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Where have all the tickets gone? Fans don't stand a chance with the increasing schemes brokers are employing

Neil Young wouldn't like hearing this, but he's Buffalo's HannahMontana. The nationwide uproar and outrage over the unavailability of tickets to the wildly popular Hannah Montana tour came home to Buffalo in the middle of October when tickets went on sale for Neil Young's Nov. 30 Chrome Dreams show at Shea's.

The Neil Young tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. A mere 90 seconds later, they were gone. Later that day, tickets began showing up on eBay, StubHub and ticket brokers' own Web sites for astronomically inflated prices. Originally priced at $62, $92 or $132, the cheapest tickets were now more than $200, with some tickets near the stage on sale for more than $1,000 each.

Welcome to the new world of ticket sales, where thousands of customers use the Internet to deluge ticket-sellers the instant sales begin. It's a world where nobody has to sleep on the sidewalk to get a seat, but where ticket brokers - whose business is snapping up tickets and then reselling them at a profit - use every legal tactic, from sophisticated computer systems and multiple credit cards, to some shady ones, including ticket-buying bots and limit-defeating software.

Now, going to a box office for tickets might be the worst thing you can do, and an average ticket buyer with one computer and one credit card may have little chance of landing any ticket without paying an inflated price.

"In the age of the Internet it's very sophisticated," said John Sinclair, director of ticket operations and service for the Sabres and HSBC Arena. "People always tell us, 'You say you're sold out, but I go on StubHub or TicketExchange and there are all these tickets there.' The reality is, brokers are in the business of buying tickets, so they know how to do it, they know how to do it quickly and they use the Internet to the best of their advantage."

"These large ticket brokers can program their computers to go on and buy tickets, continually," said

Anthony Conte, president of Shea's. "They've got it down pat. When the computer is turned on, they're in the system, and they are making these rapid-fire buys. That's the only realistic way that many tickets could be sold that fast."

But powerful computer systems aren't the only advantage. On Oct. 15, a federal judge in Los Angeles ordered a Pittsburgh company, RMG Technologies, to stop selling computer programs that enable brokers to circumvent limits on the Ticketmaster Web site.

"These programs have, in effect, allowed ticket brokers to cut to the front of the line and deprive consumers of fair access to tickets," Ticketmaster officials said in a statement.

This kind of wide-open ticket market is new in this state. For 80 years it was illegal in New York State to resell tickets for more than 10 percent above face value. The law was widely ignored or circumvented with a wink and a list of mandatory "gratuities" or a package that included some additional value, such as a restaurant coupon. But the law was on the books, and threats of arrest or confiscation of tickets kept most ticket brokering underground.

The "anti-scalping" law was repealed in May. Now, buyers can charge whatever they want for tickets.

Not everybody is complaining, though.

"If it's somebody that I want to see, I will always, always use a ticket broker," said Kelley Clem of Williamsville, who has paid hundreds of dollars over face value to be front and center at Bruce Springsteen concerts. Trying to get tickets on her own "has never worked, and the frustration level with being online or trying to call isn't worth it for me, so I'd rather guarantee my shot," she said.

>The Neil Young rush

Buffalo has seen its share of hot concerts over the years, but the Neil Young show was a new phenomenon.

A large part of the problem was that many more people - possibly thousands more - wanted tickets than the 3,019-seat venue could accommodate.

"Here's a concert that honestly could have gone to the [HSBC] Arena and probably sold a lot more tickets," said Conte. But some performers "like the ambience of Shea's, they want the intimacy," he said.

Darren Spinck, a spokesman for the National Association of Ticket Brokers, blames the artist and producers of the Neil Young show for the crush that left so many people disappointed. "When these types of shows can sell out large stadiums - Neil Young could easily sell out a large stadium - why are they choosing to have these shows in small venues that only seat 3,000 people?" he asked. "When you have potentially 100,000 or 200,000 people flooding a Ticketmaster site for only 3,000 available seats, it is going to be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to get a ticket that way."

When the Neil Young tickets went on sale that Saturday morning, about 200 people were lined up at Shea's box office.

At 10 a.m., the first customers stepped up and the ticket window staff linked to Ticketmaster. A minute and a half later, with 12 tickets in the hands of people waiting in line, the tickets were all gone.

It was the first time Conte had seen anything like it. "It blew my mind, I'll tell you," he said.

And he had to tell the people in line that there were no more tickets.

"They were very understanding, much more than I thought they would be," said Conte. "We had a few people who got annoyed. A couple of people asked why."

The people who went home disappointed would find that within an hour online, they had their pick of tickets - at double or triple the face value, or even higher.

