Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Real America with Abe Sauer: The Britney Spears Tailgate Parking Lot, Ticketmaster, Bruce Springsteen, the Death of the Live Music Video and You

its-britney-bitchPop music does not tailgate. Dress Up. Line up. Maybe even pre-party. But there is no tailgating. This is very obvious to anyone who visited the parking lot of the Alerus Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota, by far the smallest venue of the second leg of Britney Spears' Circus tour. What is not so obvious is how this show nut-shells just about everything that's wrong with the concert industry, from Ticketmaster's monopoly and price gouging, to mildly corrupt, publicly-owned concert venues, to artists lip-syncing shows while they bleed their fans and pass the blame to us-the people who pay for such bullshit anyway. So, who wants to rock?

North Dakotans are timely. They line up exactly on time to see Britney's opener, Jordin Sparks. The artists return the favor, with Britney hopping on stage as scheduled. The show's over by 11 p.m. All ages have come, with the primary group skewing down to 12 and topping out at 45. And they are almost exclusively female, which is unsurprising. This area of the nation offers little of what might be considered "female" entertainment. Hockey, football, hunting, dirt track car racing and such are common and plentiful. Not to say women cannot be fans of these things; but these things are generally not fans of women.

alerus-center-sunThe Alerus Center shares a lot in common with the classic Simpsons "Monorail" episode: Springfield decides against fixing up the existing downtown area in favor of a slick proposal for an unnecessary monorail system that promises civic fame and wild economic prosperity. Failure ensues. The center is of the Field of Dreams school of economic development: "Build it and They Will Come." But they have not come. Spears promoters have agreed she appear in such a small location in part because of the $850,000 guarantee from the venue. The very successful 2002 Cher show is still spoken about here by taxpayers and Cher fans with equal reverence. But recent Neil Diamond and Fleetwood Mac shows were bombs. This essentially means that the taxpayers of Grand Forks promised to pay Spears even if ticket sales fall short. It cannot be overstated how apeshit this makes many residents. Add the fact that the center is in the hole more than $256,000 this year, when it is supposed to be in the black, and that its private management company has a dirty habit of hiding losses from public record. The Alerus Center is prone to a bad combination of over-optimism and mismanagement, the manner of which can be found under a variety of corporate names across smaller-citied America.

In the first six months of 2009, the top 100 tours took in over $1.1 billion, up nearly 11 percent over the same period in 2008. But the large arena concert industry is broken. Ticket sales are down and top acts are no longer selling out. And those that still manage sellouts, like U2, are forced to do it through ticket discounts. (For instance, the Grand Forks Spears show unloaded many $96 tickets at $20 "student" prices.) The comment boards of the industry's trade sites are foul with blame and rants about "wake up moments." The term "dinosaur" is used liberally.

The concert industry and health care are not so different. They are bloated systems that have found a way of delivering services in a way that would initially seem counter intuitive. The incentives could not be more backward .Profit motives hide behind high-minded rhetoric about delivering "art" and "health." And, maybe most tellingly, many of those fed up with both systems blame the wrong parties. For health care, it's illegal immigrants. For concerts, it's Ticketmaster.

Generation X's Boomer moment (i.e., being principled in youth when it's easy, before growing old and lazy and selling out) was Ticketmaster. Over a ten year period, bookended by valiant stands by Pearl Jam and String Cheese Incident, fans had an opportunity to hold Ticketmaster back. We offered our support but only in words. The result? Pearl Jam in West Valley City, Utah on Sept. 28 via Ticketmaster: $62.00 + $11.60 Convenience Charge + $3 Building Facility Charge + $5.10 order processing fee + $2.50 TicketsNow fee = $84.20-or 35 percent higher than face.

Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and The New Yorker have all recently printed versions of the "concert industry sucks" article and they all basically blame Ticketmaster or Live Nation, or both, for conspiring to make your concert experience both expensive and shitty.

