The Humane Audacity of Louis C.K.'s Ticketmaster-Flouting Tour

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The comedian has created a refreshingly personal way to buy tickets to his next round of shows.

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Louis C.K. is doing it again. Late last year, rather than making a televised concert special as big-time comedians typically do, C.K. instead sold downloads of his Live at the Beacon Theater exclusively on his website. As I argued earlier this year, this decision was not only good for his fans. With over $1 million generated in just the first 12 days after its release, it was a wise economic decision as well—and one that other performers and studios would do well to follow. His latest gambit, however, takes his challenge of the entertainment business to the next level.

Last week C.K. sent out an email alerting fans that he had begun selling tickets to his upcoming fall tour exclusively through his website. The tickets, regardless of venue or seating location are all $45. Even. As C.K. wrote in his email, "In every case, that will be less than anyone has actually paid to see me (after ticket charges) in about two years and in most cases it's about half of what you paid last year." He went on to write, "the 45 dollars also includes sales tax, which I'm paying for you. So I'm making more or less depending on the state." In a further move to keep prices down, C.K. has also barred people from selling their tickets for above face value, a rule he "intends to enforce," though it's not exactly clear how. And he's doing all this without Ticketmaster.

Since anyone who has bought tickets to a concert in the past 20 years, in basically any city in the country at nearly any size venue, most likely has had to do so through Ticketmaster, the ambition of this project is obvious. A few years ago Ticketmaster had, according to some sources, over 80 percent market share of major venues, and that was before their arguably monopolistic merger with Live Nation. But C.K.'s experiment appears to have paid off—in just the first two days of sales, C.K. generated $4.5 million.

Though elements of Ticketmaster's service are excellent, its failings - notably its Orwellian "convenience fees" and predatory lock on so many venues - are well-documented. What hasn't been covered is why so many artists haven't bypassed Ticketmaster entirely the way C.K. has. And more broadly, what C.K.'s success means.

Back in 1994, Pearl Jam, at the time one of the biggest bands in the world, took on Ticketmaster. "We have attempted to keep the ticket prices to our concerts to a maximum of $18" Pearl Jam stated, noting that they wanted their shows to be affordable for their teenage fans (even though they could have charged nearly "three times that amount," as some promoters wanted them to do, noted an LA Times article in June of that year). Their main complaint was that Ticketmaster's obligatory service charge on each ticket was raising prices to over $20. And because Ticketmaster had a lock on nearly all the major venues in the country the band was unable to use a different ticketing service. Their crusade even brought them to Congress for hearings about Ticketmaster's alleged monopolistic practices (a nice change from the last time rock musicians appeared before lawmakers, when they were scolded for naughty lyrics corrupting the nation's youth). In their testimony before Congress they also added complaints about advertisements appearing on the back of tickets and that Ticketmaster was not taking sufficient steps to prevent scalping and counterfeiting. Most critical, though, was their claim that Ticketmaster had a monopoly. "We should have the option to make arrangements to distribute tickets to our concerts through other means," the band's members stated. "Something is vastly wrong with a structure under which a ticket distribution service can dictate the mark-up on the price of a concert ticket, can prevent a band from using other, less expensive, methods of tickets, and can effectively preclude a band from performing at a particular arena if it does not accede to using Ticketmaster."

At the time the band received words of support from Neil Young, REM, Aerosmith, and other top-selling acts, but none followed Pearl Jam's lead when they attempted to tour without Ticketmaster. Alas, Pearl Jam quickly gave up the fight when the band realized how difficult it was to find enough suitable tour venues and promoters that weren't tied in to exclusive deals with Ticketmaster. "What if we had spent two months assembling the show and Ticketmaster threatened the promoter with a lawsuit one hour before we were set to hit the stage? What if a show got canceled at the last second and (a fan) got hurt? We just couldn't risk it," Kelly Curtis, the band's manager, told the LA Times.

Since the Pearl Jam debacle, a few acts have tried, largely in vain, to bypass Ticketmaster in one way or another. The most notable example is String Cheese Incident, a popular jam band with a loyal concert audience. They have been circumventing Ticketmaster's service fees by buying large blocks of tickets from venues' box offices and then selling them directly from their website. When they couldn't reach a deal with one venue, LA's Greek Theater, they went so far as to front $20,000 to fans to buy tickets at the Greek's box office for them and then resold them on their site. Besides the Kafkaesque process of trying to work around yet still having to work with Ticketmaster, the band is taking monetary losses, as they are paying their fans' credit card fees for purchases through their site.

So how is the Louis C.K. tour different from Pearl Jam's failed experiment years ago? And will it be an anomaly, or is it a sign of coming change in the concert industry? Ticketmaster still has a tight grip on a huge number of venues around the country. Rather than go through the tortured process String Cheese Incident is suffering through, to avoid Ticketmaster entirely, C.K. has had to piece together a somewhat hodgepodge collection of venues that aren't under the company's very large thumb. For his New York shows, for example, rather than performing at standard sites like The Paramount or The Beacon, C.K. is playing the New York City Center, a nonprofit theater normally host to dance troupes and theatrical productions. As C.K. noted in his email, "It was a real challenge to find venues around the country that could work with our exclusive ticketing service under these parameters ... Setting up this tour has been fascinating and difficult."

But C.K. has an advantage over Pearl Jam back then and other bands today. As Josh Baron, co-author of the book Ticket Masters, the definitive take on the ticketing industry, told me, "The beauty of the C.K. situation is he's one person. Without a lot of gear or crew he's more agile and able to go to odd venues. For a band to do what he's doing would be much harder because they have more technological and logistical demands on a venue." So don't expect Death Cab or Coldplay to try this with any success anytime soon. It's unlikely that Joe Bob's Giant Warehouse in Tulsa has the right electrical capacity for a rock band's PA and lighting rig, not to mention good acoustics, security, and so on—requirements that one guy on a stage telling jokes can largely bypass.

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David Zweig is a writer and lecturer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of the novel Swimming Inside the Sun.

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