After several months of relative quiet, the battle over Ticketmaster service fees has been rejoined on at least two fronts.
Pearl Jam, which stopped touring last summer in protest over the fees, has announced that it will headline shows Jan. 14 and 15 in Washington, D.C., that will sidestep the nation’s primary ticket distribution agency. Tickets to the Voters for Choice benefit concerts will be sold without surcharge through a mail-order lottery system. Last summer, the band filed a complaint with the Department of Justice over the Ticketmaster fees, which have run as high as 40 percent of the ticket price, and testified on the matter before a House subcommittee.
Meanwhile, a string of class-action suits around the country challenging what are described as “excessive” fees by the agency have been consolidated in Federal District Court in St. Louis. Ticketmaster has steadfastly denied any wrongdoing.
Among the 14 suits is one filed by the Chicago firm Harvey Walner & Associates. Attorney Paul Weiss of Walner said hearings could begin as early as this month.
But action in the U.S. House of Representatives on Ticketmaster is “dead in the water,” according to a congressional source, despite the high-profile testimony last summer by Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament.
“Under the new GOP regime, the best chance for the consumers to get relief is to approach the anti-trust” officials, the congressional source said.
The House government operations subcommittee had been looking to craft legislation that would prevent Ticketmaster from entering into long-term financial arrangements with concert venues and promoters, which some Ticketmaster critics call a government-sanctioned monopoly. Some members of the subcommittee had argued that these arrangements enabled Ticketmaster to charge high service fees with the tacit approval of promoters and building owners, who stood to share in the profit.
“This (ticket agency) industry doesn’t compete for the best service at the lowest price,” said the congressional source. “This industry competes for the highest shared fee, or highest kickback.”
Weiss dismissed the congressional hearings as a “dog and pony show,” but it appears that Pearl Jam’s commitment to the issue has already gone well beyond the publicity flash of a Capitol Hill appearance.
Sources in the touring industry say the band could conceivably play around the entire country at venues that do not have exclusive arrangments with Ticketmaster, particularly at college campuses.
At least one major band - Green Day - recently pulled off a successful, low-cost tour by working with Ticketmaster to keep ticket prices and service fees to a minimum. And it is known within the industry that the Grateful Dead have been selling tickets to their most loyal fans through a hot line without service fees, before the tickets are sold to the public.
But Pearl Jam may be the first major band in years to attempt a national tour circumventing ticket agents entirely.
“It would be difficult to do - a pain in the butt - but Pearl Jam is sticking to their principles,” said one industry source who deals with the band regularly. “What they did is not a publicity stunt, but part of a commitment to provide a low-cost tour. Now they’re following through on that.”