April 25, 2005
By Steve Knopper
At precisely 11 a.m. on Saturday, April 9th, Julie Grayauskie, a social worker in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, called Ticketmaster on two phones and logged on to ticketmaster.com on her computer. She had seen Bruce Springsteen seventeen times on the Rising tour and desperately wanted a ticket to his May 19th show at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Forty-five minutes later, she gave up. "You get online right away, it tells you your wait time is less than a minute and it pops up right away: 'No tickets available,'" she says. "It sucks. I don't know how to put it -- I'm so angry."
Within minutes, fans from New Jersey to Colorado to Minnesota were echoing Grayauskie's outrage on Springsteen message boards. "Scalpers rot!" declared one. "I'm sick and tired of being penalized for not being a well-connected insider," said another. For hot tours like Springsteen, U2 and Nine Inch Nails -- and, soon, Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones -- professional ticket brokers use a combination of manpower and technology to swoop in and commandeer hundreds of seats at a time. As of Monday afternoon, April 11th, ticketsnow.com was selling 292 seats to Springsteen's New Jersey show -- almost nine percent of the 3,300 seats that went on sale to the public -- with some going for as much as $2,565 apiece.
Ticket scalping has been frustrating artists and fans for decades, and in the age of eBay, it's possible for anybody to buy and sell high-demand tickets for outrageous profits. But the bigger problem is that major ticket brokers have become far more nimble and sophisticated -- often using expensive software that enables them to get around ticketmaster.com's security and buy up large blocks of tickets before fans have the chance. "It's one of the worst aspects of capitalism," says Peter Harvey, attorney general of New Jersey, where selling tickets for fifty percent above face value is illegal. The state recently opened a $5 million anti-Internet-fraud crime lab with the FBI, and Harvey promises to use it to prosecute online scalpers.
Check out these prices: Nine Inch Nails on April 27th at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, with a face value of $35.50, now up to $407 at ticketliquidator.com; Audioslave on April 30th at the Roseland Ballroom in New York, originally $35, $177 at stubhub.com; and U2, whose tickets hit $1,500 apiece last month on eBay until the band recently lowered demand by adding more shows.
"It's hard," says Peter Paterno, attorney for Metallica, Pearl Jam and others. "You look at Metallica and Pearl Jam and Rancid -- they try to keep their ticket price really fair, but at the end of the day that just means scalpers line up and resell them. The ticket brokers are not stupid. They've gotten very efficient at what they do."
How do they do it? Just as brokers used to hire people to stand in line overnight at Tower Records to buy tickets for hot shows, now they hire dozens of people to log on to ticketmaster.com at the moment hot tickets go on sale. Some also incorporate more complicated high-tech techniques, like using computer "bots" to override ticketmaster.com's security by automatically plugging in the randomly selected "secret word" repeatedly and at high speeds. Hackers reportedly sell the software for $20,000 and say it allows a single broker to buy hundreds of tickets in minutes.
All this is technically legal in most of the U.S. "As long as there's supply and demand, there's going to be ticket brokering," says Gary Adler, general counsel for the National Association of Ticket Brokers in Washington, D.C. "And you'd much rather have it be done by legitimate businessmen than out of the trunk of somebody's car."
Some big-name artists are fighting back against the scalpers. For the best seats on Springsteen's Devils and Dust tour, promoters stipulated that buyers had to show up personally at Will Call in order to claim most tickets. Other artists, including Pearl Jam and Dave Matthews Band, allow fan-club members first shot at tickets. But that can backfire: Earlier this year, U2 tried to limit pre-sale tickets to members of its fan club, but scalpers simply joined the fan club to get some of the first seats.
Many artists have even contemplated raising ticket prices for top seats to compete with scalpers. "But then you appear to take advantage of your fans, and you don't want to," says Jim Guerinot, manager of Nine Inch Nails, No Doubt and others. "It's a can't-win situation."
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