Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
The unquiet case of Leonard Cohen vs. Ticketmonster
This past November, performers with the city’s famous One Yellow Rabbit Performance Theatre regaled Calgarians with their spirited performance of Doing Leonard Cohen – an evening of poetry and music that traversed the Canadian artist’s dynamic oeuvre using equal doses of passion and humour.
While this dynamic homage to one of our nation’s most noteworthy authors temporarily satisfied fans with tributes to Leonard’s lyrics and prose, it only whet their appetites for more of the real deal. When it was announced that the elder statesman would be performing a series of concert dates across Canada, many leapt at the chance to take in a rare live show.
Unfortunately, for dedicated Cohenites, their anticipation turned immediately to disappointment as Leonard’s upcoming shows appeared to sell out within minutes of going on sale to the public on March 2, leaving many fans empty handed and disillusioned. Worse yet, second-hand tickets appeared for sale at outrageously inflated prices on other websites within mere hours. The same story unfolded across the country at GM Place in Vancouver, Rexall Place in Edmonton and at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, where 4,600 tickets for Cohen’s two May concerts were snapped up through Ticketmaster and the house’s box office in a half hour. Shortly thereafter, the same tickets began popping up on TicketsNow.ca, Ticketmaster’s own resale website, the asking price inflated from the original $60-$250 range to a whopping $300 to $1,600 for a single seat.
Those looking to see Leonard at Calgary’s prestigious Jack Singer Concert Hall show (the Killers had already booked the Saddledome for that night) met a similar fate. Terry Rahbek-Nielson, a long-time admirer of Mr. Cohen, went so far as to express her displeasure directly to the tour’s manager Robert Kory.
“When it came to booking a spot in Calgary, the LC camp ran into a challenge,” explains Rahbek-Nielsen. “The venue they wanted was already booked and they decided that, rather than skipping Calgary altogether, they'd book the Jack Singer. It's a great venue for those who (can afford) the tickets.
“I think the LC camp is handling this with integrity and fairness. They seem to be doing all they can to level the playing field for concert goers. The ‘no comps for the crew and friends’ policy is quite a big deal. I think the no comp policy for the Calgary show is a result both of playing such a (comparatively) small venue and the high demand for tickets. The word is out in roadie land that there are no comps. That's unusual and I like it.”
Even with the possibility of vying one’s way onto the guest list out of the picture, some of those seeking tickets were still able to gain access to Leonard Cohen tickets via a handy side door known as ‘the official fan club.’ This was the route chosen by savvy customer Jeremy Hart who nabbed one of the coveted seats for the show.
“I was fortunate in that my sister is a long time member of the LC fan club. She turned me on to LeonardCohenForum.com and, in addition to some excellent topic discussions, there was to be a fan club presale (one day only on February 25),” says Hart. “The night before the presale, the password was changed, presumably to throw off some of those who were registering with the forum to get the password and post it online for everybody. On presale day, I had decided to purchase one ticket at the lowest price level (for $123), which I managed to do without any trouble. Within an hour, the presale tickets were all gone.”
For those with deeper pockets, VIP tickets to the Jack Singer event were listed on sale at the same time as the presale. Consuming what Hart estimates to be least the first ten rows of each venue, available real estate in these choice spots came in at a base price of $549 each.
“I went online at exactly 10:00 a.m. when the general sale started to see what was available,” continues Hart. “I asked for one ticket at any price level and it couldn't find anything for me. I tried a few more times in the next 20 minutes to no avail. When I asked at the Ticketmaster outlet (at the University of Calgary location) after the fact, they said they managed to get tickets for the first two or three people in line. The others left disappointed and angry.”
Earlier this year, following an outcry from Bruce Springsteen fans who were similarly jilted in New Jersey, Ticketmaster agreed to pay the state $350,000 and significantly modify their methods of operation in the US. Now, Ontario’s Attorney General Chris Bentley is involved and there’s an ongoing investigation of the way in which the company does business in Canada. This comes after at least two class-action lawsuits were filed against Ticketmaster in Canada. Specific issues of contention are the company’s whopping service charges and monopolistic ownership of TicketsNow. The plot thickens as Ticketmaster is poised to absorb yet another piece of the market in the form of a merger with the world’s biggest concert producer Live Nation Inc., who move an estimated 45 million tickets a year. They’re also the guys who just sold out U2’s next tour in 60 seconds.
With this many shows going on, it is apparent that Leonard Cohen's rapid sell-out wasn't all that out of the ordinary for Ticketmaster. Calgarians hoping to catch a glimpse of acts like Iron Maiden and Metallica had to strike like lightening and, even then, scores were left out in the rain. Hardcore music acolyte Chad Naclia was one of the lucky few who managed to get in, but as with many concert-goers, the experience left him somewhat jaded.
“My last few experiences with ‘The Man’ were pretty typical of what many people have been experiencing,” confirms Naclia. “For both shows involving the Sword last December – I think Metallica and Lamb of God played as well – I jumped online at 10:00 a.m. on the button to grab my ridiculously overpriced tickets. I tried to grab two tickets within ten to 20 seconds when the sale opened for the floor and I received a message along the lines of ‘there are no tickets available for your request.’ But I was conveniently directed to a related website that had many tickets available. They even had floor tickets. I know people who purchased tickets that way for about $400 a piece.”
The intricacies of sanctified scalping and dirty double-dealing aside, how does the process of buying and selling tickets reflect upon the artist? Well, according to each of our interviewees, they see the problem as having to do with the system not the musicians it represents. Legal action may eventually resolve some of the issues surrounding Ticketmaster and TicketsNow, but until that time audiences will have to continue to que up in the hope of being given the opportunity to pay through the nose.
“Who doesn't like Leonard Cohen? He's a wonderful talent and a great representative of Canada. Leonard Cohen has gifted the world with so much beauty... he deserves every accolade and every bit of good fortune he receives because of it. My annoyance with the whole business is with Ticketmaster,” reiterates Terry Rahbek-Nielsen. “I tried to get tickets online, and in person. The original tickets were gone before I could blink twice and the overpriced resale ticket are a complete scam. So, we will go to (see him in) Edmonton.”
Jeremy Hart agrees that some shows merit a higher ticket price, but wonders about the lack of restrictions placed on Ticketmaster and their lion’s share of the gig market. He also points to ‘cratering’ record sales as part of the impetuous behind elevated ticket prices.
“The acts and promoters know that most of their album's plays are generating no income for them, so they're looking to recoup that money on the road. For me, it was worth the expense. First, my ticket is probably the best I could get for my price range. Second, there is a very good chance that Mr. Cohen will not be doing this again as he is in his 70s. Third, in terms of Mr. Cohen's western road swing, Calgary is the anomaly,” Hart explains. “The problem is allowing Ticketmaster to own a company that operates in the secondary ticket market. This seems a direct conflict of interest to me and is, at best, legally dubious. If I'm not allowed to sell a ticket for more than its face value, why does Ticketmaster or TicketsNow get to? Hell, bring back BASS Tickets. At the very least, give the venues the ability and reasonable means to sell the shows independently.”
Chad Naclia agrees. His prescribed remedy is a home-grown option.
“Just as smaller venues in the city – Broken City, HiFi, the Distillery, the Stetson – release their own tickets, therefore keeping the money within the venue and the community, all venues, including places like the Saddledome, should be in charge of managing their own ticket distribution.
“It's not rocket science and it's as simple as that.”
Originally published in Beat Route Magazine by Christine Leonard