Last December, spirited fans lined up behind the police barricades outside New York's 2,800-seat Beacon Theater, clutching hard-to-find tickets to Bruce Springsteen's first solo acoustic tour. Nearby, a swarm of in-your-face scalpers barked out the going price of $200 a seat. A month later, the same sort of pre-show frenzy unfolded at New York's 1,500-person-capacity Academy Theater, where Smashing Pumpkins, supporting their million-selling Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, were playing their own set of small-venue shows. But as the spillover crowd tried to navigate Times Square sidewalks buried by the blizzard of '96, scalpers were curiously absent. Thanks to an elaborate voucher-distribution system, it was virtually impossible to buy a ticket to the show and then sell it – or even give it – to anybody else. "We totally shut down scalpers," says the Pumpkins' co-manager Cliff Burnstein.
As rock's longest-running consumer scourge, scalping has become an accepted part of the concert scene. It's hard to pinpoint exactly how much business scalpers do, but the practice is so accepted that ticket brokers regularly meet with state legislators to lobby against anti-scalping laws. (Scalping is now outlawed in just 20 states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Massachusetts.) Now scalping is receiving fresh scrutiny from a new generation of rock acts including the Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, the Black Crowes and Pearl Jam, whose members recall what it was like to stand in line at the box office only to be told that the best tickets had all been snatched up.
"Being concerned about scalping is kind of a new issue," says Donna Westmoreland, who manages the 9:30 Club, in Washington, D.C., where the Pumpkins' tour also touched down. "First the boogeyman was Ticketmaster. Now it's scalpers. But it's a viable issue for artists to focus on. It beats taking out the brown M&M's," she says, referring to Van Halen's infamous tongue-in-cheek contract rider forbidding candies of that color backstage.
The ticket system the Pumpkins used in New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., catered to motivated fans. In each city, local radio stations announced three hours in advance when and where $25 cash-only tickets would go on sale. Tickets were limited to one pair per person, and fans needed to present identification when buying them. After paying, they received vouchers marked with their name and a corresponding number from their ID (whether it was a driver's license, a Social Security card or even a library card). The night of the concert, buyers' names and ID numbers were checked off a master list at the door, and everyone was given a commemorative ticket upon entering the hall.
"I was really happy on line, thinking, 'This is great – only true fans will go to the show,' " says Pumpkins fan Darryl Siry, of New York.
"I've been doing this for 20 years and, short of DNA testing, it's as close to a fail-safe way of doing it as I've seen," says Gary Cormier, general manager of Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theater, where the Pumpkins played on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3.
The Pumpkins' system, devised by bandleader Billy Corgan and first tested at Chicago's Double Door nightclub in early 1995, is a variation of a proven approach. As part of his small-hall tour in late '94, Eric Clapton teamed with Ticketmaster for a voucher-only system. But Clapton's tickets were available only by phone, thereby requiring a credit card, and sales were restricted to fans over the age of 20.
Three years ago, the Black Crowes required fans purchasing tickets in the first 10 rows to sign for them and produce ID. Last fall, after their arena tour with David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails headlined a two-week club tour and sold vouchers with an ID system. "We wanted to make sure true fans got the tickets," says NIN manager John Malm.
Vouchers aren't without their problems. They are not only cumbersome – a source close to Clapton says his downsize tour was a "logistical nightmare" – but they're also costly for the venues. "If someone were to tell me this was where the trend in ticketing is going, I'd say we have a problem," Westmoreland says. The 9:30 Club had to pay six extra employees to monitor on-sale sites and had to open doors two hours earlier the night of the Pumpkins shows to verify IDs. Tighter controls can also mean snafus. Siry says he was told by an Academy box-office employee that he could get in line again after buying his first pair of Pumpkins tickets. Later, the office of New York promoter Delsener/ Slater called him to say that his second pair had been voided and that the company was keeping his $50 because Siry had tried to "dupe" the company.
Despite the drawbacks, some frustrated Springsteen fans wish the singer had adopted a voucher plan for his tour supporting The Ghost of Tom Joad. Ticket sales "have just been really bizarre," says Josh Jacobson, a Minneapolis attorney who has seen some 40 Springsteen concerts in the past 15 years. In New York, wristbands were handed out at the Beacon to determine the order of sales, but fans claim that scalpers paid ringers $5 to cut in line in full view of indifferent security personnel. At a Ticketmaster outlet at Tower Records in Chicago, fans started arriving before dawn. Random numbers were supposed to ensure all comers an equal shot at getting tickets, but people became convinced that the system was rigged when most of the first 25 "random" buyers all appeared to be homeless people from a nearby mission. In Austin, Texas, where a first-come, first-serve system was in place, brokers paid the homeless $50 each to stand in line and buy tickets.
Springsteen has tried to offset woes by upgrading dozens of back-row tickets and putting blocks of tickets on sale at the last minute to thwart sidewalk scalping. "Bruce does care about the fans, and I think Bruce's organization has made some effort to stop scalpers," Jacobson says. "But I think they could have tried harder." Springsteen's managers declined to comment.
How do the scalpers do it? A former worker at a Ticketmaster outlet in Chicago says he routinely pocketed $5 to $15 for every ticket he funneled to scalpers, and he averaged 10 tickets per concert. A former employee for S.E.A.T.S. in Atlanta, which was eventually purchased by Ticketmaster, says experienced workers learned how to punch in customers' orders and then quickly void them so that tickets that were impossible to trace would be spit out and put aside for scalpers. A Ticketmaster spokesman says the company monitors its retail outlets for inconsistencies and cancels contracts whenever wrongdoing is uncovered.
Million-dollar lobbying campaigns launched by ticket brokers have paid dividends in Illinois and New Jersey, where legislators recently eliminated anti-scalping laws over the objections of consumer advocates. (Connecticut and New York lawmakers may soon follow suit.) New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman sided with brokers, arguing that legalizing scalping would actually drive down prices on resold tickets. These states now allow brokers to buy and sell tickets at any price as long as it's done from a business address and not the sidewalk in front of venues.
Promoters and scalpers blame one another for the troubles fans face in getting choice concert seats. Promoters lobby for tougher ticketing laws, insisting that scalpers gouge the public and damage the industry's reputation. Ticket brokers counter that promoters withhold the best seats for their own gain. "They're crying wolf and trying to use brokers as a scapegoat," says Barry Lefkowitz, executive director of the National Association of Ticket Brokers.
"We're trying to stay one step ahead of brokers; every time we come up with a plan, they figure it out," says Scott Gelman, vice president of Jam Productions, one of the Midwest's largest concert promoters. Like many companies, Jam is looking for a system that's foolproof and fairer than wristbands and lotteries. The sophistication displayed last year by Pearl Jam's ETM tickets – which came complete with the fan's name and address and a customized bar code – "forced everyone to look at the big picture of ticketing,'' Gelman says. "We're all in the business of having customers come back. But how many times can a kid get screwed before he stops coming back?"
Additional reporting by Bill Wyman.
This story is from the March 7th, 1996 issue of Rolling Stone.