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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2008/10/22
by David Steinberg

Living Down to the Insulting Nickname

I had a column planned for this month. is 10 years old this month
which would have been a perfect time to reflect on the scene. Then came
Ticketmaster Day.
Don’t get me wrong. This is the event I have been waiting for since Coventry.
From everything I’ve heard (both figuratively from show reviews and literally
from tapes) Trey’s playing has been impressive lately. It just would have been
nicer if they could have picked a larger venue to play. The joy of the return
has unfortunately been intermingled with ticket stress. The anxiety should fade
when more dates are announced and people understand that they will get to see
Phish – let me say that again, we will get to see Phish next year! – but for the
next few weeks, the focus is going to be on getting people into Hampton. And
that now means dealing with the Ticketmaster.
While I somehow managed to get 3 day passes on Ticketmaster Online, the entire
event seemed off. Fifteen minutes before tickets went on sale, every single
phone number for Ticketmaster went down. Online, many people reported that the
captcha device [1] didn’t load which made it impossible to find tickets. While
both of those could have happened organically due to the crush of people looking
for ducats, the conspiracy theorizing started almost immediately. The problem
is that when you get the rejection notice, appearing right next to that is an ad
for TicketsNow (‘a Ticketmaster company’) that tells you how you can get into the
show for a mere $347 dollars.
There are a few positive things about TicketsNow. No one likes scalping but it’s
going to be impossible to wipe it out short of making everyone present an id
at the door and that would have its own negative side effects (e.g. incredibly
long lines to get in, wasted tickets if someone has an emergency). TicketsNow
has some advantage of other scalping companies. There’s a real time ticker of
prices that lets you know trends in prices, which is fascinating for someone like
me. More importantly, if you buy a ticket there, you know it’s real. The moral
issue still exists but it’s the practical one that stopped more people.
It’s hard to see that as an unmitigated good mind you. Making it easier for
people to purchase scalped tickets mainstreams the behavior. Purchasing scalped
tickets used to be an activity that required a long rationalization. Now it’s
common. Even the barriers towards selling tickets for a profit are starting to
be lowered. Scalping is another way of turning a community into a group of
self-serving individuals.
Even if you have no moral problem with scalping, Ticketmaster owning TicketsNow
raises a lot of questions. There is no transparency in the process. Were the
problems we encountered natural or a way of helping out TicketsNow? Does
Ticketmaster automatically shuffle tickets to their scalping subdivision? Will
re-releases be limited in order to maximize the number of tickets they can mark
up? We have no way of knowing. For all we know they’re completely beyond
reproach, but without that knowledge the suspicion is going to build. It
wouldn’t be quite so bad if it weren’t for the fact that Ticketmaster has
exclusive contracts with so many venues. As Pearl Jam learned, it’s hard to be a
national touring act and also be independent from this company.
As frustrating as this is, there is one easy step that everyone can do to help
prevent this problem from getting worse. Even if you think that you must see
this show and money is absolutely no object, hold off on using this service.
Wait a few weeks. Wait another month after that. Take your time making a
decision. Use the backdoor scheming of the scalpers against them. They’ve
horded tickets, which is great if they’re selling, but scary if no one is buying
them. Wait until Phish announce their new dates and the demand will lower
further. Even just in the 48 hours since the shows have sold out, TicketsNow’s
prices have dropped 30%. Wait it out longer, make them sweat, and they’ll fall
even more. If no one is buying, more tickets will be funneled to re-releases
instead of Ticketmaster’s profit schemes, which reduces demand even further.
Phish’s return is also a chance for us to redefine how we work as a community.
If we handle tickets to this event correctly, scalpers will rapidly lose interest
in distorting the ticket market. I’m not going to say that it’s easy to resist
the call of guaranteed tickets but if we can succeed in holding out, we could
have an impact that would effect how scalpers see Phish for years to come. Time
is our ally here. Phish don’t play for another four months. Even if you have to
buy a plane ticket, those prices won’t get bad until a few weeks before the show. Meanwhile, every day that a scalping company can’t sell these tickets is a day
that resources that could go to Hannah Montana purchases are tied up. Factor in
the liquidity crisis we’re in, and some companies could start finding the need to
get rid of tickets quickly. Meanwhile, you can spend that time looking for
re-releases which would save you even more money. With a little bit of self
control, we could teach the scalpers a lesson: it is possible to make money off
of Phish shows, but it’s really annoying and it only works for the highest demand
shows anyway. We’ll never be able to get rid of scalpers forever, but if people
can just hold out until February, they’ll be more reluctant to invest in tickets
for the next run.
Now as for you Ticketmaster, you know, I’ve always tried to stand up for you.
Yes, your service charges were always outrageous, but the occasional dealing with
UNLV ticketing for Thomas and Mack shows made me appreciate your service. Even
when I labeled your phone number as ‘Ticketbastard’ on my phone, it was with as
much affection as derision. This TicketsNow business model is making things a
bit more difficult. There were always stories about you being in cahoots with
scalping companies to pass them tickets under the table; I can only imagine the
temptation you’d have when you own the scalpers. This arrangement might make you
a few dollars in the short run – although ticket scalping is exactly the type of
business likely to suffer in this upcoming recession – but in the long run, it’s
going to lead to official investigations and potentially even some new
legislation. You already were charging a sizeable service charge on nearly every
ticket sold in the country. When you’re flirting with monopoly power, quietly
lay low and collect the money. You have much more to lose with having your venue
exclusivity contracts voided than you do to gain from this questionable alliance.
[1] Those are the annoying words with the squiggly lines that you have to type in
to prove that you’re a human looking for tickets and not an automated system.
David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State
University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capitol
Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at
He is the stats section editor for The Phish Companion and is on the board of directors for the Netspace Foundation. You can read more of his thoughts at

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