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What's In a Concert Ticket? New Book Details 'How the Public Got Scalped'

ticket masters cover

Co-author Dean Budnick previews 'Ticket Masters' (out June 1), which chronicles the rise of the concert industry's second greatest commodity: the piece of paper that says "admit one."

The blurb on the back cover pretty much says it all: “Reading this book won't make you any happier about spending four hundred bucks to go to a rock show but you'll understand how it happened and who's to blame.”

Indeed, the forthcoming Ticket Masters (out June 1), written by Dean Budnick and Josh Baron, longtime regulars of the jam band scene and both editors at Relix Magazine, traces the storied past of concert ticketing, from its nascent years as a money-losing business to the days of Bill Graham, Barry Diller, Paul Allen, Michael Cohl and Irving Azoff. Pivotal stops along this twisted road include Pearl Jam’s ill-fated fight with Ticketmaster in the mid-90s as well as String Cheese Incident’s quiet victory a decade later, the Rolling Stones’ bank-breaking jump to the top of the ticket price heap and the emergence of StubHub and evolution of modern scalping.

A project that’s been in the works for six years, the result is a riveting and oftentimes frustrating ride through rock and roll history. Co-author Budnick gives THR a preview.

The Hollywood Reporter: What motivated the two of you to write this book?

Dean Budnick: It’s a classic example of two people writing the book they wanted to read. Starting in 2002, Josh and I spent time talking at length about concert ticketing and larger, related developments in the live music industry. We did this both in the context of our jobs at Relix magazine and also because the two of us were just plain fascinated by the topic. Some of our conversations were speculative, while others emerged from our experiences as ticketholders, event producers and journalists contemplating the inner workings of the industry.

Josh and I also are big fans of Fred Goodman’s Mansion on The Hill and we long wondered why nobody had taken that story of the original concert promoters of the 1960s and early 1970s, and then carried it forward to the present. We kept waiting for a book that would draw all of these elements together and eventually we decided that if we really wanted to read it, we’d have to write it ourselves.

THR: What's the biggest misconception about tickets and how they’re sold?

Budnick: I think there have been several. Going back a few decades, there was an erroneous sense that ticketing companies were providing a public service rather than striving to maximize their profits, which is why consumers often were so outraged when the service fees would vary based on the price of the ticket. People would question why the fees would be higher on more expensive tickets despite the fact that the service provided seemed to be the same as that for the cheaper ones. Of course the reason for this, is that the ticketing companies believed there was price elasticity and saw a revenue opportunity. Then again, the belief that ticketing should be viewed as something akin to a public utility also was held by many Ticketron executives, which in part led to that company’s demise at the hands of Ticketmaster.

Beyond that, I think of a variety of misconceptions endure today. On the core level, I don’t think the public is fully aware of all the elements that make-up a ticket price, which provides revenue streams for the artist, the promoter, the venue and the ticketing provider.

Coming at it from another perspective, I think people often underestimate how challenging it is to deliver a stable, secure platform for online ticketing. I think the fact that the new Live Nation ticketing system crashed in January 2009 under the weight of computerized bots during a Phish on-sale is a good example of that.

Finally, in terms of the secondary market I don’t think that most people appreciate the extent to which the acts themselves are often complicit in terms of profiting from the resale of particular tickets allocated for this purpose. Also, on this general topic, although StubHub has been able to pitch itself as a fan-to-fan ticket exchange, populated by moms and pops selling their extra seats to particular events, the truth is that the company was able to build a robust marketplace by creating a bulk-upload program that caters to speculators and  professional ticket brokers.

THR: Is there an unsung hero of the ticketing story?

Budnick: From a historical standpoint, I would point to Dorothy McLaughlin. She was a former junior high math teacher living in Arizona during the early 1970s, who put her kids to bed at night then occupied herself by writing a ticketing program via a time-share computer in her living room. Her Select-A-Seat software, which she drafted in the simplest of programming languages, BASIC, was revolutionary in its ability to offer potential ticket buyers the ability to look at their seat locations before making a purchase and also handled season ticketing long before Ticketron and its team of programmers was able to do the same.

From a consumer perspective I would point to those groups who have made an effort to keep ticket prices low and strive to ensure that their biggest fans would have a fair opportunity to secure good seats at reasonable prices, working with promoters and ticketing companies to accomplish just that. Bands like Fugazi, Grateful Dead, Phish, Nine Inch Nails and LCD Soundsystem come to mind.

In terms of unsung heroes, I also would point to a musical act whose story really hasn’t been told until now, the String Cheese Incident. We devote a chapter to the group’s successful challenge to Ticketmaster after the company attempted to quash the band’s ability to sell its own seats, in a chapter we title “A Quiet Victory” because the details of the settlement have not been made public until now.

THR: How did the Grateful Dead revolutionize the business of concert tickets?

Budnick: They accomplished this a variety of ways even though they’d be the first to explain that they did not set out to pioneer any ticketing initiatives. Instead they were idiosyncratic, following their own muse and attempting to do right by their fans. It’s similar to the way people have subsequently hailed the Dead’s decision to allow fans to tape and trade live performances as a clever, innovative social networking effort, when the reality is that the practice was already in motion and group didn’t want to the police the situation because that would have bummed them out.

Still, the Grateful Dead deserves tremendous credit as the first group to take on the task of event ticketing and handle it all in-house, through the creation of the Grateful Dead Ticketing Service. The GDTS demonstrated how a “bunch of wooly freaks,” as Bob Weir described the staff, could effectively connect with fans and offer tickets with a modest service fee, while fostering a direct relationship with the group’s supporters. In the process, the organization also challenged the notion that ticketing companies could have absolute control over inventory, by securing up to fifty percent of the seats to their performances, in direct contravention of the venues’ contractual agreements with Ticketmaster. This culminated in a heated sit-down at San Francisco’s Hyatt Regency which we describe in the book, where the band prevailed, securing what it characterized as the “Fifty Percent Solution.” Still, the group never set out to innovate or alter the business model industry-wide, it just wanted to ensure that fans had the best possible experience, which is how it should be.