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Friday, April 15, 2005

Ticket Price Vertigo

By Valerie Singleton
The Daily Times-Call

 

Bono, left, and Adam Clayton of U2 perform last week in Los Angeles. Two U2 concerts next week in Denver are sold out. Tickets are going for more than $1,000 online.
AP photo by Chris Pizzello

At the front row of any given concert, no two seats are the same.

Boulderite Wendy Redal learned this the hard way in February, the morning tickets for U2’s April 20 show at the Pepsi Center first went on sale.

She had tried to buy a pair of tickets from the Ticketmaster Web site, but to no avail; within minutes of the 10 a.m. sale’s opening, the concert had sold out.

So Redal checked out a ticket-reselling site, where she was greeted with a surprise.

“I was just floored at the prices that I saw,” she says. “Eight hundred bucks for a pair of top seats.

“The floor tickets that U2 had tried to keep the cheapest ... even those were going for $250 and $300 a piece. It was just absolutely nuts. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, ‘How can it be?’ ”

Locally and nationally, concertgoers are seeing inflated ticket prices thanks to ticket brokers and scalpers looking to make a profit. Sometimes the resale agents scoop up sought-after tickets to sporting events or concerts, only to sell them for close to face value.

More often than not, however, fans are faced with exorbitant prices and the pleading question: how much is one ticket truly worth?

“For anything, there’s always somebody — the groupie — the hardcore groupie ... there’s always somebody in that market who’s willing to pay the highest price,” says Stephen Happel, an economics professor at Arizona State University in Phoenix who conducts research on the ticket-sales industry.

“In some cases, it’s a bragging thing with them.”

Maybe the $1,010 price tag upfronttickets.com slapped onto a pair of seats in section 104, row 21 for U2’s April 21 Pepsi Center show will impress the wealthy buyer’s friends.

But perhaps bragging rights truly belong to the person who got his hands on opening sale tickets in the same area, which ranged in price from $49.50 to $160.

That cost sounds pretty reasonable to Redal, who says she lucked out when she got her hands on a pair of tickets for the band’s April 21 show. She paid about $49 a piece for the seats through Ticketmaster’s phone line, giving the operator her credit card number just as the concert sold out — 13 minutes after the sale began.

“Honestly, for this show, the cheapest seats that I saw in the first day or two after they sold out, you could not touch anything beneath $200,” Redal says.

“It really makes me wonder how many people are out there who are willing and have the means to pay hundreds of dollars for a concert ticket.”

“There’s no way to stop whatever is legal,” Happel says, citing Colorado law on ticket scalping.

State statute prohibits anyone aside from the original salesperson to make a profit from ski lift tickets or coupons. And aside from restricting scalpers from selling on the grounds of the event’s venue, the state is generally hands off when it comes to ticket scalping.

That’s not to say all means of reselling tickets are without ethical reinforcement. Organizations such as brokers’ networks and the National Association of Ticket Brokers set out guidelines and regulations for their members.

Among the guidelines members of the NATB must follow: inform buyers at the time of purchase whether tickets are guaranteed; disclose the location of the seats on sale; maintain a refund, rescheduling and cancellation policy; and never deceive, mislead, misinform the public or alter tickets.

According to Ira Zoot — owner of www.ticketstub.com, which is a member of a regulatory network — brokers determine resale prices by considering the popularity of an event, the availability of the tickets and the proximity of the seats to the stage.

Ultimately, the price a broker feels is appropriate goes, says Jordan Gardner, owner of ticketarsenal.com, also a member of a brokers’ network.

“There’s nothing, as long as someone’s willing to pay a price, it’s basically as high as someone’s willing to buy,” he says.

That fact has given the brokerage business a bad name.

“A lot of people have called ticket sellers names,” Zoot says. “They make it out like people are holding them hostage for stuff. (Their criticisms) can be applied to car dealers; (those criticisms) can be applied to anything. It is what it is — supply and demand.”

Decades ago, before online ticket sales were at the hands of the masses and general admission concert tickets rarely reached the triple digits, Zoot spent hundreds to meet face-to-face with some classic rock icons.

He paid $400 to watch Pink Floyd perform before joining them backstage.

“It was pretty obscene at the time,” he says, recalling an era when tickets cost $10 to $15 a piece.

Those prices are closer to the cost bands like U2 and Boulder-based The String Cheese Incident believe their true fan base should be paying to check out live performances.

U2 now charges $40 to fans seeking exclusive access to band interviews, tour info and videos. Until recently, fan club membership also provided access to tickets sold during special presales.

According to Happel, scalpers and brokers continue to inundate such clubs, snatching up tickets for marked-up resale.

In February, U2 issued an apology to its fans and a warning to scalpers who reportedly registered with the club as a means of securing tickets.

“When we identify rogue U2.Com subscribers as the source of sold-on tickets, we are taking action to cancel the sale of those tickets and to redistribute those tickets to subscribers who have yet to get tickets,” the message read.

Similarly, The String Cheese Incident filed a lawsuit against Ticketmaster in 2003 after the band said the retailer had tried to cut off direct ticket sales to its fans.

“We had our differences with them,” says Neil Glazer, general manager of SCI Ticketing. “We resolved those differences through the lawsuit.

“The String Cheese Incident feels very strongly: we do not want tickets to get in the hands of people in the resell business. We go through lengths as a company to try to root out scalpers as best we can, and one of the ways we determine if someone’s a scalper (is) we take a look at eBay.”

But not all people who post on eBay are clouded by the prospect of big profits.

Debbie Bollendorf, a Philadelphia resident who bought tickets for one of U2’s Denver shows before discovering she wouldn’t be able to make the trip, decided to use eBay to resell her tickets.

“I was very surprised that U2 wasn’t as popular there as they are here in Philadelphia,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Times-Call on April 4.

“The tickets I bought for Denver were $160 (each) and I am selling them for way less than that. Still I have no takers. I know if it were here in Philadelphia, I’d have sold them for $900 immediately after they were listed.”

And if $900 seems a bit excessive, consider that 56th-row tickets for U2’s Oct. 15 show at New York’s Madison Square Garden were selling for $3,000 earlier this month.

Glazer says the future of the ticketing industry is uncertain, particularly with increasing means of technology and ticket auctioning.

And because Happel says scalpers and brokers create a healthy, free market — one in which prices generally drop to or below original sales values close to concert time — he hopes resale agents stay put.

“As an economist, I want people to stand in line,” Happel says. “Whatever you do to try to stop the brokers is gonna hurt the little guy. The best thing to do is let the (trading take place).”

Valerie Singleton can be reached at 303-684-5319, or by e-mail at vsingleton@times-call.com.