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Buying concert tickets gets complicated

9:09 AM, Jan 2, 2013   |    comments
People line up to purchase Bon Jovi concert tickets at the Yum! Center on Dec. 3, 2012, in Louisville, Ky.(Photo: Kylene White, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal)
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Between fan club pre-sales, credit card company pre-sales, VIP packages and a nationwide network of highly organized ticket brokers - what used to be called scalpers - the average person looking to buy concert tickets faces many more obstacles than in the past.

"The days of waiting in line to get a good ticket are over," said Dean Budnick, co-author with Josh Baron of "Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped."

In September, Ann Meuer and her daughters, Cassidy and Caitlin, were on their computer ready to pounce on tickets to see musician Ed Sheeran. The tickets went on sale at 10 a.m., but by 10:05, the show was sold out.

"Five or 10 minutes later, out of curiosity, I went on, I think it was StubHub, and they already had several tickets for sale, for a lot more money," said Meuer, 43, of the Highlands, Ky.

Before public sales

None of the obstacles are new, but all have become commonplace, and it's not unusual for an artist to offer fans multiple options for buying tickets before they go on sale to the general public.

There are also dozens of tech-savvy ticket brokers, who either use automated computer programs or pay people to man laptops or stand in line to buy tickets for hot shows. The subsequent mark-up can be substantial.

None of it is illegal, but, as Meuer found, it can be annoying.

"Every show we put on sale for (the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky.), the first 10 people in line are going to be scalpers, the guys who sleep outside all night long," said Dennis Petrullo, general manager of the Yum! Center. "And he's not the real scalper. He's being paid X amount of dollars by somebody.

"You can go online an hour after a show goes on sale and find hundreds of tickets for sale on StubHub. So how are those people buying all of those seats?"

Simple, Petrullo said. Scalpers also take advantage of pre-sale offers, either by joining fan clubs or using credit cards that offer the benefit. Companies such as American Express and Citibank frequently offer pre-sale deals to members. And, of course, actual fans often use pre-sales, which are typically available several days before the general public sale date.

Petrullo said the artists dictate how many seats go to their fan clubs. If a credit card company is involved, it dictates how many seats it may need. The artist may also pick 100 or more of the best seats and offer them in expensive VIP packages that often include meet-and-greet opportunities, and every artist has a guest list that eats up a few more prime seats.

Online scalping

Scalping is legal in 38 states as long as it's conducted off-site, which is why online ticket scalpers have flourished.

In addition to StubHub, which is owned by eBay, other major players on the secondary market are TicketsNow and TicketExchange, both owned by Ticketmaster, and Coast to Coast tickets. These sites don't buy tickets for resale but provide a marketplace for scalpers and take a cut of each sale.

In recent months, artists such as Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga have been criticized for scalping their own tickets, a practice that Budnick said goes back decades and, again, is not illegal. Ticketmaster also has been called out for its hypocrisy in speaking out against scalpers while running two secondary market websites.

Ticketmaster was recently named in a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of fans that claims the industry giant withholds tickets to the most popular shows for later resale on TicketsNow.

After a 2009 incident in which Bruce Springsteen fans were redirected to TicketsNow when face-value seats were still available - an incident that Ticketmaster said was a "computer glitch" - U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey introduced legislation that would, in part, require artists, venues and ticketing companies to reveal whether they're scalping their own tickets. It also would prohibit the use of automated programs used by scalpers and prohibit scalpers from buying tickets until 48 hours after they go on sale. It has not passed.

A handful of artists are trying to stymie scalpers by using paperless ticketing, which comes with restrictions that also bother some consumers. You gain admittance by showing your ID and the credit card used to purchase your seat. If multiple people are attending together, everyone must arrive at the same time to enter with the cardholder.

Plus, you can't simply give the ticket away if you can't attend at the last minute. Reselling is only possible at point of purchase through a cumbersome online system that has additional fees.

Budnick sees benefits to artists having tighter control over ticket sales, but also sees the secondary market as a potential gold mine for savvy shoppers. He has a friend who decided in 2012 that he would make scalpers his friends.

"He told everyone that he was going to pay below face value for every single ticket he purchased" in 2012, Budnick said, "and through StubHub and various sites, he's been able to do that. He's gone to, I think, 28 shows without paying face value. He's very proud of that."

What are best routes to tickets?

Join the fan club for the artist in which you're most interested, thus becoming eligible for pre-sale offers. Some fan clubs are cheap - Kid Rock is $15 annually, for instance - and some aren't. Justin Bieber charges $108 and Bon Jovi's top price is $160, although he also has a $55 package.

Typically, bargain fan club prices entitle you only to the basics, which is primarily access to tickets a few days early, some online features not available to casual fans and possibly a signed photo.

Some artists don't have fan clubs, but they will typically offer pre-sale deals through a second party, such as American Express. All you have to do is read the fine print about pre-sale options when shows are announced, and then get or borrow the appropriate card.

Be patient, get lucky. Most artists release tickets the afternoon of the show, and some are very good. They might be seats associated with VIP packages that didn't sell or unused friends-of-the-band tickets.

Pay the scalpers. While sellers on sites such as StubHub prefer to make a profit, prices can drop significantly as showtime approaches. In cities with professional sports, for example, it's not unusual for fans to score prime $5 seats.

Jeffrey Lee Puckett, The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

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