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RIFFS, Rants, Raves, Reflections

At Your Service (Charge)

November 19, 1998|NANCY WRIDE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You go, Eddie Vedder. You and your band, Pearl Jam, aren't the only ones ticked off at the nation's No. 1 ticket seller.

Who died and left Ticketmaster to dictate where artists perform shows and how we pay for them? How did we let this happen?

Ordering through this extremely rich conglomerate--it processes 1.8 billion ticket orders a year--is supposed to be an example of capitalism and the free market working. But it feels like some kind of worst-case scenario featuring all the ills alleged of socialism. Lack of choices, long lines, waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting. Somebody always gets rich on the deal, but it's not you. You get to pay for the bother of it all.

And make no mistake: This so-called convenience is a bother. A costly bother.

Oh sure, we supposedly have a choice to not go to a concert, to not order this way. But Ticketmaster is the dominant vendor in the market. They sell tickets for most major shows. And besides listening to your old CDs at home, what choice do you have if the performers are your favorites--not some marginal act you might drop in on when you basically just want to drink with background music. And usually a band makes one stop per town.

Several weeks ago, a trio of friends tried to buy tickets to see the Artist (yes that would still be Prince to everybody but him); Chaka Khan; and Larry Graham, former bass player for Graham Central Station and Sly and the Family Stone.

As one of us works a half-hour drive to the Great Western Forum, we planned to buy our tickets at the box office, hoping to avoid any "service" charge. The Forum phone line quickly dashed that hope. All tickets, it said, have to be bought through Ticketmaster.

Thirty-five minutes on hold later, there was bad news. The cheapest seats, in the Upper Collonade, were $50 each. Then there would be a "handling" charge of $7.25 per ticket. Then there would be a $3 order charge. This is 16 1/2%--barely under the fee your Visa card charges you when it gives you credit to spend money for a month before you pay it back.

We were stunned. But we decided to pay. This was the Artist formerly known as the performer who would never tour again. We saw him months ago on the "Today" show, jamming in the streets of New York City with Chaka and Larry to kick off this tour, and that made us all the more eager to see him live. Who said loving R&B is rational?

Despite the stiff service charge, we rationalized away: We were actually only paying $20 a performer, right? We'd be getting our money's worth, right? For a show that was rumored to last four hours . . . right?

Unfortunately, the Artist had injured his foot during one of these previous stage marathons. And this is where we enter Round 2 of Ticketmaster vs. Helpless Customer.

With a 7:30 p.m. start time, we had to hurry to get to the Forum from Costa Mesa and Santa Monica so we could get our tickets at the will-call window.

But a friend called from his car phone at 5:45 p.m. Radio station KACE-FM had just announced that the show was canceled because of the aforementioned foot injury.

One friend called the Forum. Nothing but tape lines. Eventually he outfoxed the electronic menu and got to a live operator. Was the show in fact canceled? Because if it wasn't, and we failed to go, no way would we be getting any help or refund from Ticketmaster as a result of this confusion.

The operator insisted repeatedly that she had checked, that the show was definitely on.

We tore out of our offices and onto the San Diego Freeway.

Less than an hour before show time, the radio station announced the "drama about the Artist" was settled. The station had hunted down concert promoter Avalon Attractions, which confirmed that the show was indeed canceled.

And Round Three of Ticketmaster vs. Helpless Customer began. We were very disappointed. I was equally annoyed with anticipation that Ticketmaster would not refund the $25 service charges.

At home, I tried the Ticketmaster phone line. They were closed, unless you wanted to buy Super Bowl tickets. For our inconvenience, we are left to attempt getting our money back during our work hours.

Luckily, I had the next day off. It took only five hours to get through to Ticketmaster; I kept dialing, being put on hold and redialing. A taped voice said refunds for the Artist would "automatically" be credited to charge cards "within two billing cycles."

How were they capable of charging $175 to my credit card immediately but would need two months to uncharge it? Alas, I was yelling at a tape loop.

I punched the number to speak to an operator. Luckily, I had four minutes to regain composure--zippy wait time for Ticketmaster--before I got a real person. Phillip transferred me to "customer service."

After 35 minutes on hold, the term customer service seemed absurd. When I bought the tickets, the omniscient taped Ticketmaster voice had advised that in the event of a cancellation, cost of tickets would be refunded but not Ticketmaster's service charges. I was now preparing for a donnybrook.

But an operator, Sunny, assured me: Within two weeks, I would be refunded everything but the $3 order fee. So all this had cost us was three bucks. Plus eight hours of hold time, busy signals and confusion.

As the Artist sings, I wanna dance my life away. He sings nothing about wasting it on hold with Ticketmaster. So we're gonna throw our own bash and party like it's 1999. Maybe Eddie Vedder wants to come.

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