Even Bruce Springsteen has blamed his greed on Ticketmaster. After the ostensibly union-friendly Springsteen apologized for signing an exclusive album release deal with Wal-Mart, he blamed Ticketmaster for the lack of availability of his "affordable" $96 floor tickets. In fact, The Boss had held back over 1,000 seats, making only 108 of these "affordable" tickets even available. The move, at worst, may make Springsteen a criminal and at best confirms he's a jerk. The scandal moved Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Joisey) to propose the toothless and stupidly named BOSS (Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing) Act. The true Boss Act should be Springsteen using his pull in the industry to push for changes in the way tickets are sold. But he won't.

By leveraging a hard built populist reputation to screw the common man and profit handsomely while blaming somebody else, Springsteen finally confirmed he really is a true American institution. Congratulations, Boss.

Make no mistake, Ticketmaster is not your friend. Like all profit-driven businesses, it is interested in money, not once-in-a-lifetime experiences or whatever poncey copy its advertising uses. And by all accounts, including the American Anti-trust Institute's, a Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger would not be better for you.

62 Comments / Post A Comment

Pop Socket (#187)
Pop Socket (#187)

embedded link FAIL.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Didn't see that yet. But U2 seems to try for some footage. And they need to show off that billion dollar touring set.

As for bruce, that's bullshit. When the NJ thing happened, his first reaction was a public statement that "oh, every artist does this,,, common practice." Only after all the bad press and the numbers came out did he start singing this "my fans my fans" tune.

sunnyciegos (#551)

I have bought extremely good U2 and Springsteen seats via Ticketmaster in the "drop," or the unannounced release of tickets in the days before the show, so many times now that I don’t bother to try to break in the day they go on sale.

In 2007, I saw Bruce two times, once from band seats and once from seats I got the day of the show via TM. The band seats were low but halfway across the arena (I sat next to the Washington Post's J. Freedom du Lac), and the drop seats were in the front row adjacent to the stage. Those seats were part of a ticket release that everyone fails to mention: The seats that cannot be sold until after the stage has been built. I picked these up at 1 pm the day of the show when I checked TM on a lark.

The system is absolutely rigged against fans in almost every possible way. The only way to game it is to accept that you may walk away without tickets at all.

toadvine (#1,698)

"bookended by valiant stands by Pearl Jam and String Cheese Incident"

I mean, who wouldn't want to stand with Pearl Jam and String Cheese Incident fans? I guess anyone who isn't rich, white, a football player, or a liberal-arts school "hippie." Gosh, it had such wide appeal.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

So! It's a profit game! — I'm shocked, shocked to hear that concert promoters, ticket marketers and artistes are trying to maximize their earnings.

What's the story here? It's fascinating that people voluntarily listen to Britney Spears, and it's sad and interesting that communities will tax themselves to fund the building of concert barns and sports stadiums because they think it contributes to the common weal somehow. But why all the righteousness about businessmen trying to rape the willing? Abe, did I get this right, you want Bruce Springsteen to push for changes in the way tickets are sold? I say double the price and triple the hidden fees. And then let Bruce take the money the suckers voluntarily give him and donate it to some good cause, if he likes.

But I hope he finds a more interesting cause than reforming the pop music concert industry.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, if Bruce really is the fried of the common man he claims to be, yes, I would like him to actually do something for them instead of pretending to while doing the opposite. Also: even the willing should know who's actually raping them instead of just echoing the old "ticketmaster" line.

Abe Sauer (#148)

"friend" obv

Bittersweet (#765)

I think you're right, Abe – and Ticketmaster definitely needs to be lined up along with the artists for the bitchslapping. Last summer I went online to buy tickets for a Radiohead show 5 minutes after they went on sale. The only seats I could get for face value ($50, after all the charges) were on the lawn – everything closer to stage was >$100 and only available through scalpers.

Bonus points for mentioning my favorite Simpsons episode ever. "…except for the Eiffel Tower made out of toothpicks, the giant magnifying glass, and the escalator that went nowhere."

Abe Sauer (#148)

Conan wrote that episode. It is perfection.

HiredGoons (#603)

'A Fish Called Selma' may be the perfect Simpsons episode.

HiredGoons (#603)

"A town with money is a little like a mule with a spinning wheel…"

sunnyciegos (#551)

A friend of mine once denied that pudding ever came in cans. I used a line from the monorail huckster's song as irrefutable proof that they did indeed.

lululemming (#409)

You've got brass ones, Sauer. Not many people are willing to take on the sacred cow that is Bruce Springsteen's career.

