Will Ticketmaster's Small-Change Lawsuit Really Help Concertgoers?

Only the lawyers will line their pockets, but the Ticketmaster settlement is one more wake-up call for a troubled industry.

In the last few weeks, nearly every warm-blooded American who’s ponied up for a big-ticket event in the 21st century has received an email alerting them to a proposed settlement of a lawsuit against Ticketmaster few had ever heard of.

Particularly in the wake of Ticketmaster’s controversial merger with concert promoter Live Nation two years ago, the near-monopolist has earned a poor reputation for its high online purchase fees and bad relationships with venues and consumers. While the settlement may offer a measure of public retribution for its unhappy customers, it’s not going to line their pockets—but it might be a wake-up call for a troubled industry.

Two individual consumers filed the action against Ticketmaster, alleging the company “deceived and misled customers” by portraying fees as the actual costs of processing orders, when in reality they were nothing but “a profit generator” for the company. The class, led by two California law firms, encompasses anyone in the U.S. who bought a ticket on the Ticketmaster website between October 21, 1999 and October 19, 2011, and paid an order processing fee that was not already refunded.

If the judge gives the settlement the green light, all of them/you/us will get a $1.50 discount code for each transaction made during that time period—up to a maximum of 17 codes—which can be combined no more than two at a time toward future purchases for U.S. events from Ticketmaster’s website. Anyone who paid an additional delivery price for expedited UPS delivery of tickets can, under the settlement, also snag one code per transaction for $5.00 discounts on delivery for tickets purchased from Ticketmaster's website in the future.

That’s not exactly going to get you into your local stop on D’Angelo’s tour next year, but if you match those qualifiers, your consent to the settlement’s terms is automatically assumed unless you explicitly opt out. If you don’t, you implicitly agree to be bound by any restrictions on the class, which means you can’t take Ticketmaster to court over the processing fees in the future. Opting out denies you access to settlement swag, but allows you to pursue your own lawsuit against Ticketmaster if you so desire. With stakes that are such small potatoes, that’s likely a futile endeavor. You can also formally object to the terms of the settlement if, say, you object to the $16.5 million the deal will place directly in the pockets of the plaintiffs’ attorneys when you’re essentially getting a few chits.

You can always—and in this case probably should—take the less persnickety route: Go with the flow here, let yourself automatically opt in for the goods, consider the attorneys’ fees a pat on the back for a job well done, and think of it as a victory for the little guys sticking it to bad old Ticketmaster, even if it’s mostly symbolic. “They [class actions] can definitely damage corporate reputations if there’s a broad reputation for wrongdoing,” says Casey Rae-Hunter, deputy director of the Future of Music Coalition. “It confirms what a lot of people probably already felt about Ticketmaster. It’s emblematic of the marketplace’s dysfunction, [but] a class action suit doesn’t change anything about the field.”

The settlement doesn’t do anybody any favors in terms of fostering a sustainable live music environment with prices low enough for the average fan to attend shows more often, Rae-Hunter says, but there are a few positive tangential benefits. “What we’d like to see is a little bit more of a recognition that the live music marketplace has to involve venues that are accessible to fans and bands at a price that gets people interested in going to shows more often, with ticketing platforms that are efficient and transparent and don’t involve all these transaction fees,” he says.

More interesting than the negligible effect for the average consumer is what the settlement could say about the concert ticket business going forward, in an age where the recorded music industry is already floundering. As Ticketmaster slowly grew to dominance in the ticketing business, lower-priced competitors like Ticketfly and Ticket Alternative started popping up to nip at its heels. The young Turks took advantage of the fact that Ticketmaster’s bloated fees were making it impractical for smaller venues, though Ticketmaster’s relationships with the biggest tours, promoters and venues has kept them on top.

Dante Ferrando, proprietor of the Black Cat, a long-time independent music fixture in Washington, D.C., says one big reason his venue switched away from Ticketmaster around the time of the merger was that the newly merged entity had become a competitor to the Black Cat in its own right because Live Nation is a major concert promoter. The smaller companies simply offered a better deal. “You don’t want to have a service charge that’s a third of the price of the ticket,” says Ferrando, whose venue routinely offers tickets for $10 or $15. “It was impossible to get their [Ticketmaster’s] service charge down low enough to make the customers not feel ripped off.”

Those smaller companies now stand to benefit from Ticketmaster’s strategies more than any of the individual consumers who were ripped off. “Anytime you have any publicity that’s negative for a really big company it’s probably positive for all the little companies that are trying to pick up their place,” Ferrando says. “You’re going to start seeing truly, completely independent ticketing solutions,” Rae-Hunter adds.

The deadline to opt out or object to the proposed settlement is February 16, and the judge’s final approval hearing is scheduled for May 29, so you’ve got plenty of time to mull it over and wait to see if the court gives its blessing or slaps the settlement down entirely. In the meantime, enjoy the fact that those annoying fees have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and relish one small victory in your day-to-day life that you didn’t even have to do anything to win.

“People don’t like the feeling of getting nickeled and dimed when they’re just trying to buy a ticket online,” Ferrando said. “It should be a simple transaction. There’s a show price, there’s one other price you’re paying to get the ticket in advance. You should be done and you should be able to move on. The convenience, and not being sneaky, is important.”

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Rhys Asplundh

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