Pearl Jam vs. The Industry
In an industry that relentlessly sucks in and spits out goateed, guitar-slinging rebels every year, biting the hand that feeds can work out to be brilliant publicity. Pearl Jam and lead singer Eddie Vedder, monsters of grunge, have done just that since they broke out of Seattle in 1991. Driving grunge into the mainstream, they proceeded to wage war against the corporate interests of the music industry. They have also watched their mass appeal soar to unrivaled levels which makes touring without help from Ticketmaster--the corporate ticket-sellers with a stranglehold on two-thirds of concert sales in the country--no longer possible. While bucking their Sony Music publicity machine, ignoring MTV and battling Los Angeles-based Ticketmaster, combined sales of Pearl Jam's three Sony Music releases have exceeded 12 million. Pearl Jam typically rakes in anywhere from $200,000 to $350,000 per gig. Yet in their 18-month fight against the ticket-selling conglomerate, Pearl Jam has been portrayed as a grungy David fighting to keep ticket prices down for their teenage fans, in the face of a monopoly cornered by a corporate Goliath. The band's integrity was on the line when it emerged in April to announce the 11-city tour. Pearl Jam had canceled a series of summer gigs last year, filed a federal anti-trust complaint against Ticketmaster, and testified against the company at a congressional hearing last fall before retreating into isolation. A fledgling company from Philadelphia, ETM, was to manage ticket sales for the tour through a lottery system, and hold the service charge per ticket down to $2.45. Ticketmaster would handle sales only at two Milwaukee shows. But then the tour unraveled. A date was canceled in San Diego, then rescheduled at the Ticketmaster-controlled San Diego Sports Arena. At first the band stated they could no longer keep up the fight against Ticketmaster without becoming inaccessible to millions of fans. For a few days, the plan was to work with the company and possibly add more shows to the tour. "Maybe there was no Goliath," suggested Larry Solters, self-described "spokesboob" at Ticketmaster corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. Solters downplayed the dispute and denied the band has had much impact on business. But when Vedder was faced with 9,000 screaming fans at the tour's June opening gig in Casper, Wyo., he couldn't resist hurling a tough-talking rant against the corporate enemy. He announced that Pearl Jam had no intention of cutting deals with Ticketmaster, and the band's manager later confirmed it. San Diego (Vedder's hometown in the 1980s), like Milwaukee, would be an exception. The dominant image lingering from Pearl Jam's brief and contentious summer tour came a few days later: It is of Vedder lying face-down with a case of stomach flu backstage at a gig in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, grunge godfather Neil Young leading the band on-stage. Pearl Jam abruptly dumped the rest of the tour, citing "controversies associated with organizing with attempting to schedule and perform at alternative venues." Sources close to the band began intimating, off the record, that the band disliked playing on the road, and wanted to concentrate on recording. With an anti-trust decision by the U.S. Department of Justice pending, and contradictions coming from the band, Ticketmaster attempted to take the "high road." Pearl Jam "was a band that just didn't want to be out there [touring]," said spokesman Allan Citron. But Ticketmaster's Solters was spinning off rhetorical rants of his own, no doubt anticipating headlines like the one that ran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: "Pearl Jam caves in to Ticketmaster." "Do you know where the cheapest Pearl Jam ticket anywhere in the country is?" asked Solters. "Milwaukee. Do you know why? It's because of Ticketmaster. In Milwaukee you can go directly to the venue. Ticketmaster recognizes that there is a box office. Ticketmaster works with the box office. Nowhere else could you get a Pearl Jam ticket for $18," adds Solters. "Only in Milwaukee. "To me, it's the irony of ironies."The band chose to honor its commitments in Milwaukee and Chicago, but canceled the rest of the tour. During the 24-hour wait for final word, Pearl Jam ignored all interview requests as fans expressed "disappointment" and ticket scalpers grew nervous. The scalping rate for a Pearl Jam ticket in Milwaukee was as high as $500. The face value of the ticket was $18 at the box office, and $20.75 at local Ticketmaster outlets, where 75 percent of the tickets were sold. Though lower than the usual local surcharge of $3.50 to $4, Ticketmaster charges as much as $6 in other markets. That alone was the flat fee for the lawn seats sold in Milwaukee, where the band closed out the final two nights of Summerfest, an 11-day lakefront music festival, drawing close to 50,000 fans. In the final accounting, the average cost of a Milwaukee Pearl Jam ticket was about the same as the standard $20.45 charged through ETM. The shows sold out in 28 minutes, according to Summerfest officials. The two appearances grossed close to $700,000, service fees not included. Though the details of Pearl Jam's deal with Summerfest are undisclosed, a touring act of Pearl Jam's stature typically rakes in 90 percent or more of the gate, which would leave them with over $550,000. Possible security costs and touring expenses cut the profits, but Pearl Jam did not leave town with pocket change. With so much at stake for Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster, the conflict begs more for a slingshot-wielding David that it does for a pair of Goliaths. "When you've got a show as big as Pearl Jam, you've got to have a venue," says Summerfest entertainment director Bob Babisch, who negotiated the terms of the band's appearance. "You've got to have security, fences, the whole deal." Football stadiums, like the vast open air of the Los Angeles Coliseum, were available, but the band was looking to play in medium-sized arenas. The ticket companies that have moved in on the one-third of the market Ticketmaster does not control also sign exclusivity deals with venues, severely limiting the options for Pearl Jam and ETM. The lockouts left the band far short of meeting the demands of their mega-stardom. A January Voters For Choice benefit with Neil Young and L7 in Washington, D.C. drew 175,000 mail order requests for tickets. Only 6,000 seats were