I have to say, 2009 was the year I fell out of love with the Boss. Now, I have dated enough financially illiterate musicians to believe that most of these artists aren't allowed anywhere near contractual arrangement-type stuff, so I can concede that maybe some of this shit caught him by surprise. However, once one attains a certain amount of cultural capital (not to mention *actual* capital), there's a moral imperative for them to at least have peripheral knowledge of how their "product" is being distributed.

Plus, that Superbowl shit was gross. At least Prince took the opportunity to subvert the hetereocentric values of American football. What did Bruce give us? A flat-screen full of old-man crotch.

That said, all five times I've seen Bruce play, he's stayed on stage for at *least* three hours, so you know, it kind of is worth the $200 or whatever ticket price is these days. And hey, he can charge what he likes – seeing "Everything Dies" performed live for less than $200? Not an actual human right.

It's the duplicitous nature of it that is so off-putting. Say what you like about Britney or Nickelback or any other critical punchingbags, but at least they don't pretend to give a fuck about the working class.

HiredGoons (#603)

" subvert the hetereocentric values of American football."

I doubt this was intentional – he is a Seventh Day Adventist and notoriously homophobic.

Caught me by surprise.

Mmm… he used to like dick. When did he become homophobic?

lululemming (#409)

I was under the impression that the whole "7eventh Day Adventist" thing was just a game he was playing with the press. Maybe not.

If he is homophobic, that's really fucking disappointing. I always found his flirty rapport with David Letterman to be oddly arousing.

Hot damn. Never meet your heroes, I guess.

HiredGoons (#603)

Doesn't everyone just lead their lives these days as one big press spin? Sigh.

toadvine (#1,698)

Also, too, the bands playing arenas these days SUCK! Especially dead people like Rick Springfield! Where is the spectacle that was Guns n' Roses? Where is the lighter-worthy material? Kids don't do drugs and go to rock shows these days, because it would be a waste of good drugs.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Are you saying Rod Stewart, one of the biggest shows of the year, is a waste of good drugs. Psssshaw!

lululemming (#409)

You keep your astute critical observations away from Rod Stewart, sir.

toadvine (#1,698)

Never fear. Rod Stewart makes me want to do drugs just to figure out what the hell the "Great American Songbook" is and how it allows you to go balls deep in Rachel Hunter and the like.

lululemming (#409)

I think the secret to figuring out Rod Stewart is just to let your mind go reaaaaaaaaaaallly blank. And also to believe when he does that crouching-and-passing-the-mic-from-hand-to-hand thing, to believe with all your heart, that it's a *super* impressive move

Also, a Scotsman is allowed to do "The Great American Songbook" because he has the expressed sartorial consent of that most American of icons: the eagle.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I'm just scared since "Infatuation" was my first (youthful) exposure to him… and his butt.

Abe Sauer (#148)


cherrispryte (#444)

The lighter-worthy material, in my experience at least, tends to be smaller bands at smaller venues – which often also eliminates the ticketmaster behemoth issue. I definitely agree that the bands playing arenas these days, for the most part, SUCK, but that's not all bands or all live venues.

LondonLee (#922)

Rod Stewart's early 70s records are God-like in their brilliance. Ignore most everything after he met Britt Ekland though.

He's not really Scottish either, he's a Londoner.

lululemming (#409)

This just in. Scottish people are all liars who will tell you false falsehoods about the provenance of feather-haired awesomely naff pop stars. Especially Scottish people who are my mother.

Bittersweet (#765)

Nine posts about Rod Stewart and no mention of semen? I'm impressed.

Mindpowered (#948)

Why did you have to break the streak?

LondonLee (#922)

First concert I ever went to was ELO at Wembley in 1976, it was a big stadium show with a huge set and light show and the ticket cost five pounds. Even adjusted for inflation that's way, way cheaper than the $100+ megabands are charging these days.

It's such a con, I don't understand why people are willing to pony up that much money to see their "idol" when they're clearly shafting them. And charging them $25 for a t-shirt to boot.

