Louis C.K.'s DIY Tour Offers New Model for Bands

'If it makes sense, why not try it?' says one music manager

louis ck
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Louis C.K. visits the SiriusXM Studio in New York.
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Louis C.K. has so much control over his fall tour, he's making musicians envious. The comedian is charging $45 per ticket – exclusively through his own website, and with no service fees – for his trek beginning October 3rd in Cleveland, and he's doing so by avoiding Ticketmaster and other ticketing companies that have exclusive deals with major venues and routinely add service fees.

"I'm kind of embarrassed that he did such a great job of it. They basically went into venues and took over and said, 'You want the show, you have to use our tickets,'" says Stuart Ross, Tom Waits' tour director and agent. "I'll look at what they did and figure out if it makes sense – and if it does, why not try it?"

The venues for the tour are mostly performing arts centers with their own ticketing systems – including 12 shows at New York City Center, rather than the Beacon Theatre, where C.K. appeared last fall.

"It's really hard. But it was really fun," C.K. told reporters last week. "Any place that we couldn't play the usual venue because of how the ticket companies have it set up – they have these places locked down, and they own a lot of them – we had to find places that were willing to do it our way. And it was kind of a risk."

Although Ticketmaster officials would not comment directly on C.K.'s tour for this story, they praised his approach via Twitter. "We love what Louis C.K. is doing and support it – wish more people had the stones to do all-in ticketing [by setting ticket prices without any extra fees]," Nathan Hubbard, the company's chief executive, recently tweeted. "We have been a huge champion of protecting what he is trying to do – delivering a great seat at a fair price to an actual fan."

What Hubbard didn't mention is that C.K.'s approach runs counter to the long-standing economic structure of the concert business. The biggest stars get such a huge percentage of ticket revenues that venues and promoters usually have to make up the difference for via food, beer, parking and service fees. "The ultimate culprit in ticket prices and service charges is the act," says John Scher, a veteran New York promoter who manages Art Garfunkel and believes artists, promoters and ticketing companies should work together to change the system. "Does Ticketmaster enable them? You betcha they do."

String Cheese Incident, a Colorado jam band, has battled Ticketmaster for the past decade over the right to sell their own tickets at shows. This year, they turned to their fans for help, distributing $20,000 worth of cash to willing volunteers who bought tickets, then returned them to the band for reselling through stringcheeseincident.com. Ticketmaster's rule, for years, has been to provide 10 percent of total tickets to artists for sale through fan clubs and official websites. To avoid these constrictions, String Cheese and other acts, including Mumford & Sons, have created their own elaborate festivals and tours to avoid Ticketmaster venues entirely.

Mike Luba, the band's manager, says he received an e-mail recently from C.K.'s camp asking for advice on how to plan a similar tour. "To have a comedian lead the charge is a total natural evolution of it – it's one dude with a microphone," Luba says. "He's having latitude that rock bands may not have. He's playing City Center in New York, which is probably the only off-the-grid, non-Ticketmaster venue in the entire city. He probably has no stagehands, there's no crew, there's no anything. For a band like String Cheese, it's almost prohibitively expensive."

Because C.K. controls the tickets, several rock managers say, he can also get away with broader-than-usual scalping restrictions. He's using techniques other acts have tried, from threatening to cancel resold tickets and changing the pick-up instructions to requiring buyers to show their identification at the will-call window. "Some of these rules may be a pain in your ass," the comedian wrote to fans, "but please be patient." Plus, C.K.'s team can use a ticket manifest – a report provided by a venue's box office that lists all of the sources for ticket sales – to figure out whether anyone purchased large chunks of seats at a time, then call those customers directly and determine whether they're brokers or "regular fans." (In a statement provided to Rolling Stone, Ticketmaster emphasized the company's own efforts to fend off secondary sellers: "No company works harder at fighting scalpers than Ticketmaster. We invest millions in technology, fight at the state and local level against pro-scalper legislation and we work with law enforcement to help bring scalpers to justice.")

So far, the approach is working. After 45 hours, the comedian reported on Twitter, the tour sold 100,000 tickets, a box-office gross of $4.5 million. Scalping was mostly non-existent in the first two or three days, but has inched up on sites such as StubHub and TicketNetwork since then. (StubHub's spokesperson, Joellen Ferrer, predicts higher numbers closer to the show dates.) As of last week, ticket-tracking website SeatGeek reported 667 tickets on 60 major resale sites, a low number in comparison with similar-size shows – 191 tickets per show are being resold for Aziz Ansari's tour, for example. "It's really unprecedented to see a performer of [C.K.'s] caliber have such a dearth of tickets on the secondary market," says Will Flaherty, SeatGeek's communications director.

Many major touring artists don't care at all about scalped tickets. But a minority of pop stars, including Bruce Springsteen, Waits and Metallica, are aggressive about keeping prices low and blocking scalpers. Several managers are paying close attention to C.K.'s innovations. "I'm delighted that someone is giving it a go," says Richard Jones, manager of the Pixies, who played two 2010 non-Ticketmaster club shows in London and allowed fans to get in by showing their electronic tickets on their smartphones. "I would really like to do it. I've got a lot more convincing of venue owners and promoters around the world to join with me."

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