Ticketmaster and the Summer of Our Discontent | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Ticketmaster and the Summer of Our Discontent 

Paul Weiss/He's a fan, he's a lawyer, he's suing.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Paul Weiss is just your average 26-year-old rabid rock fan. Saw Soundgarden five years ago, saw them last weekend at the Aragon. He'll talk in great detail about this concert or that, or happily reminisce about the halcyon days of indie rock, hanging out with Mike Watt of Firehose or with the Meat Puppets' Curt Kirkwood and his dog Kevin.

And like many other rock fans, rabid or otherwise, he's become increasingly irritated by escalating Ticketmaster "service" and "convenience" charges. For that rockin' recent night with Soundgarden, for example, he bought five tickets at $18 each; added to that was a total of $21.25 in fees, or about 25 percent of the original price. Last summer, to see Urge Overkill at Metro, he paid a $3.25 charge on a ten-dollar ticket, or 32.5 percent extra merely for the privilege of spending his money.

In one crucial respect, however, Paul Weiss is different from your average 26-year-old rock fan. He's a lawyer--a lawyer, in fact, at an aggressive personal-injury firm, Harvey L. Walner & Associates. Instead of just getting mad, he's doing something: last month he filed a big-time antitrust suit against Ticketmaster in federal district court.

The suit says that Ticketmaster has an illegal monopoly on off-site and phone-ticket sales to rock concerts, sporting events, and other things, a monopoly the company achieved in part by merging with its competition, the late Ticketron. Further, Weiss says, the company has jacked prices up unreasonably and offered "other incentives" to promoters and entertainment venues to establish exclusive long-term contracts. There's no specific dollar amount in the filing, but the suit could involve literally tens of millions of dollars in overcharges--and the Sherman Act allows for treble damages.

Weiss is clean-cut and aggressive; he grew up in Northbrook, got both his undergraduate and law degrees at Indiana University in Bloomington. The Ticketmaster suit is his first big case. "I buy a hell of a lot of concert tickets," he says, explaining the suit's genesis. "I paid four and a quarter in fees on each Soundgarden ticket. That was the highest I'd seen." The complaint lists the prices and service charges on nearly a dozen shows over the past 12 years to buttress his case. ("I put all the band names in there--I liked the idea of seeing Nirvana's name in a federal complaint.") "I went into Harvey's office and told him my idea. He said, 'Let's go for it.'

"There's nothing wrong with a reasonable service charge," Weiss stresses. "The issue is whether it's excessive." He notes that in the Ticketron era charges were a dollar or two. "Back then the charge might be 10 percent of face value: Now it's 25 to almost 40 percent. A reasonable conclusion might be that that's due to no competition. If you don't want to buy that ticket from Ticketmaster, where do you go? They've monopolized that market."

Weiss's suit is merely one of a number of battles on the Ticketmaster front; together they may combine to reduce the power of one of the most parasitic companies in America. In California, Ticketmaster and another company, BASS, have the state divided up neatly, south and north. A class-action suit attacking this arrangement was recently settled, a bit cheesily; lawyers got $750,000, fans got nothing, and Ticketmaster and BASS agreed to donate $1.5 million in tickets to charity. A few of the plaintiffs, however, are pressing on with the help of one of California's most powerful attorneys, Joseph M. Alioto, son of the former San Francisco mayor. And Miami attorney Carlos Lidsky has filed class-action antitrust suits in no less than seven different states.

Finally, the LA Times reported last month that Pearl Jam had filed a complaint with the justice department alleging that Ticketmaster had persuaded unnamed national concert promoters to refuse to cooperate with the band's request that tickets for its summer tour stay at $18 and the service charge at $1.80.

Times writer Chuck Phillips has twice reported, almost in passing, the interesting tidbit that Ticketmaster "pays a portion of the fees it collects to maintain exclusive, long-term contracts" with venues, promoters, and even artist managers. This is a contention in the Lidsky suits as well. (Weiss refers to "other considerations" in his suit.)

This arrangement--Ticketmaster is kicking back a portion of its service charges to keep the venues and the promoters happy--may be the blockbuster issue. Alioto calls it a form of "commercial bribery." "The two groups that are getting hurt, in my opinion," he says, "are the fans and the bands. Those are supposed to be the two ingredients in the relationship, and they're both being hurt by Ticketmaster in the middle exercising anticompetitive policies."

Jam Productions, which operates venues that have agreements with Ticketmaster, declined comment. Ticketmaster spokesperson Larry Solters said there's "nothing nefarious" about such arrangements. "If you sell hot dogs at Wrigley Field, you give the stadium a piece of the action." The suits (he wasn't familiar with Weiss's), he says, are "not based on any kind of merit. They're the product of ambulance-chasing attorneys and the bane of modern-day business."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Bill Wyman

Agenda Teaser

Music
July 19
Music
Wilder Maker Sleeping Village
July 19

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories