BEN SISARIO NY Times 05/16/12
One Friday afternoon recently, about 50 fans and friends of the band String Cheese Incident took $20,000 in cash to the Greek Theater in Los Angeles to take a small stand against the system — in this case, Ticketmaster.
With money advanced by the band, each person had enough to buy eight tickets at $49.95 apiece for the group’s show in July. Once all tickets were in hand, almost 400 of them, they were carried back to String Cheese headquarters in Colorado and put on sale again through the group’s Web site — for $49.95.
“We’re scalping our own tickets at no service charge,” Mike Luba, one of the group’s managers, explained in an interview last week. “It’s ridiculous.”
String Cheese Incident, a jam band with a solid if under-the-radar following, wants to offer tickets to its whole summer tour without the service fees, now ubiquitous, charged by Ticketmaster and other vendors. To do that it is going through much more rigmarole than almost any group would bother with, but feels strongly that the effort is worthwhile.
“It costs us money to sell the tickets,” Keith Moseley, the band’s bassist, said. “But we are going to eat that cost this summer in order to make a better deal for our fans and let them know how much we appreciate them.”
With the summer touring season starting, the band’s challenge to the entrenched ticket-sales system is a reminder of how ticketing may be the concert industry’s most charged issue, affecting artists, fans and all sides of the business.
For String Cheese Incident, the Greek Theater mission was a chance to save fans some money and also to stage a symbolic protest as part of a decade-long conflict with Ticketmaster. To Ticketmaster and others in the concert industry, the band wants to ignore valid contracts and deprive theaters and promoters of standard revenue sources.
String Cheese Incident has long sold tickets to its own shows, handling as much as half the sales. In 2003 the band sued Ticketmaster, accusing the company of abusing its market power by denying the group more than the 8 percent of tickets it customarily makes available to acts. A settlement let the band continue to handle tickets for five years, but the agreement expired in 2009, just as the band was starting to return from a hiatus.
“I would argue that on some level they are our tickets,” Mr. Luba said. “If people in a free market find that Ticketmaster’s service is easier and more effective, by all means go for it. But we have found a group of people who are used to buying tickets directly from the band’s Web site.”
Ticketmaster declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement with the band. (Mr. Luba also acknowledged the agreement, after granting two interviews.) In its countersuit in 2003, the company argued that it had contracts with theaters that gave it the exclusive right to sell tickets.
Consumers seeking tickets to all sorts of events have become increasingly frustrated — and sometimes enraged — by ticket fees, which can add 30 or 40 percent to the cost of an order, as well as by the lack of other options for buying tickets. But while the brunt of that anger is usually directed at Ticketmaster, other players in the business, like theaters and promoters, collect, and depend on, their share of fees.
John Scher, a veteran promoter in New York and New Jersey, called String Cheese Incident’s efforts “a righteous cause,” but added that in most cases the cost of booking quality acts was so high that promoters cannot afford to forgo their share of ticketing fees, known in the industry as rebates.
“The acts have gotten so greedy across the board, and have made the risk-reward so impossible, that the rebates are very much the lifeblood of promoters,” Mr. Scher said. (The band’s tour is not coming to the Northeast.)
Mr. Luba said that the band was able to make private deals with individual box offices for large ticket allotments to its shows, but was unable to make such a deal with the Greek. (An executive at the theater did not return two calls for comment.) For those tickets, the band took advantage of a loophole: the Greek waived surcharges on walk-up sales of its tickets.
One fan recruited by the band to wait in line at the Greek was Anh Pham, a 41-year-old graphic designer, who said he took part because he believed Ticketmaster’s fees were too high.
“Ticketmaster has been around for so long, and they’ve made so much money from me and so many of us, that the opportunity to help out the String Cheese community was to me a fantastic idea,” Mr. Pham said.
Mr. Luba said that to keep String Cheese Incident’s ticket price from rising above face value, the band was paying the credit card processing fees for orders on its Web site, at a dollar or two per order.
“If the tickets are 49 bucks, we want them to be 49 bucks when the kid buys them at the end,” Mr. Luba said.
But buying a ticket on the band’s Web site has its own added cost: $12 to mail tickets by United Parcel Service, with no other delivery option offered. That expense, however, is still cheaper than buying through Ticketmaster.
There was simply no way around that fee, Mr. Luba said.