WASHINGTON -- Pearl Jam played Congress, and ticket scalpers could have had a field day.
Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament, members of the popular alternative rock band, were the opening act yesterday in the packed hearing room, with plenty of would-be attendees left standing outside. Mr. Gossard wore shorts, Mr. Ament had on a cap turned backward, and Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., chairman of the panel holding the hearing, conceded he didn't know much about Pearl Jam's music.
But informality and banter quickly gave way to a serious airing in the House Information, Justice, Transportation and Agriculture Subcommittee of the band's charges that Ticketmaster wields monopolistic power as the nation's dominant ticket agency.
"The key question is whether recent contractual agreements between Ticketmaster and most major stadiums and concert promoters have violated federal antitrust law," said Mr. Condit in opening the first of a series of fact-finding sessions.
Pearl Jam has complained to the U.S. Justice Department that Ticketmaster organized a boycott by promoters to try to squelch what was intended to be a low-priced concert tour this summer.
Fred Rosen, Ticketmaster's chief executive, denied the charge at the hearing. He said the average service charge of $3.15 per ticket for all types of events had risen as of last year by only 25 cents since 1991, when Ticketmaster bought its major national competitor, Ticketron.
Ticketmaster lawyer Ned Goldstein conceded later that service charges for rock concerts generally are higher than for other events, though he could not immediately be more specific.
Pearl Jam says Ticketmaster's exclusive contracts with major venues and promoters of concerts enable it to inflate service charges, pushing ticket prices so high that many of their young fans are locked out.
"There is too much great music out there to be limited to just a few," Mr. Gossard told the subcommittee.
Mr. Ament added that efforts by the band to use alternative methods of distributing tickets, such as its use of a lottery by mail in one instance, had proved daunting.
The relaxed atmosphere of the hearing came to a halt in exchanges between Rep. Stephen Horn, R-Calif., and Mr. Gossard.
In a string of questions about the band's own business practices, Mr. Horn focused at one point on the band's exclusive contract with a record company, apparently to show that such agreements are common in many spheres of the concert business.
"I think that this line of questions is very strange," Mr. Gossard told Mr. Horn. "Our concern is whether Ticketmaster is a monopoly and we have a viable choice to go out and sell tickets by any other means."
Representatives of other music groups gave the subcommittee varying views of the controversy.
Tim Collins, manager of the rock band Aerosmith, said, "Aerosmith urges this committee and Congress to restrain Ticketmaster's monopoly."
Joe Rascoff, a managing director of the company producing this year's North American tour of the Rolling Stones, said he, too, would welcome a national competitor to Ticketmaster.
However, he said, venues in five of nine major markets where the Stones will perform do not have exclusive contracts.
In an interview later, he declined to name Ticketmaster's competitors in those areas, but he emphasized to the committee that he will use Ticketmaster as ticket distributor even where he does have a choice.
The reason, he said, is that "they're good at what they do."