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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2009/04/26
by David Steinberg

The Ticket War

Things are getting ugly out there in the Phish world. What everyone was (and many still are) expecting was a repeat of the 2002-3 reunion. The first shows back were impossible tickets but once the national tour happened, the shows – while sold out – became easy tickets. Five weeks out from Fenway, there still haven’t been many signs of that happening. Although the well researched Phish Bubble Report is showing a weakening in the market, almost every show is still trading at a premium. As much as I hope history will repeat itself, there are two important ways why 2009 is not 2003, and they make me worry.

Small Venues in the Mix

First it was the return shows being in a surprisingly small venue. Then the Asheville Civic Center and the Fox Theatre appeared in the first leg of summer tour. Then the only shows for the year (so far) in an entire time zone will be at Red Rocks. The result of having a few shows with insanely high demand is to put incredible pressure on all of the other ones. Sure Phish have been gone for 5 years, but that’s not why the Gorge sold out in 15 seconds instead of the usual two weeks. Anyone who logged onto Craig’s List the next day knew what had happened. They were purchased for Red Rocks trading purposes. Can’t get into the hard shows? Try buying tickets for the easy ones and maybe you can make a 20 for 1 trade or something. While it’s frustrating for those who would only be able to go to Red Rocks and it is easy to see why Denverites would want to do whatever it took to make it inside, it’s equally annoying to see people in the Pacific Northwest presently shut out of their local show because the tickets are all locked up for trade attempts that aren’t going to happen.

For the Gorge this is especially worrisome just because the venue is one where you have to make a special trek to be able to attend. When the show first sold out that quickly, I had nightmares of people flying to Denver, being unable to make any trades, and just going home with their tickets. It’s not that difficult to imagine scenarios where there are tons of people shut out in George and others who have tickets, but no time to make a trade. Things are loosening up now for these shows, but it’s a clear example where you can see the effect that the smaller venue had on sales for the larger.

Everyone Can Be a Scalper

Call it the Stubhub syndrome. During the breakup, sites sprung up whose purpose was to let people unaffiliated with scalpers sell their tickets for a profit. This might have been no different than eBay but these sites became popular in the sports world during the breakup. Many teams promoted them directly as a way of season ticket holders to recoup their expenses for games they weren’t planning on attending. An entire generation of fans grew used to the idea of buying and selling their tickets for a profit. Most of the diehard Phish fans weren’t paying close attention to this, as we hadn’t had to deal with difficult tickets. The societal rules had changed on us and we hadn’t a clue.

So when you throw in the amateur scalpers and the traders on top of the scalping services and – oh yeah – those of us who just want to see the show, it’s not too surprising that things have gotten a tad ugly. It’s not enough to just go to your outlet or log onto anymore. To be successful in purchasing tickets, you have to know all of the tricks of the various sites. There are people who practice before every tour to make sure that LiveNation didn’t change their rules. People master the art of typing in captchas as quickly as possible and know what pages it is safe to refresh and which ones push you to the back of the queue.

As a result of all of this playing, the ticket services can’t get away with anything anymore. Take Red Rocks for example. Somehow – perhaps through confusion between a test and a production server, perhaps through an intentional early opening of the ticket-buying window to help out some scalpers or friends of a Ticketmaster employee – Red Rocks tickets went on sale a few days early. The news spread with incredible speed. Buy the end of the night, it seemed like almost everyone who wanted to go to Red Rocks had managed to purchase tickets. Unfortunately, the key words in that sentence are ‘seemed’ and ‘almost.’ For while this was great for the fans who happened to be online that night, others who had the nerve to leave their computer for an evening got shut out. Maybe if only a few hundred tickets had been sold, they might have stood, but a very significant percentage of the tickets to the venue were sold in the accidental pre-sale. I am exceedingly glad that I wasn’t the person who had to decide what to do about these sales, because it wasn’t going to be fair to someone. You have a large group of fans that managed to score tickets to a difficult show but you also had the contingent that were ready to follow the rules who completely lost their chance to get in. Regardless of what the band did, there was going to be an angry mob. I don’t know if the $50 gift certificates given to those who purchased through Faux Order eased any pain, but at least it was an attempt at a compromise.

