Ticketmaster does it again. In February the quasi-monopoly botched sales for Bruce Springsteen's current tour and sent fans to Ticketmaster's TicketsNow.com scalper site, where they had to buy seats at huge markups. Now, AP reports, TicketsNow says it sold too many tickets for the Springsteen show at DC's Verizon Center on Monday. The company has been calling fans who thought they locked up seats at hundreds of dollars to tell them the bad news. TicketsNow says it will give people refunds along with free tickets in the nosebleed section.
But I doubt they're happy. Baltimore resident Joe Compton said he got locked out of buying Springsteen seats at face value from Ticketmaster in early February. So he went to TicketsNow, he says, paid $440 for two tickets plus another $80 in nuisance charges and was told the tix would be mailed in early May. They never came
"On Friday they called, leave me a message," he told me on the phone. " 'Contact us.' I've called Friday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They have not gotten back to me. I go and look on my TicketsNow account. It says 'the order is complete'.... They've kept 520 of my bucks for three months and I don't think I'm getting the deal."
He's feeling doubly abused and very ticked off. Good thing Ticketmaster doesn't do anything important, like fly planes or run nuclear energy plants. Dear Justice Department and FTC: Don't let Ticketmaster merge with Live Nation!
A New Jersey congressman is demanding an investigation. New Jersey's attorney general has asked Ticketmaster to stop doing what it says it didn't do.
Ticketmaster is scrambling, overnighting free tickets to aggrieved Springsteen fans, compensating people who mistakenly bought marked-up seats on TicketsNow and doing its best to imitate a caring, progressive mega-corporation.
"We sincerely apologize to Bruce, his organization and, above all, his fans," wrote Ticketmaster boss Irving Azoff.
Because he's worried about losing future business from rock fans and impresarios?
Heck no. Ticketmaster owns 70 percent of the concert-ticket market, estimates Scott W. Devitt, who follows the company's stock for Stifel Nicolaus. There's really nowhere else to go, Ticketmaster's notorious "convenience charges" notwithstanding.
Azoff, who grew to fame and riches managing Dan Fogelberg and the Eagles, is probably more concerned about what the Springsteen debacle spells for Ticketmaster's reported merger plans with concert promoter Live Nation.
That deal would make Ticketmaster even bigger and more powerful, which is hard to imagine. Given that the administration of President Barack Obama was already likely to frown on such a combo, the Springsteen episode couldn't have come at a worse time for the company.
It began at the Super Bowl. Springsteen's Sunday halftime show was a glorified ad for his tour. Tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. the next day.
Jonathan Kandell of Catonsville, attendee of 54 Bruce shows, wanted seats for the Verizon Center on May 18. But as Boss Hour struck he couldn't complete the purchase. Then he tried searching for Springsteen seats in Philadelphia. That was when, he said, Ticketmaster's software automatically sent him to TicketsNow.
He couldn't believe it. It was only a few minutes after 10, but TicketsNow was already selling hundreds of Springsteen tickets for three or eight times face value.
"I was really upset," Kandell says. "Is this some sort of fraud or monopoly? I don't know."
Ticketmaster owns TicketsNow, which is why Holman, of Silver Spring, thought something was fishy when she had the same experience.
"It feels like Ticketmaster is hoarding and saving seats in the venue that are going to TicketsNow," said the 100-show veteran. "We're not getting access to the seats."
Ticketmaster spokesman Albert Lopez acknowledges there were software problems Monday - but only for people trying to buy tickets for shows in New Jersey and on New York's Long Island.
All those fans were contacted by phone or e-mail and provided seats, he said.
The rest of Monday's frustration, Lopez said, resulted from high demand for Springsteen tickets and the fact that they quickly sold out, not from anything Ticketmaster did.
While Ticketmaster offered an optional TicketsNow button for Springsteen buyers, he said, nobody was automatically sent to the site.
"There is no automatic redirect," Lopez said. "A fan has to physically click the button."
"It happened automatically without me touching a damn thing," said Holman.
I talked to three other customers, including Kandell, who said they had the same experience.
Why was Ticketmaster even allowed to buy TicketsNow last year?
Lopez says Ticketmaster doesn't own the tickets sold on TicketsNow. They're put up by individuals and licensed brokers, some of whom could have already had seats to sell early Monday, he said. Ticketmaster will no longer provide optional links to TicketsNow, it says, unless performers allow it.
But both companies under the same roof is still a breathtaking conflict of interest, subject to little oversight. TicketsNow is one of Ticketmaster's fastest-growing units.
The Internet has been unkind to many media and entertainment businesses, but Ticketmaster is an exception. In a parallel universe it might have been regulated as a natural monopoly like electricity. But even electric companies aren't much regulated these days.
Years after the band Pearl Jam complained about Ticketmaster before a star-struck congressional subcommittee, the company reigns supreme. This isn't 1991, however, when the George H.W. Bush government approved its buyout of rival Ticketron and helped create today's mess.
Springsteen has come out against a Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, which is a start at fighting back. A Ticketmaster boycott by Springsteen would be better.
Real competition in ticket distribution would be the best deal of all. Barring that, a Federal Trade Commission inquiry into Monday's problems might ensure that we're not still reading Ticketmaster horror stories when Miley Cyrus has her comeback tour.