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Published: 2012/12/27
by David Steinberg

Featured Column: The Lost Art of Scamming

One of the main differences between seeing shows now and seeing them in the early 90s is that venues are so much more aware of our tricks. There used to be all sorts of tricks to getting into a show. Have enough self-confidence and force of will and it was always possible to get yourself into a show. I talked to someone on the 1989 Grateful Dead summer tour who used a ticket from the first night to get in every night. He’d just constantly get a new ticket stub from that night, cut off the end, tape it together, and make it into a new fake ticket. The Spinners [1] made a cottage industry of this. One fan would get a ticket and then harass everyone coming in to hand over their stubs. They had some machine back in the lot that would automate the process so they’d come out with dozens of real enough tickets.

I’ll admit to my own fake ticket story. I was outside of the old Spectrum in a freezing rainstorm in 1993. I had pretty much given up on actually getting to see the show, but decided on one last try. Instead of the flashy approach, I walked around the venue and muttered, “I wouldn’t mind a ticket.” Someone handed me a piece of cardboard and said, “It’s fake but it’ll get you in.” I immediately walked to a ticket taker, they ripped it and I ran in. I only missed one verse of the “Touch of Grey” opener.

Getting in on fake tickets and sheer nerve is much rarer than the more usual scam – the stub down. Go to enough shows and you start to learn the tricks. Madison Square Garden used to be especially easy for this. With a series of rings that went around the building and wide aisles, it was easy to turn 300 section seats into something else. This wasn’t just used to get closer to the band. It let friends sit together in larger groups than they’d usually be able to manage in a non-general admission venue [2].

I’m not going to claim that this act was victimless. Some people would get very possessive of their scammed seats and not let in those who had the actual ticket for the seat. Aisles could get crowded and difficult to navigate, especially for seats on the floor. The aforementioned Spinners could be very pushy when they asked for stubs. Anarchy can be messy and ugly and frustrating.

As annoying as that was, it was definitely better than what we have now. The occasional scam that people used to do was to call Ticketmaster and say that their tickets were lost. They’d get a new pair issues to them at the box office and use the old ones to get some friends in. People still do that trick but now the purpose has changed. If you sell your old tickets with the cancelled codes, all you do is screw over another fan who thinks they have a valid ticket but instead they have a worthless piece of cardboard. These rules stop a small number of very organized fans – although in the days of printing tickets [3], this could quickly get out of control – in exchange for making it easier for scalpers, and more specifically scalping services like Stubhub that guarantee that the tickets will work.

I’m not totally down on the bar code system. Earlier this year, I had a ticket stolen out of my pocket and the box office was able to cancel that ticket, reissue me a new one, and I got in; free hint: if you grab someone’s ticket, don’t then spent the next hour hanging out in the lot, letting him have time to get a new one. It makes it easier to buy tickets for friends and not have to worry about them getting lost in the mail. Still though, as we move more and more towards a system where everything is done by the book, and as the world in general drifts in that direction, it’s fun to think back on the days where spending a ton of money wasn’t the one and only way of getting into a tough show, a time where a pair of scissors, a little bit of scotch tape, a compass [4], and the right attitude let you bypass the scalpers.

[1] The Spinners were amazing. They were a group of fans that literally worshipped the music of Jerry Garcia. They called themselves something more formal, but they got their nickname due to the fact that they’d hang out in the halls, spinning slowly to every Jerry song. When it was Bobby’s turn to sing, they’d sit down.

[2] I have to admit that part of what inspired this column was trying to find a way to be able to sit with my friends on New Year’s Eve. Madison Square Garden used to be all about the ease of getting people together and now it’s becoming a venue where you sit in your actual seat and you like it. For 99% of events, that’s perfectly fine but for these shows it just empowers scalpers.

[3] One modern trick that people like to do is to go into a photo-editing program and change the graphic that the ticket uses. It can be fun to do so and you can feel super sneaky if you create a valid ticket, but rule number one on this: don’t get greedy. I saw someone get in a lot of trouble on the New Year’s Run last year for creating a front row center ticket… in a section that started with row 2.

{4] The point of the compass was perfect for creating a faux perforation to make the ticket rip easily.


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 and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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