With The Battle of Morrison still fresh in everyone’s memories, another skirmish was about to happen. Fenway Park was announced as a late addition to the tour. While a stadium show might not usually get anyone excited, this one was different. It was the first show in a major league park, and it was one filled with history that just happened to be located in the middle of Phish’s home turf. Sure, it might be a weird place to see a concert, but the first time is a novelty and a lot of people would want to go.

Even while the mail order was happening, it was obvious that this was going to be a more difficult ticket than the capacity would imply. There were all sorts of reports about presales happening for various groups, none of which would necessarily be Phish fans. It’s a nice perk for a season ticket holder to get a free chance to scalp concert tickets – and much nicer for people who happened to know one – but the sheer numbers of tickets set aside went against everything Phish tried to do. The entire argument for voiding the Red Rocks tickets was that it gave an unfair advantage to fans who hang out on the Internet all night (like, say, me) instead of those who might have another hobby or two. While that made sense, having a later ticket favor those who happen to have purchased seats to an unrelated event didn’t exactly come across as an equitable situation. You shouldn’t have to know someone well off enough to buy Red Sox season tickets in order to have a chance to be on the floor [1] at a Phish show. Sure it wasn’t the band’s policy, but that didn’t make things any less frustrating.

What happened next was pretty easy to predict. The anger was building after days of gloating from those who knew someone towards the unwashed masses. The first presale was for employees and their friends. Since it was open to anyone that the employees wanted to help out, there was just one password that anyone had to type in. Since this is the Internet, the code was either guessed – come on, ‘FenPhish?’ Is that the best you can do? – or leaked and suddenly the tables were turned. The people who were waiting for their season ticket connections to help them bypass the ticket line were stunned to see all of those they mocked getting easy tickets through the FenPhish code. As the season ticket population is much larger that that of employees, even though the allotments were probably the same size, it turned out that being the kind of diehard fan that hangs out on Phish related message boards in the middle of the week made it easier to get tickets than your uncle having a season ticket. Ideally there would have been no presales at all, but if these tickets were already set aside to whomever was able to find the code, it’s much better that they went to fans than to the inevitable scalper leak.

What Can Be Done

In the long term, we probably should all be ok. Sure, maybe ‘Backwards Down the Number Line’ will be Phish’s ‘Touch of Grey,’ but barring that, this is a bubble and the demand will drop.

It probably will take a few tours of scalpers and traders losing money for tickets to become easier, but that doesn’t mean that there are no actions that the band can take. Trey, Mike, Jon, and Page, you guys are excused from the heavy lifting here. It’s not your job to come up with strategies to minimize scalping problems. That’s why you have management after all. Fortunately, other bands have been playing under the new rules and there are ways around the new scalpers.

I’m assuming that it’s going to be difficult to get Ticketmaster and LiveNation to play along. We consider ourselves lucky after all when LiveNation doesn’t actually crash. Mail order though is a different situation altogether. You control that and right now this is the weakest link in the chain.

The first thing that probably should be done is to put a fee on being able to mail order. Almost every other band that has a private ticketing process does this. Mail order is being overwhelmed by fake orders, by people who get all of their family and coworkers to order. Make a $50 fee and either give it to charity (I’d suggest the Mockingbird Foundation but I’m obviously biased) or have the fee also give you a $50 credit at Dry Goods or Live Phish so this won’t become a question of greed. Eliminating double and triple and quadruple orders will mean fewer occasions of there being 100,000 orders for 5,000 tickets which would lower the stress all around. If that doesn’t work, take a page out of Metallica and AC/DCs’s book and make it so you have to scan your credit card instead of a mail order ticket. Sure, this will occasionally annoy someone whose travel plans fall through, but it would move us back to the right place, one where people only mail order for shows they want to see themselves.

Right now the ticket game is frustrating. People are pitting themselves against each other and practically turning getting tickets into a full time job. In the midst of the Fenway insanity, I found myself actually hoping that there wouldn’t be a fall tour so I wouldn’t have to deal with this for a while. And while that mood obviously passed, the sentiment underlying it is real. The ticket process is sucking a lot of the fun out of Phish’s return. Will there be hard tickets under any process? Sure. But it would be nice to get back to the days where mid week sheds didn’t sell out in 30 seconds. Here’s hoping that the fall tour is spent talking about the shows instead of the crazy things that we did to get inside the building.

[1] After the breakdown of the pre-sale, it became obvious to those that were paying attention that there were going to be no floor seats at all sold on the regular on sale date. They all were designated for the scalpers and well connected.

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 Capital 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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