Abe Sauer (#148)

I remember in 94 when the eagles broke the $100 ticket and people thought that was INSANE. Last year two concerts AVERAGED over $300 per ticket with the Eagles (doing heir 500th farewell tour) were around $230 or so.

blatanville (#860)

and the Eagles were up-front about it being a money grab! one of the (former?) members was bankrupt and they put on the tour to re-fill his coffers. People knew this going in, and yet the grey ponytail crowd must have been thinking, "Well, since Hell has Frozen Over, this is likely my last chance to see them live," and then promptly pulled out their AMEX cards and charged up a pair.
I believe it was the Stones who took the torch, as it were, and ran further up the pricing poll on their very next tour. Keith and Mick thinking, "Well, if the feckin' EAGLES can get $100 for a decent seat, The World's Greatest Rock 'n Roll Band can get $120!"
Greedy cunts, the lot of them!

You have just reached "must read" status with this humble midwesterner.

dado (#102)

I'll be part of the problem tonight at Giants Stadium, section 210, if ya wanna throw back a beer.

Chairman Meow (#820)

It's very nice that someone besides Chuck Klosterman is righting about music in North Dakota.

Chairman Meow (#820)

"writing," Jesus.

jfruh (#713)

What economic purpose, exactly, does Ticketmaster serve? I admit to being one of those snobs who doesn't see arena shows because (a) I don't like most bands who play said show and (b) I find the process of getting in and out of said arenas exhausting and not worth the money or the lack of nearness to the musician. HOWEVER. Earlier this year I saw Neko Case play at a venue in Baltimore that holds 2000 people, and while neither Neko nor the venues is not at the same order of Britney and the places she plays, it wasn't some club where I was slipping a $5 cover to a bored bouncer to get in either. Anyway, I bought the tix directly from the venue's Web site, $30 plus $4 "convenience fee," galling but not the insanity of ticketmaster-type fees — and it all worked well enough.

So my question is: what actual bit of economic utility do middleman companies like ticketmaster provide? This is not meant to be a smug, leading question; I assume this model must benefit someone on the moneymaking side, but I can't see why Bruce or Britney would rather sell through Ticketmaster than sell through the box offices (electronic or otherwise) of the individual venues. And I even read that damn New Yorker article.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Whoops. Reply Below

Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, as any middleman, it started off serving a purpose and then grew to where it really serves itself. There was once real technological advances in the way ticketmaster allowed people to get tickets without having to go to the venue box office. Obviously, this is a huge "convenience" to those who can't go to the box office. Many venues see ticketmaster as a convenient utility as well. They handle all the crap ticketing worries so you don;t have to. NPR's planet money has a great podcast about the economics of ticketmaster

As for Neko. I saw her in…um.. 2005 in Brooklyn's Southpaw. I was no more than 8 feet from her at the bar and it was amazing.

jfruh (#713)

Thanks for the tip! Will check out the podcast…

Also, they started out long before the interwebs.

CBentsen23 (#889)

Excellent article – you have piqued my interest. Wouldn't it be nice if the ticket sellers would move to an "auction" model to sell tickets? That way the people that would pay $1000 for a seat could, and the rest of us could just maybe go to show for $40? sigh.

Abe Sauer (#148)

If you read the rest of that Reznor link he actually recommends that:
"My guess as to what will eventually happen if / when Live Nation and TicketMaster merges is that they'll move to an auction or market-based pricing scheme – which will simply mean it will cost a lot more to get a good seat for a hot show. They will simply BECOME the scalper, eliminating them from the mix."

One real solution is to go to all-in tickets that are priced in reality. Cheaper in the shitty back seats and astronomical up front. This reflects reality. But makes the artists look like pricks so it won;t happen. Instead, the nose bleeds are subsidizing the up front low prices (which are being funneled directly to scalpers anyway, so…).

And there is a blog for those who really want to get into this:


r X
i X
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stage nosebleed

Tuna Surprise (#573)

Your mention of String Cheese Incident brings back memories of the glorious winter of 1997 when I took a road trip to see them in two of America's great small towns: Pocatello, Idaho and Jackson, Wyoming. But if memory serves me well, there was no Ticketmaster involved. There was only a dirty hippy with a hoola-hoop and a cash box at the door who gladly gave me a ticket for $10.

