Ticketmaster has a near monopoly over tickets and charges inflated service fees, which can range from a typical $4 a ticket to $18 for the hottest acts. Fred Rosen, ceo of Ticketmaster, indignantly rejects thecharge, noting that his firm developed a sophisticated computer system to make it easy for performers to sell large numbers of tickets, and has a right to be paid for the service. Says he: "If Pearl Jam wants to play for free, we'll be happy to distribute their tickets for free."

    The legal battle over who should control tickets and prices comes at a time when fans are already fed up with the scalping that can drive up prices for the most desirable tickets to several times their face value as they are resold, often more than once, by middlemen. These operators are a mix of quick-buck artists at street level, high-priced attorneys who speculate in tickets for profits, corporate executives trading favors, music-industry insiders and Mafiosi who control key blocks of tickets and take a cut of the inflated price. While Pearl Jam is pointing the finger at Ticketmaster's relatively modest service fees, it is these behind-the-scenes brokers who are responsible for the hundreds of dollars added to the price of some tickets. Though these scalpers handle less than 20% of the tickets, they are often the best tickets: the first 10 rows at an Elton John concert or the N.B.A. finals. They are the reason that even the fans who sleep outside the box office to be first in line find that they cannot buy a front-row seat. It is scalpers who bid up the price of a Rolling Stones ticket, for example, from $55 to $350. Typically, none of this end-stage profit goes to the performer, though a few bands are rumored to trade heavily with scalpers, holding back most of the best tickets from box-office sales. Ultimately, it's the fans who pay for it all.

    The current rebellion started when Pearl Jam laid plans for a low-cost tour their young fans could afford. They wanted their tickets to cost no more than $18.50, with service fees held to $1.80. Ticketmaster balked, arguing that it must charge $2 or more to cover its costs. Pearl Jam hired Sullivan & Cromwell, the prestigious Manhattan law firm. In a memorandum filed with the Justice Department, the lawyers claimed that Ticketmaster's control over tickets and its exclusive contracts with most of the leading concert arenas constitute anticompetitive behavior that enables it to prop up prices. Soul Asylum, another popular alternative-rock band, jumped into the fray. By week's end Garth Brooks, Neil Young, U2 and Bad Religion had lined up with Pearl Jam, saying they supported Pearl Jam's cause. Says Kelly Curtis, Pearl Jam's manager: "All the band wants to do is to be able to tour with a cheap ticket price." While the dispute with Ticketmaster amounted to less than $1 a ticket, though, the band was not offering to absorb the cost. Said Rosen: "We ought to change our name to Targetmaster."

    The performers claim that Ticketmaster, as the only large agency ticketing national tours, exerts excessive control over access to arenas. Pearl Jam says it cannot tour this summer because Ticketmaster is so powerful -- and so feared -- that no arena of decent size was willing to book the band. Ticketmaster denies that it has interfered in any way with Pearl Jam bookings. Artists afraid to be quoted by name claim that after buying out competing agencies like Ticketron, Ticketmaster is so powerful that it can hold up payment of ticket receipts for months, block bookings or just "experience computer problems" in selling tickets for a troublesome act, so that seats go unsold. Ticketmaster denies that it engages in such practices.

    Whether or not Pearl Jam's accusations against Ticketmaster are valid, law- enforcement officials are trying hard to curb the far more significant problem of illegal ticket scalping. According to authorities, organized crime is deeply involved in the illicit reselling of tickets. When a $25 ticket can ultimately sell for $500, the difference amounts to a large chunk of untraceable cash -- a phrase that is pure music to a mobster's ears. Police sources told Time last week that the Mob runs some scalping operations in New York and other large cities. Blocks of tickets earmarked by performers for charities such as impoverished youth groups, for example, are instead often delivered to Mafia operatives and end up in the hands of upper-middle-class fans, who can then brag that they know someone who knows "someone important" with access to tickets.

    Several states are cracking down on scalping, although so far with little success. Newspapers in major cities routinely carry classified ads for top tickets, many of them placed by illegal operators. New York is investigating allegations of collusion between brokers and box-office employees as part of a wide-ranging probe of ticket-selling practices. Georgia, trying to prevent a replay of the Super Bowl scalping last January that drove ticket prices from $175 to as much as $1,200 apiece, has passed a new law making it illegal to scalp tickets for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. Even such a law, however, does not mean that fans will have access to all the best seats, since corporate sponsors and other powerful fans can still pull strings legally to buy up huge blocks of prime tickets for all the key events. Pearl Jam's campaign against Ticketmaster will do nothing to curb such practices. So long as people with plenty of cash are willing to pay a premium to sit down front, some fans will be more equal than others at the box office.