Sunday, May 20, 2001

Ticket prices get cranked up

Concertgoers can minimize service charges

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Look around the next time you are at Riverbend. The guy behind you, the woman in the next seat, the couple down the row — there's a good chance none of you paid the same price for comparable tickets.

        Buying a concert seat is a confusing maze of options. Do you pay by cash or credit card? Buy at an outlet, by phone, online or at the box office? In advance or on the day of show?

        Had you chosen wisely, you could have gotten away with paying only $4.50 extra for a ticket to the “Volunteer Jam,” the all-star Southern rock concert that was postponed because of flooding. But if you're not careful, you might have racked up service charges of more than $10 for one seat.

        “It's just like any other product,” said John Harig, director of ticketing services at the Cincinnati Arts Association. “Be aware of what you're paying and you might be able to find it for a better price.”

        As we head into summer, the busiest concert season, the multiple service charges can cause ticket shock in unsuspecting buyers. Carol Appel, 50, of Wyoming, has been going to see live music since she was 14. Her husband Les, 49, recently ordered four tickets by phone from Ticketmaster for a concert at the Taft Theatre.

        “Then when we saw all the charges they tacked on, we couldn't believe it!” she said. “I still enjoy going to

        concerts, but I'm not going to pay a lot of money and still have horrible seats.

        “It's a nice thing to do as a family (the Appels have two children, Ben, 19, and Denise, 14), but it costs so much you really have to pick and choose.”

        Ticket “convenience charges” have been a fact of life for local concert goers since 1971, when Ticketron, the first major national automated ticket seller, opened here. But with the national concert boom of the '80s, competition arose from a new company, Ticketmaster.

        Using improved technology and offering to share service charge revenues with venues and promoters, Ticketmaster quickly took over the industry. Today, Ticketmaster sells the seats for every major concert in the Tristate.

        Even with one company doing the selling, prices vary greatly. A ticket to the “Volunteer Jam” concert, with the Charlie Daniels Band, .38 Special, the Dickey Betts Band and Trent Summar and the New Row Mob, costs $27.75 for the best seats. A cheap ticket by concert standards, the tickets carry service charges at the low end of the scale. Higher-priced tickets often carry higher service charges, particularly with credit card purchases.

        It also depends which credit card you use. Ticket outlets have to pay a percentage on credit card purchases, and they pass that cost on to the buyer. Should a credit card charge a higher percentage, that, too, is passed on by Ticketmaster.

        So if you bought your ticket to today's Riverbend opener online or by phone (service charges are the same using either method), Ticketmaster charged you $6.45-$6.80 per ticket, depending on your credit card. There's also an additional $3.50 per-order charge. That's adds up to $9.95-$10.30 in charges for one seat bought with a credit card.

        It's cheaper to buy tickets in person at a Ticketmaster outlet. Area outlets include some Kroger stores (as of today Ticketmaster is no longer in Thriftways), Disc Jockey Records in Florence Mall and the Aronoff Center box office.

        A favorite trick of bargain-hunting concert fans has been to buy tickets from the facility's box office the day they go on sale.

        That used to be a way to avoid service charges entirely. But a more recent trend has been service charges imposed by the venue at its own box office.

        “We've been seeing special fees added on for restoration or whatever from the venue side. Ticket fee surcharges went from being a cost center for a promoter to being a profit center,” said Gary Bongiovanni, editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a concert industry trade publication.

        Blame the big acts, he added. The top concert draws demand increasingly higher guarantees and shares of ticket sales.

        “Over the years, concert promoters and venues found their profit margins being stripped away by the artists, so they've looked for other ways to create income streams rather than just ticket sales.”

        Riverbend added its own service charge in 1999. Even so, buying at the venue is usually the cheapest way to go. Riverbend charges $4.50 a ticket, no matter how you pay for it, cash or credit card, and no matter how much the ticket costs.

        The charges cover Riverbend's cost of staffing the box office and paying credit card fees, according to Matt Dunne, Riverbend general manager. As more concerts top the $100 mark, he said, the service charge doesn't cover credit card company fees.

        “There are some shows where we lose money (selling tickets) because of the credit card fees,” he explained.

        Riverbend's best deal in service charges is for tickets purchased in advance. Buy on the day of the show and there's an additional $2 fee per ticket.

        Other local venues, including Bogart's, have similar charges to encourage early purchase of tickets. Reasons are simple — it cuts down on long box office lines on busy show days and, the faster a show sells, the less advertising and effort a venue has to put into it, cutting costs as well as stress.

        “Due to all the confusing add-ons, venues and promoters tend to avoid the subject of just how much a ticket costs,” said Mr. Bongiovanni. “It's very rare that you see ticket prices advertised anymore. They say it just creates too much of a problem.

        “I think once people, whether they go down to the box office or they do it online, once they've selected seats and everything, they've mentally already bought the tickets. But you may be a little surprised as to how much you're paying.”


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