Tickets in hand

Musicians try will-call to thwart scalpers and resellers, but some say fans still pay a price

Wilco fans had to pick up their tickets for the show in the lobby of the Citi Wang Theatre, and they could not be readmitted if they left the theater. Wilco fans had to pick up their tickets for the show in the lobby of the Citi Wang Theatre, and they could not be readmitted if they left the theater. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Michael B. Farrell
Globe Staff / September 29, 2011

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Under the glow of the Citi Wang Theatre marquee, Doug Kennedy weaved through the crowd of Wilco fans lining up for the Chicago rock band’s recent sold-out concert.

Kennedy’s pregnant wife wasn’t up for a night of loud music, so he was hunting for someone to buy her ticket, which cost about $50.

Unlike most concerts at Boston’s Wang - or other US venues - tickets were available only by “will-call,’’ meaning they had to be picked up in person, and fans were first required to show identification. Once they got their tickets, there was no leaving the Wang - readmission was prohibited.

Wilco is one of a small but growing number of artists - including Jeff Mangum and Thom Yorke - using will-call as a low-tech way of keeping tickets from the lucrative secondary marketplace, where they are routinely sold at three or four times their face value through websites such as Craigslist, StubHub, and eBay. Those championing the practice - including promoters, tour managers, and ticket vendors - say will-call selling dramatically reduces scalping and keeps a lid on prices.

Kennedy, who lives in Marlborough, said he understands the policy, “But it makes it much harder for a regular guy like me to get rid of a ticket.’’

Andrew Dreskin, chief executive of Ticketfly, a San Francisco ticket vendor that handled sales for two Wilco concerts on its current tour, said the method is effective.

“There is no secondary market when there is will-call only,’’ he said.

Dreskin said the artists using will-call “want to ensure that their true fans are the ones getting the tickets, and not scalpers.’’

But ticket resellers actually play a valuable role in making sure fans get to see their favorite acts, said Jon Potter, president of the Fan Freedom Project. The Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy group was launched in February with funding from StubHub, which was bought by eBay for $310 million in 2007.

“Will-call-only is a ham-handed way of trying to define who is and is not a true fan,’’ said Potter. Essentially, it favors fans who have more time on their hands than money, he said.

“What if I’m a working mom [who] can’t get online to buy tickets?’’ Potter said. “They are making a judgment that I’m not sure they are in a position to make.’’

As artists and ticket vendors move to more tightly control pricing, resellers are pushing back in an escalating battle for control over the marketplace for tickets for events ranging from professional sporting events to rock shows.

In Massachusetts and several other states, legislators are considering bills that would make it more difficult for artists and vendors to limit reselling. The legislation, which is supported by Fan Freedom, also takes aim at moves toward paperless ticketing, which requires purchasers to show the credit card they used to buy their tickets before entering a venue.

The Massachusetts bill, which was the subject of Sept. 20 hearing in front of the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, would ensure that the consumer “who buys the tickets owns the ticket and that they can share or sell it without restriction,’’ said Potter.

State law now prohibits the reselling of tickets for more than $2 beyond face value, not including service fees. But it is rarely enforced.

Potter contends that the tough ticket policies are based on the misguided notion that tickets sold on the secondary market always cost more. He cited a recent online survey commissioned by Fan Freedom that found 47 percent of buyers have paid below face value when dealing with resellers.

Still, many tour promoters and vendors say greater measures are needed to ensure ticket equity as scalpers use more sophisticated tools to cash in. Some use computer programs - called bots - that can snap up tickets from online vendors within seconds after they go on sale.

“In the old days, people stood in line at the box office and you could easily monitor who the brokers were who bought tickets and who the general public was,’’ said Joe Spaulding, president of the Citi Performing Arts Center, which operates the Wang. The technological prowess of scalpers, he said, requires a new level of vigilance.

Wilco was just the second artist to insist on the Wang using will-call ticketing. The first was Radiohead lead singer Yorke, earlier this year.

In New York, the electronic band LCD Soundsystem played four will-call-only shows ahead of its final April 2 concert at Madison Square Garden. Frontman James Murphy wrote on the band’s blog that the appearances were meant to give “people who actually want to see us a chance to see us. For a reasonable ticket price.’’ But after the Garden concert - which was not will-call - sold out within seconds, Murphy complained that scalpers had elbowed out average fans. Tickets that went for $35 or $50 on Ticketmaster were being offered on StubHub for as much as $1,500.

At Wilco’s Sept. 20 Wang concert, crowds swelled outside the box office about a half-hour before the opening act took the stage. Security guards directed fans to lines based on last names. Box-office agents standing at tables sorted through envelopes of paper tickets, trying to keep fans moving inside as quickly as possible.

While Spaulding said he is happy to accommodate a performer’s request, it can cost the venue thousands of dollars to staff a will-call concert because of the additional labor.

But the procedure may be too difficult to employ at larger venues, such as Boston’s TD Garden. Will-call-only would “pose a problem,’’ said Hugh Lombardi, senior vice president and general manager at the Garden, which can hold up to 19,000 people.

“It’s not perfect,’’ said Ticketfly’s Dreskin. “This industry needs to continue to try to think through these issues, which are how to limit scalping and how to prevent scalping while providing consumer-friendly solutions.’’

But he added, “I think the artist and the fans would rather be slightly inconvenienced by going to will-call than having to pay four times the value of the secondary market.’’

Michael B. Farrell can be reached at

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