Scalping Bluegrass (A Telluride Contest Post)
As the festival draws closer, I’ve been keeping an unofficial, very informal and totally unscientific mental track of ticket availability for the last three Telluride Bluegrass Festivals. My mental track says that real ticket demand has been going up. One concern about this trend is that an increased demand will cause scalpers to get increasingly interested in our little mountain town festival. Right now, the festival is at a prime point in its growth to attract such interest. That dude outside on Pacific St. last year holding up the “NEED TICKETS” sign for three or four days- he didn’t really need tickets. That there was a scalper…in the flesh, in broad daylight, right there in River City.
He was peddling the least addictive daily variety of tickets to the condo-dwelling town and Mountain Village section of the festival audience. They’re the ones that can (one can only assume) afford condo prices that have been jacked-up to holiday ski-season levels during the summer festivals that dot the calendar or they’re folks that stack bodies in the condos like cord wood to defray the cost (we now pause to salute the free-market system…salute!) <==That’s not intended to be totally sarcastic, btw, I actually do like a decently regulated and smooth running free-market system, maybe someday we’ll even get one in our national economy. But for now, the condo owner/renter relationship epitomizes the system in action and I don’t begrudge the condo owners getting the best price that someone is willing to pay. There’s a willing buyer, willing seller, supply, demand and all that Economics 101 stuff.
There’s also more concern this year among the Town Park and Warner Field festivarians regarding the scarcity of those tickets. Several have appeared on Craigslist and Ebay, occasionally commanding almost twice the face price. So why does this particular free-market exercise piss me off? Aren’t they essentially doing the same thing as a condo owner, getting the most they can? Why should I care? I know I do, but why? What is it about inflated secondary market tickets that makes me want to argue against free-market economics, at least when it comes to Telluride?
I had a little cyberspace exchange recently with an Ebay seller.
Some guy, let’s call him “murjim” since that’s his Ebay name, runs an auction for a single Telluride Bluegrass and Town Park Camping ticket with a ‘buy it now’ price of about double what it originally cost. I might have let things slide, except that in his listing he kind of apologized-
“I am sorry to sell these for this amount, but I bought 4 tickets for $2000 from a ticket broker and have one left. $520 covers my cost as well as ebay fees.”
From having followed an earlier auction this same guy won, I figure he’s full of it, so to spread the message and have a little fun, I send him an email with a link to that earlier auction and I also write to him-
“Looks like you bought 2 for $695 in January. Please don’t encourage TBF scalpers.”
“Well thanks for being nosy. Not that its any of your business but I’ve bought 8 tickets total and ended up only needing 7. And I personally don’t mind buying tickets from scalpers, I would suggest if you can’t afford it, stay home. This ticket has already been sold anyway.”
Okay, so I was nosey, he’s got me there. There’s a decent point to be made that it’s not any of my business. He can do what he wants. What he did is perfectly legal. Many people must be good with it because scalpers generally aren’t hurting for customers. Ebay supports it- heck, they love it, they get a piece of the action. They like it so much, they bought StubHub in 2007. But murjim goes and does it with:
“And I personally don’t mind buying tickets from scalpers, I would suggest if you can’t afford it, stay home.” Uggghhh!
This is the part that gets me. It makes me roll the fast-forward worst case scenario in my mind. It leads me to take the hand of the imaginary Ghost of Festivals Future, and that vision is bleak: a field of people dressed as if for the Santa Fe Opera chatting of futures options, portfolio performance, and passing the Grey Poupon while pausing occasionally to offer polite golf applause for the act on stage. Uggghhh!
The blueprint is obvious. It’s already been played out in arenas and big-time summer mega-tours. First, fans scalp fans, then small-time scalping grows until it’s replaced by larger, but essentially small-time companies. These take a turn until they’re squeezed out by even bigger organizations. Finally, the really big boys get involved with the only goal of maximizing profits and maintaining a stranglehold. Many true fans lose as “fandom” gets measured in dollar signs.
I’ve been blissfully out of the loop on a lot that’s gone on the last several years, as the only acts I’ve had an interest in don’t attract scalpers. In the course of doing a little research for this blog, I came across a recent post by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails; his take is very enlightening and worth reading.
If Mr. Reznor’s correct, then arena bands and mega-tours are very close to the latter stages of scalping- where it’s renamed, re-branded and made part of the mainstream. The most coveted tickets will only be made available to those willing to play an organized, institutionalized, and corporatized scalping game.
So, can our little Telluride Bluegrass Festival avoid such a fate?
It’s got a lot going for it. For starts, Planet Bluegrass (the organizer, promoter and ticket seller) doesn’t condone scalping. That’s a huge advantage right there. They seem to be pretty sincere about keeping TBF scalping limited to a fairly low level and have taken some simple, unobtrusive measures to keep it in check. I get the feeling they might use additional strategies if this issue shows signs of getting out of control.
In addition, a large contingent of its fans seem to understand (whether from the brain, the heart or from the gut) that scalping is damaging to the overall experience. There’s a very real negative stigma tied to scalping within the festivarian community. It’s also an example of living out the golden rule, don’t rip-off your fellow festivarians. You’re there with thousands of your closest friends, most of whom you haven’t met yet, you’re all there for the same reason- to have a good time and enjoy great music- why would you even want to gouge them? This is difficult to explain, but there are ugly realities of the world that have a hard time penetrating into Telluride space. Scalping is one of those things that, while perfectly normal otherwise, seems odd and out of place there.
The fans aren’t your run-of-the-mill passive ticket holders either, they’re part owners of the festival. It’s not something that they take time out of their lives to attend, they’ve made the festival a part of their lives, even if they themselves haven’t attended for a few years. They’re not detached spectators, but active participants. Talk to almost any of the devoted and this comes through. Read between the lines of the Festivarian Forum and it’s as clear as the text you’re reading now. The festivarian community in general, (there are dissenters, of course) actively discourages buying or selling TBF tickets at inflated prices. And there are enough individuals acting as a community in this respect to make an impact. Much of the credit belongs to them.
Take away the “fans scalping fans” phase and real scalping has a hard time ever getting established.
So, what of our buddy murjim? Maybe he’ll come around one day, maybe he won’t. I do admit that there’s a huge temptation to get all evangelical and try to persuade him over to the anti-scalping side, but sometimes these things take time and he seems in a bit of a shoot-the-messenger mood at the moment. He’ll be living for several days this summer among the festivarians in Town Park, so they might be able to help that along some too. Right now, murjim seems to think that if you love the festival enough, you pay for it and you buy your way in. In the real world, that may make some sense, but it doesn’t translate into the TBF experience.
As the festival grows in popularity this year and in the years to come, the really tough part for some of the devoted and the real test of the festivarians’ anti-scalping stance will be to stay home if you haven’t scored tickets- not because you can’t afford it, but because you love it too much to give in to the scalpers and the consequences they bring.