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Ticket prices affect bands in tough economy

  • Story Highlights
  • Up-and-coming bands hope to attract fans at clubs, need reasonable prices
  • Larger venues, if controlled by titans Ticketmaster, Live Nation, have bigger fees
  • Independent venues can be caught in the middle, giving local brokers an opening
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By Jarrett Bellini
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- On a warm night in Atlanta, the progressive bluegrass string band Trampled by Turtles quietly unloads its instruments from a modest, nondescript white touring van.

The Tabernacle box office is open only on show nights, so most people buy in advance -- and pay service fees.

Trampled by Turtles performs at an Atlanta club. The band hopes to draw new fans, and lower ticket prices help.

Just another night, just another town for the band from Duluth, Minnesota.

The band is opening for another group, the Hackensaw Boys, at the 300-person-capacity Smith's Olde Bar. The band members are hoping to draw a few new fans in what's been a challenging economic environment. After all, for lesser-known bands -- especially ones that play progressive bluegrass, far from the watchful eye of the American pop charts -- it's often word of mouth that inspires music fans to come out.

"In Minnesota and the West, where we've been touring for longer, we've started to do well on our own," said the Turtles' lead singer and guitarist, Dave Simonett. "But the Southeast is new, the Northeast is new, so either we open for people or play for a much smaller crowd. It's almost town by town."

One thing that helps build the crowd this night is the ticket price: $15. Video Watch Trampled by Turtles perform »

Atlanta is a good music town, and on any given night, there are plenty of options for concertgoing dollars. Knowing this, Smith's co-owner Dan Nolan says the venue has made a conscious effort to keep both ticket prices and service charges as low as possible, reminding customers that they can always just walk up to the bar on any night and buy a future ticket without any extra fees.

For fans who don't want to drive to pick up tickets ahead of time, Smith's uses an online ticketing distributor. But it's a local firm -- Ticket Alternative. And that, says Nolan, helps as well.

"We did Ticketmaster years and years and years ago, and they were just a behemoth. Their fees were too excessive -- their fees were sometimes higher than the tickets," says Nolan. "So, we had to let them go."

However, Ticketmaster -- and their proposed merger partner, Live Nation -- are still the dominant companies in the industry. The idea the two might form one company has raised hackles in the business, not least because of those fees.

On the same night as the Trampled by Turtles show at Smith's, popular indie rock band Modest Mouse takes the stage at a larger Atlanta venue, a 2,500-person converted church called The Tabernacle, which is owned by Live Nation. Tickets for the sold-out show are $32.50 each, plus an additional $12.20 in service fees for those who bought in advance and online -- in other words, the majority of patrons, since the Tabernacle box office is open only on show nights. (The venue also charges fees at the box office.)

Live Nation handles ticket distribution as well as venue management at the venue.

Robin Taylor of Inland Empire Touring has been booking Modest Mouse for the past 11 years and is rather pragmatic about the industry. "With a band as big as Modest Mouse, you have to have a company that sells advance tickets. It's nearly impossible to avoid Live Nation venues in a band's career," she says.

She's not unsympathetic to the fans' fee burden. "Bands can reduce their ticket price all they want," she says, "but the ticketing companies that sell advance tickets are still charging the same prices, which is a big bag of bummer!"

The Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger plan has drawn criticism. The Justice Department launched an investigation of the proposed merger in February, which came just days after a protest by fans and lawmakers over Ticketmaster's pricing arrangements for a Bruce Springsteen show. Springsteen himself accused Ticketmaster of "in effect 'scalping' " the tickets. Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff apologized to Springsteen after that incident.

Neither Live Nation nor Ticketmaster responded to requests by CNN for comment about ticket pricing issues. However, Azoff told a U.S. Senate subcommittee, "[The merger] will give us greater flexibility in how we promote, market and sell tickets to events. It will give us a pathway to alternative pricing and fee structures. And we will be better able to develop new and innovative products and services that enhance the fan experience and make all forms of entertainment more accessible to everyone."

In the shadow of a possible Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, Ticket Alternative has created a comfortable niche for its business -- venues that hold 3,000 and fewer, generally selling tickets for between $10 and $25.

Ticket Alternative president Iain Bluett says he's not seeing any slowdown in 2009, boasting that his shows are doing well despite the hurting economy.

"When you're spending $150 on a concert ticket, you're going to that one show and maybe another. But when you're spending $10 to $25 on a concert ticket, you can afford to go to three or four shows for that same amount of money," he says.

The company tries to keep service charges down, he adds, adding $2 to a $10 ticket, for example. "We need to make sure that our fee, including the service charge, is still advantageous for the customer to buy ahead of time, rather that waiting to buy it day of show," says Bluett.

There are venues that try to balance both sides. Atlanta's Variety Playhouse, which holds about 1,000, offers two ways to purchase tickets: through Ticketmaster and through its ticket club or on-site box office. The latter methods do not always charge fees.

"We've been independent for almost 19 years," says owner Steve Harris. "For us, it's really about the music, and to be able to run the operation the way that we feel, instead of having to have it all dictated from some corporate office far away."

There were plenty of fans at Smith's who, despite seeing a smaller show on this particular night, said that they'll still go to larger venues, despite the fees. After all, that's where their bands are playing. It's not that they aren't irked by the high prices -- they are. However, most said they can only shrug it off.

But others say they've changed their concertgoing habits given the economy. Smith's customer Eric Sandusky says, "I would prefer to give my money to a cover charge rather than Ticketmaster. I used to go to Widespread Panic shows all the time, but there's no point paying 50 bucks. I'd rather see a new band. I'd rather pay 15 bucks for a show at Smith's."


Patron Mark Leutzinger adds that high service fees push against new music.

"If they're gonna charge service fees, you gotta know what you're getting into," he says. "[With large fees,] I'm not gonna go check out a band to see if I like them."

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