Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster vs. the world: Alan Cross

Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam performs at Fenway Park on Sept. 4, 2018 in Boston, Mass. Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

On May 6, 1994, Pearl Jam, a powerful new band imbued with a sense of social justice, filed a memorandum with the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Outraged by what they saw as gouging fans with exorbitant service charges and fees added to the price of concert tickets, they wanted to take Ticketmaster down. At the very least, they were on a mission to break up what they viewed as the company’s monopolistic and anti-competitive hold on selling tickets.

The Justice Department was totally on board with this. In fact, it was the government that approached and then encouraged the band to file the complaint.

As the case wound its way through the system and various congressional subcommittee hearings, Pearl Jam tried to create their own ticket-distribution network using a company called ETM Entertainment. But because Ticketmaster had an exclusive lock on selling tickets at so many venues, the effort collapsed.

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Then, on July 5, 1995, the Justice Department declared the investigation was over. Pearl Jam had lost.

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With no choice but to rely on Ticketmaster for their tours, the guys in Pearl Jam had to console themselves with the fact that they did their best in a David-versus-Goliath battle. Since then, Pearl Jam has surrendered to the inevitable and had Ticketmaster handle sales for all their tours. It must have been an uneasy situation for them.

But then, earlier this year, the group announced they had teamed up with Ticketmaster (I know — it feels weird typing that) to prevent tickets for their upcoming Gigaton tour from falling into the hands of resellers, ticket brokers, speculators and scalpers. The goal was to get tickets straight into the hands of real fans.

This unlikely partnership built upon something Ticketmaster did in summer 2018 with a gig by The Killers in Glasgow. Instead of issuing standard paper tickets, Ticketmaster went all digital. Tickets for the gig were inextricably tied to an individual fan’s mobile phone. The tickets lived only on that phone and nowhere else.

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That worked so well that in October 2018, Ticketmaster introduced the U.K.’s first 100 per cent digital concert ticket. From that point on, all concerts held at the O2 Academy Brixton in south London honoured only digital tickets that were immediately loaded onto fans’ phones upon purchase. This made the tickets non-transferable, preventing brokers and scalpers from getting a piece of the action.

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The same approach is being used for the Gigaton tour under the SafeTix moniker. After going through Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan procedures a series of steps that seeks to prove you are who you say you are fans lucky enough to purchase tickets had them non-transferably locked to their cellphones. Just as you can’t sell an airline seat that was purchased in your name, these Pearl Jam tickets are yours and yours only.

There is, however, one exception to the rule. Should someone be unable to go to the show, the original purchaser can make their tickets available on a special fan-exchange platform. Another person can then buy the tickets at face value. No markups allowed. And as soon as the transaction is complete, the tickets become tied to the new purchaser’s mobile phone. That exchange opens for business on Feb. 18.

Seems pretty foolproof, right? But a quick Google search turns up dozens of brokers and resellers offering tickets at insane prices.

I took a quick spin through some of these sites and found general admission tickets for the March 18 tour opener in Toronto going for over $3,000. The same level of tickets for the March 24 show in Hamilton were on sale for $4,000.

Two questions: one, if these tickets are locked to the purchasers’ phones, how did the resellers (allegedly) acquire them? And two, if the resellers do, in fact, have tickets, how are they going to transfer them to the purchaser?

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Ticketmaster has since issued this statement:

“The non-transferability of Gigaton tickets has been extensively communicated to fans from the outset and is prominently featured at every step of the discovery and purchase process. To eliminate confusion among the secondary market and broker communities, we also sent them a notification advising that tickets for this tour are not available for resale. Only SafeTix mobile tickets will be valid for entry, and SafeTix tickets can only be issued directly from Ticketmaster.”

That’s that, right? It should be, but I’ve been doing a little asking around.

StubHub, one of the big players in the ticket broker space, will facilitate the resale of Gigaton tickets in New York and Colorado, where the law specifically allows tickets to be transferred from one party to another. Other resellers are doing the same thing.

Another possibility is that brokers are using dozens (hundreds, maybe?) of cheap smartphones to buy up tickets and then work the cost of the phone into the overall price. All it would require is a broker to sign onto the ticket exchange platform and troll for fans unable to use their seats. They could then acquire the tickets at face value, and when someone decides it’s worth $4,000 to get up close to Eddie Vedder in Hamilton, they’ll be sent a phone with the tickets tethered to it.

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Voila! You’re in.

Even though that seems like an awful lot of work, I’ve been told this is a viable loophole. And because ticket brokering is a big business, you know that someone has already thought of this.

And finally, are all tickets to these shows digital? What about those issued to holders of corporate boxes? In what form do contest winners get their tickets? How about guest lists? Could those be the sources of tickets on the resale market? Maybe.

I doubt that the Ticketmaster/Pearl Jam scheme will be 100 per cent effective, but I give them credit for trying to get the upper hand in this cat-and-mouse war with resellers.

Me? I wouldn’t think of buying Pearl Jam tickets from the secondary market because the prospects of getting burned seem way too high. Meanwhile, the game continues.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107 and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play.

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