Abe Sauer (#148)

SCI sued Ticketmaster in, like, 2003.. Then they broke up and now play solo… you can get tickets to their solo gigs… on Ticketmaster.

BoHan (#29)

I don't know Abe. The Public is busy raping these artists by pirating their music. So the artists have to earn all that lost revenue back somehow. Radiohead tried the altruistic approach, asking for donations for a free download, and got rewarded with (if I remember correctly) most people taking the music for free.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Well, I'm not sure that entitles them to do watever they want. But anyway: These artists shouldn't be stopped from making money; but they should not be doing it in a way that is A)sometimes illegal and B) always misleading. They want the money AND the respect as artist that have their fans' first in mind "if it weren't for that darn Ticketmaster!!!." That's the problem.

BoHan (#29)

We can agree to disagree. I don't think anyone has the moral high ground here. Speaking of which, how many of those ND girls even bought Britney's latest album, in whatever form? I'd wager to say not many. Anyway, the only reliable source of income for the artist is touring, because at least (not yet) the artist can't be pirated. So if people want to be so dumb as to think $9.99 is a super deal compared to $10.01, so be it. Whatever works.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Brit's last album sold 3 million copies so I'd hazard a lot of the ND goers bought it. And again, I don't begrudge artists their profit. Just grow a pair and don't pretend to be powerless about high prices or hide behind a "but we're just artists it's ticketmaster" wall of bullshit.

BoHan (#29)

Strongly agree! Charge what you want or need, and actually state it up-front. Like the EU with the VAT. Don't tack on $50 per ticket at the last "Confirm" button. Also, Britney Spears was a Mouseketeer dude! Lord, they don't show need to show bush for money, except at those Awl Office video viewing parties or they get a part in High School Musical. Madonna was cashless, and is pretty frank that she did what did to get by. Also, and this dates me so bad, I saw Bruce for $3 at Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin right before "Born To Run" made the cover of Time – played for like about 6 hours. I had an extreme LP Listening Crush for at least a couple of years after that. The move to Beverly Hills was when I figured out the badness within him. Keep fighting the good fight Mr. Sauer.

LotaLota (#1,703)

It's true the holdback scam predates Ticketmaster. I attended my second concert in 1976. I recall spending the night outside the St. Paul Civic Center in order to be at the box office as soon as it opened. There were two people ahead of me. But when the box office opened, we were informed the first fourteen rows had been set aside, so the best seats we could get for our pains were in row fifteen.

I subsequently learned that the all-night vigils outside other, non-box-office ticket suppliers provided even worse results, because the company employees were allowed to pre-buy, putting us customers even further back in line.

I finally learned how to play the system: become buddies with someone working for the local promoter or venue. At which point I scored front row seats at face value with absolutely no effort. Back then I was naive enough to think acts cared about their fans, and I burned at the injustice, which I attributed to promoters and local heavies.

Ticketmaster was originally seen as a boon because crowds lining up overnight (or days ahead of time) to buy tickets often got out of hand. Brawls and muggings weren't that uncommon. But now with the internet, no one needs to stand in line, and no one needs Ticketmaster – except, as you note, to hide behind.

johnpseudonym (#1,452)

With bullshit like this there will always be punk. Learn three chords and DIY, man. DIY.

blatanville (#860)

Um, Abe? Pedantic point, but Van Halen's "Jump" video was shot in a rented space in LA with one camera for about 800 bux.

I think you might have been thinking about "Panama" which does feature some live set hijinks & sweeping pans of a massive crowd…


15 years old when 1984 dropped,
and thus smack-dab in their demographic

Abe Sauer (#148)

Yes. You're right. I was thinking Panama where Dave flies over the crowd. My mistake.

this is a great piece.

but to fact-check a comment above about britney's record sales: 'circus' (brit's most recent album) has sold about 1.6 million copies in the states. 'blackout' (the freakout record that is actually pretty good) hasn't broken the million-sold mark; it came out in the dark days of 2007.

