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.
But why are artists even in this situation? Why does Ticketmaster have a lock on so many venues? Mainly for two reasons. First, venues often get a cut of the fees. As Baron explains, venues can "receive a fee from Ticketmaster, first as an advance of money which is recoupable," similar to recording contracts or book deals. Baron adds, "Once Ticketmaster recoups the money, additional fees from ticket sales are split with the venue and/or promoter. In cases of large venues like The Meadowlands, they'd sometimes get a signing bonus as well." Second, he says, "ticketing is hard to do, to get right every day, particularly if you have reserved seating." What's the incentive for a venue or promoter to stop using a service that takes care of the hassle of selling their tickets and gives them a cut of the fees?