[3 November 2008]
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.) (MCT)
Those who’ll get to jam with rock group Phish in Hampton, Va., next year generally fall into one of three categories:
The incredibly lucky.
Those willing to part with piles of cash.
Those resourceful enough to circumvent an increasingly airtight ticketing system.
On Oct. 1, Phish announced plans to reunite and play concerts at the Hampton Coliseum on March 6, 7 and 8. Tickets went on sale Oct. 18, and 41,000 of them were snatched up in less than 15 minutes.
No surprise there.
Before Phish disbanded four years ago, the celebrated jam band was among the hottest concert draws in the nation. Between 1989 and 2004, the group sold 5.8 million tickets for a gross of $176 million, Billboard reported.
Demand for the Hampton shows - the group’s first in four years - is huge. The band’s spokesman won’t give an official statement, but sources said that within the first 30 hours, fans were invited to enter a band-sponsored ticket lottery, and hundreds of thousands of requests poured in. It’s reasonable to think that the number eventually neared a half-million.
Once the lottery and the official sale ended, a frenzy of subterranean bargaining erupted in the Phish fan community. It’s still going on. Through eBay.com and TicketsNow, Ticketmaster’s own ticket brokering site, Phish tickets with a face value of $49.50 are being offered for as much as $787. The fact that Phish hasn’t announced more concert dates for 2009 is helping to keep prices high.
Many fans are willing to pay big bucks, but that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it. Local ticketholders interviewed for this article said they were irritated and thought that the deck was stacked against them from the beginning.
Newport News fan Adam Bollinger failed in his attempts to buy tickets through the band’s lottery and the official Ticketmaster sale. Since then, he’s bitten the bullet and purchased them through Tickets8Now.
He won’t say exactly how much he paid, only that the price was painful. Handling fees alone were $67.
“This is my band, said Bollinger, who is 35. “I’ve seen them at Hampton Coliseum I don’t know how many times. I went to Vermont to see them, I followed them around the country. This was not something I was going to miss.”
He’s elated at the idea of hearing Phish again, but he’s queasy about how transactions unfolded. “I’m not saying what they are doing is illegal, but it definitely seems unethical somehow,” Bollinger said. “I understand it’s going to be a hard ticket to get. It’s a pretty big deal for people in our community. But it seems like the only people who got tickets were scalpers.”
Many fans say the Ticketmaster sale was plagued with glitches. They speculate that brokers somehow used special technology to worm their way to the front of the line.
Newport News fan Sean Gilbert, who also failed to buy tickets through official channels, was puzzled to see brokering site TicketsNow offer them just moments after the official sale began. That Ticketmaster channeled unsatisfied customers to TicketsNow directly from its Web site made him more suspicious.
That’s understandable. Ticketmaster’s ownership of TicketsNow is a new wrinkle in the national ticket buying landscape. It means that the company is now in the ticket resale business, an area of commerce that the company once fought tooth and nail.
“It’s just discouraging that two minutes after tickets go on sale, they’re on this broker site for absurd prices,” Gilbert said.
From Ticketmaster’s perspective, the Phish ticket sale went swimmingly. And a spokesman for the company said there was no funny business happening with Tickets8Now, an Illinois-based company that Ticketmaster purchased in February.
Albert Lopez, vice president of strategic communications for Ticketmaster, said brokers - even those who sold their wares through TicketsNow - weren’t allowed to gain advantages over average customers.
“Brokers do not have faster access,” Lopez said. “All fans have equal and fair chances to buy tickets. ... The cause of this is that you have a great band like Phish and a hyper-eager fan base. The laws of physics come into play.”
Lopez explained that the Ticketmaster system was capable of selling 14,000 tickets a minute, meaning that chances to see the Hampton shows could have feasibly evaporated in as little as three minutes. Also, he said it was plausible that a broker could purchase and repost a ticket in a few scant minutes. The broker wouldn’t need an inside track to do that. “It’s possible,” Lopez said. “You just need two Internet connections, two browsers, open.”
Lopez said he sympathized with angry fans. “There is a public relations problem there,” he acknowledged. “I completely understand the fans’ sorrow. But with Web technology, this happens so easily. ... It happens with every major band that has a huge following, like AC/DC and Metallica.”
Ken MacDonald, the local promoter for the Phish shows, also said complaints of this kind were inevitable.
“I’m not hearing anything I didn’t expect to hear,” MacDonald said. “It’s the fallout you’re always going to have from a major event, just like Bruce Springsteen in New York or Hannah Montana somewhere. It’s the fallout of an event that has limited capacity and very high demand.”
MacDonald said he didn’t think that Ticketmaster was doing anything sleazy. “They’re in the business of selling tickets,” he said. “In Hampton Roads, we don’t see this like they do in New York or Los Angeles. We just don’t have the familiarity with the secondary market that a lot of people have been dealing with forever.
“Fans are looking for something to blame because they’re disappointed. But I don’t know anything that could have been done that would have been more random or more fair.”
Local Phish lovers would like to offer at least one suggestion.
“We wish the Coliseum could have pulled 500 tickets for each night and sold them through their box office,” said Michael Copeland, a Phish fanatic who works for a NASA contractor in Hampton. He was able to secure tickets through Phish friends whom he met on the Internet. But on behalf of disenfranchised Phish heads, he thinks that carving out a chunk of tickets for local fans would have been a fair path.
“That would have guaranteed that locals would have at least had a chance,” Copeland said. “This way, the tickets are going to go to wealthy trust-fund kids. They’re the only people who could afford to spend $1,600 for two people to have a nice weekend in Hampton.”
Thousands of less well-heeled Phish followers are expected to arrive in Hampton in March ticketless - hoping to get lucky at the last minute.
“I hate to see it get out of hand, but it will be a mess,” predicted Shawn Hughes, a 41-year-old Poquoson, Va., resident and big Phish fan. “There will be people with hotel rooms and no tickets and people with tickets and no rooms. There’ll be a lot of bargaining and trading. Who knows how it will all end up? But it will be fun, I’m sure of that.”