'Boss' furor shakes Ticketmaster's reign

The Baltimore Sun

Lettie Holman swears on Bruce Springsteen's soul patch that Ticketmaster automatically kicked her over to its high-priced TicketsNow scalper site when she was trying this week to buy seats for The Boss' tour stop at Washington's Verizon Center.

Ticketmaster says she and others who make similar claims are misremembering or lying.

So it is that, even before it starts, Springsteen's newest tour has become a public relations disaster for him and America's best-loved concert-ticket monopoly.

Springsteen is "furious" at Ticketmaster, he said in a prepared statement. Ticketmaster denies forcing Internet buyers to TicketsNow, where one is helpfully offered seats at $500 a pop, and says problems experienced by Springsteen fans have been exaggerated.

A New Jersey congressman is demanding an investigation. New Jersey's attorney general has asked Ticketmaster to stop doing what it says it didn't do.

Ticketmaster is scrambling, overnighting free tickets to aggrieved Springsteen fans, compensating people who mistakenly bought marked-up seats on TicketsNow and doing its best to imitate a caring, progressive mega-corporation.

"We sincerely apologize to Bruce, his organization and, above all, his fans," wrote Ticketmaster boss Irving Azoff.

Because he's worried about losing future business from rock fans and impresarios?

Heck no. Ticketmaster owns 70 percent of the concert-ticket market, estimates Scott W. Devitt, who follows the company's stock for Stifel Nicolaus. There's really nowhere else to go, Ticketmaster's notorious "convenience charges" notwithstanding.

Azoff, who grew to fame and riches managing Dan Fogelberg and the Eagles, is probably more concerned about what the Springsteen debacle spells for Ticketmaster's reported merger plans with concert promoter Live Nation.

That deal would make Ticketmaster even bigger and more powerful, which is hard to imagine. Given that the administration of President Barack Obama was already likely to frown on such a combo, the Springsteen episode couldn't have come at a worse time for the company.

It began at the Super Bowl. Springsteen's Sunday halftime show was a glorified ad for his tour. Tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. the next day.

Jonathan Kandell of Catonsville, attendee of 54 Bruce shows, wanted seats for the Verizon Center on May 18. But as Boss Hour struck he couldn't complete the purchase. Then he tried searching for Springsteen seats in Philadelphia. That was when, he said, Ticketmaster's software automatically sent him to TicketsNow.

He couldn't believe it. It was only a few minutes after 10, but TicketsNow was already selling hundreds of Springsteen tickets for three or eight times face value.

"I was really upset," Kandell says. "Is this some sort of fraud or monopoly? I don't know."

Ticketmaster owns TicketsNow, which is why Holman, of Silver Spring, thought something was fishy when she had the same experience.

"It feels like Ticketmaster is hoarding and saving seats in the venue that are going to TicketsNow," said the 100-show veteran. "We're not getting access to the seats."

Ticketmaster spokesman Albert Lopez acknowledges there were software problems Monday - but only for people trying to buy tickets for shows in New Jersey and on New York's Long Island.

All those fans were contacted by phone or e-mail and provided seats, he said.

The rest of Monday's frustration, Lopez said, resulted from high demand for Springsteen tickets and the fact that they quickly sold out, not from anything Ticketmaster did.

While Ticketmaster offered an optional TicketsNow button for Springsteen buyers, he said, nobody was automatically sent to the site.

"There is no automatic redirect," Lopez said. "A fan has to physically click the button."

"It happened automatically without me touching a damn thing," said Holman.

I talked to three other customers, including Kandell, who said they had the same experience.

Why was Ticketmaster even allowed to buy TicketsNow last year?

Lopez says Ticketmaster doesn't own the tickets sold on TicketsNow. They're put up by individuals and licensed brokers, some of whom could have already had seats to sell early Monday, he said. Ticketmaster will no longer provide optional links to TicketsNow, it says, unless performers allow it.

But both companies under the same roof is still a breathtaking conflict of interest, subject to little oversight. TicketsNow is one of Ticketmaster's fastest-growing units.

The Internet has been unkind to many media and entertainment businesses, but Ticketmaster is an exception. In a parallel universe it might have been regulated as a natural monopoly like electricity. But even electric companies aren't much regulated these days.

Years after the band Pearl Jam complained about Ticketmaster before a star-struck congressional subcommittee, the company reigns supreme. This isn't 1991, however, when the George H.W. Bush government approved its buyout of rival Ticketron and helped create today's mess.

Springsteen has come out against a Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, which is a start at fighting back. A Ticketmaster boycott by Springsteen would be better.

Real competition in ticket distribution would be the best deal of all. Barring that, a Federal Trade Commission inquiry into Monday's problems might ensure that we're not still reading Ticketmaster horror stories when Miley Cyrus has her comeback tour.

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