available. "It's nice for Pearl Jam to do Casper, Wyo. [where the tour opened last week]," griped Ray Garman, the Philadelphia banker who holds the principal stock-holding interest in ETM. "But from a bottom-line view of the business ... they can't create music if they can't pay their bills and they can't pay their bills if they can't play big venues." Pearl Jam had announced a tour last year, but canceled when negotiations with Ticketmaster fell through. The band's goal was to play for less than $20 per seat for the entire 1994 summer tour, but Ticketmaster's final offer last year was a $2.50 service charge, bringing the cost of the $18 tickets to $20.50. The difference this summer with ETM was 5 cents--and tickets sometimes arrived via mail the day before the show. Still, many observers, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and promoters, have viewed Pearl Jam's crusade with respect. "You've got this type of music [grunge] ... a $100 ticket is ridiculous," Milwaukee promoter Babisch says, recalling the astronomical per-ticket expense on the recent tour by 1970s dinosaur The Eagles. "Pearl Jam could go out and sell $80 tickets, and sell them all. They elected to take care of their fans instead." The bottom line is that Pearl Jam's struggle to keep the price of their tickets down has put pressure on the feeder industries of the music business--the ticket sellers and promoters. And the band's sparse touring has fueled a pent-up demand for the band that could translate into alienated fans in the long run. Other performers are active with the group Consumers Against Unfair Ticketing Practices, and are wondering why Pearl Jam took up the crusade alone. Pearl Jam sound-alike group Stone Temple Pilots is exploring the idea of touring without Ticketmaster, and lead singer Scott Weiland recently told Rolling Stone: "I think it's admirable the way Pearl Jam stuck their necks out. But I think it might have been a little bit more effective if there had been a coalition put together beforehand, because they're not the lone horses in their feelings about the whole ticket bullshit." Cracks in Pearl Jams anti-Ticketmaster stance first appeared when the San Diego Sheriff's Department issued a 17-page report which outlined security fears about the band's scheduled appearance in late June. Though criticized by the band as unfounded, the report complained that crowds could balloon beyond the 50,000 tickets sold in a repeat of the fiasco at a March Pearl Jam show in Palm Beach, Fla. At that show 8,000 tickets were sold, but 20,000 fans crammed into the hall. The San Diego dates were rescheduled for a fee at the San Diego Sports Arena--a venue that deals exclusively with Ticketmaster. "I think you'll find the band is just going to do whatever it takes to play," Curtis explained before the tour opened. "And if that means they're going to have to play some Ticketmaster shows, they're going to play some Ticketmaster shows." Then came the retractions and the problems in San Francisco. With success continually challenging Pearl Jam's integrity as a band, is the fight against their parent industry, and of course Ticketmaster, nothing more than a personality crisis? For Pearl Jam, the answer is simple. Testifying before the House Government Operations Information Subcommittee in July 1994 against the monopolistic practices of Ticketmaster, Ament said, "We remember what it's like not to have any money." True to those words, frontman Vedder and manager Curtis have worked to keep ticket prices affordable for their fans since 1991. After rethinking their position, Curtis announced that, again, the fans' interests take precedence. Uncertain is how the band will meet that interest in the future. Back in Los Angeles at Ticketmaster headquarters, Solters isn't buying any of it. He dismisses the band's campaign as "a tremendous marketing tool: They don't do videos; they don't do interviews. "Ticketmaster controls ticket sales in many cities through service contracts, so building the case that the company operates as a monopoly has been hard to prove. According to a spokesman, 20 percent of the contracts are open for bidding every year. The sticking point in the case has been that the corporation pays the venue as part of the ticket-selling deal, usually in exchange for large numbers of tickets, a practice Pearl Jam lawyers have labeled "kickbacks." Ticketmaster kickbacks were at issue in a case (unrelated to Pearl Jam) decided in New York State Appeals Court in September 1994. The company had been charged with distorting the market by adding "excessive fees" to tickets while keeping the competition at bay with sweet ticket-buying deals for New York venues. The court upheld a lower court ruling to throw out a claim of monopolistic and deceptive practices against Ticketmaster. Ticketmaster has refused to open the books on its service contracts. Last week, the U.S. Justice Department let the company off the hook, saying, "There were new enterprises coming into the arena." While Pearl Jam is not alone in calling for a break-up of the company's network of venue deals, they have been the most powerful market force working against the company. Ticketmaster has responded by engaging in damage control. Before the San Diego shows were canceled, The corporation planned to donate the pay-off to charity. Last year, lawyers for Ticketmaster filed a $306.8 million defamation suit against three aggressive Pearl Jam lawyers, citing use of the "kickback" term. Though Pearl Jam is again retreating from the limelight, it would seem the conflict is far from over. "It took us a whole year to plan these summer dates, and we're not going to go through that again," Curtis had said before Vedder's illness and the Justice Department ruling. "We did want to make a point on how difficult it is to tour without Ticketmaster, and we made the point." Perhaps Pearl Jam's most lasting blow was in getting ETM's foot in the door. And the company is not backing away from the publicity gained by their association with the band. Pearl Jam's trouble in setting up venues for their tour proves that "Ticketmaster has a monopoly," said Philadelphia financier Ray Garman. Having to deal with Ticketmaster--which last year sold 55 million tickets for an estimated $1.6 billion, is "a recognition of a marketplace with a monopolist in control." And that marketplace dictates that if the monsters of grunge are realistic about touring, they need the monsters of ticket sales, at least for the time being.