(oh weird, '… baby one more time' just came on mtv hits uk as i was typing this!)

live music is really taking it in the teeth right now. it's the pricing, the endless jaunts by acts that are old, the people endlessly quitting and unquitting music. (there's a reason we're about to run out of non-reunited bands.) not to mention that the channels for people who aren't indie-obsessive types to find out about new music have pretty much completely broken down. celebrity trumps music, with some artists having twitter-follower counts that double or triple their most recent record sales. (this is a phenomenon that actually interests me a lot! i don't think the entirety of that gap can be made up by downloads!) meanwhile, everyone's angling to get on oprah, because she has one of the few mass audiences left. (sales of whitney houston's record went up 77% after her interview last week.) tom ewing actually wrote a great piece about the dissolution of the pop-music superstructure on pitchfork.

(also not to get into this argument again, but radiohead basically just gave out a low-quality press copy with that pay-what-you-will thing — in rainbows came out via a boring old record label after the whole furor died down. reznor's experiments with download models are much more innovative/interesting.)

blatanville (#860)

agreed: Reznor's model is more interesting (I took part myself, buying 'Ghosts' (a double cd of instrumental works) directly from the artist for US$20 + shipping.
cEvin Key, of Skinny Puppy fame, has been issuing new material from their archives, plus updated/expanded material from their past, via his SubConscious Studios label mail order…

Abe Sauer (#148)

Yes. the 3 million is global sales. Should have clarified. (1.6 in the states is still impressive though). Also, Pearl Jam has become their own distributor for their upcoming album. While they cut a dea through Target, it is non-exclusive. The key is that they has removed the label. Only large enough bands can do this, but… It seems they still can;t beat the ticketing structure though as Live Nation etc. pay the venues (and lose money actually) to lock up exclusivity with those locations for years.

The description of the arena reminded me of when my grandparents took me to Six Flags Autoworld in Flint, MI (they lived in Detroit) back in the mid '80s — this misbegotten civic initiative that was supposed to revitalize everything but was a colossal failure. (See Roger & Me for more fun times!)

A lot of the Britney-bashing has more than its share of classist overtones, but there's also the intellectual-resentment factor of the blogosphere (which has been the tide of this particular decade of celebricrap). If you're an insecure, resentful liberal arts grad with nothing to really distinguish you, whiling away in your pointless office job, the schadenfreude of an uneducated blonde bimbo making it big and then crashing to earth in a sea of dumb-people clichés might get you through the day without realizing how empty your own life is. Also, women calling other women "skank" is fun!

Finally, Bruce Springsteen's music is, has been, and always shall be fucking terrible, and frankly he should be paying Real America for tolerating his godawful songs for as long as we have.

scanno03 (#73,303)

I haven't read all the comments so maybe someone brought this up, but I was just wondering why only part of the Bruce Springsteen story was told? I'm a big fan of his, so of course am biased, and I understand what you're trying to say about the music industry in general, but I think what happened with the Bruce Springsteen show and Ticketmaster actually strengthens your argument, but you used it to make Bruce Springsteen out be a "criminal," thus weakening your argument against Ticketmaster, monopolies, and price gouging that you stated in the beginning of your article. The story goes that Bruce released his tickets via Ticketmaster, and before the released tickets were sold out the website started directing all the customers to, which sells tickets at a higher price than face value from private sellers, but Ticketmaster owns that site, so they made profits off of that (making ticketmaster the "criminal" in this circumstance). I don't think Bruce ever claimed that his tickets were "affordable" as you quoted someone as saying (not sure who you were quoting there, was it an actual source or Bruce himself?). However, I think he saw how it was unfair for the company to direct people who were willing to splurge on the seats to pay even more money than necessary. His was an argument of principle, not trying to get more money from anyone or any fan. He'd get the same amount of profit no matter who was selling the tickets at that point, but saw that his fans were being treated poorly, and decided to speak up about it. I respect your opinion on the matter, but feel the reporting wasn't fully researched, and someone needs to stick up for Bruce. I couldn't even read the rest of the article because your argument had become moot because of the validity of your statements. Also, he's not rich from stealing from his fans, he's rich because he's talented enough at his craft for people to support him for as long as they have. As an aside, you may not like his music, but he's a storyteller, where he can sing about whatever he wants even if it's made up. You're a writer, where your craft should be based on facts… so I respectfully suggest that you leave the storytelling to Bruce.

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