A few who'd waited the longest had another second chance. Conte said, "I took the names of some of the people in the front of the line who had waited the longest. I went back to the promoter and raised hell with him. I told him, 'You're holding 200 seats, and I need some of those seats. I've got to at least try to take care of some of these people who waited several hours to get tickets.' So he released some of his seats to us, and we in turn sold them to some of the people who had been waiting in line the longest."

>Holding seats

Conte's awareness that the show's promoter was holding 200 seats might surprise some people who think that a concert at a 3,019-seat venue means that 3,000 seats, give or take, will be sold. Far from it.

Shea's has more control over events produced by the theater, such as the Broadway shows, where the arrangement with the touring company is "much more of a mutual agreement," said Conte. The Shea's Broadway series tickets are much more like Bills or Sabres tickets, where one company organizes the entertainment, prints and holds the tickets and owns the venue, thereby controlling the purchase arrangements.

The Neil Young show is what is called in the business "a rental." "Concert promoters rent Shea's to present concerts," said Conte. "They are totally in charge of how they want the ticketing done. We are just another Ticketmaster outlet."

So, there is no longer a stack of tickets in the Shea's box office for people to buy. It's all online, and the minute that ticket window opens, the fact that you're in Buffalo means nothing. In fact, standing in line - rather than sitting at a keyboard - means that you'll probably go home empty-handed. Who does get tickets?

"For the better-known concerts and artists, the first priority for tickets goes to their fan club," said Conte.

But here's the catch - there's no way to make sure the Hannah Montana fan club member is an 8-year-old girl who adores Hannah Montana, or a 45-year-old man who wouldn't even recognize Miley Cyrus.

Ticket brokers "pay $25 or $50 to join the fan club, and they buy tickets before they go on sale to the general public," said Sinclair. "It's a pretty good perk."

In fact, this week thousands of Hannah Montana fans who couldn't get tickets sued the performer's fan club over memberships they claim were supposed to give them priority for seats.

Dave Wedekindt, marketing director for the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts, said performers "present it as, 'We're doing this to thwart scalpers and get the good seats right into the hands of our fans,' but it's worth it for the scalper to buy the monthly or the yearly membership fee to be in that fan club."

As a result, said Wedekindt, "on a number of occasions, we have been able to make those set-asides for presale or fan-club seats 'will-call' only." That means that a person has to physically be in Buffalo to pick up the tickets. Who else gets tickets?

Many, many people, said Conte. "The promoter themselves, the booking agent, and whatever other layers there might be - and sometimes there are more than just two - they will hold tickets for their use. There may be several hundred more tickets held."

>Where the tickets went

Hundreds of tickets were listed online immediately after the Neil Young Buffalo sellout, with the cheapest at about triple the original face value of $62 and seats in the first two rows commanding a cool $1,000 per seat.

Some apparently were sold at those prices, but as time went by, the astronomical asking prices started sliding, according to Conte. "The price of the Neil Young tickets right now is probably a third what it was in the two or three days after they went on sale," said Conte.

About two weeks before the performance, just a few $1,000 tickets remained. Of course, demand might grow as the date nears, or more seats might be freed up for sale, appearing on Ticketmaster on the day of the show.

"In an open market, fans can sell their tickets to the ticket brokers, so the demand for seats is actually dictating the price," said Spinck. "A lot of these brokers do purchase tickets from fans and then resell them. Other than that, I can't specifically say how they would have gotten on any quicker than any other person trying to get onto the Ticketmaster site."

Of course, ticket brokers who scoop up good seats take the chance that some tickets won't sell.

When author and humorist David Sedaris spoke at UB on Oct. 3, Wedekindt said, "almost every seat in the first two rows was empty. I thought that was odd, and Sedaris made a remark about it toward the end of the show. He said, 'I just want you to know that this show was sold out -these tickets were all paid for, and I wonder why these people didn't show.' I checked with our box office afterward and sure enough, those tickets went to likely brokers."

The brokers' interest in the Sedaris show, which didn't sell out until the day before, puzzled Wedekindt, but he concluded, "I think what's happening now is they are buying tickets for everything, and it's a numbers game. They buy tickets to maybe 100 events that they never sell, but for all those there's a Neil Young or a Hannah Montana where they're going to make their money back."

But Wedekindt said having the front rows empty is bad for the performer, the audience and the venue. "We don't like to see it," he said. "You think about the person who's sitting at the rear of the theater, who's wondering why these two rows are empty, 'Why couldn't I have purchased a ticket for those seats?'

"We want the artist to feel good, too, and I'm sure that a lot of times all they can see is the first few rows of the theater. For them to be playing to two empty rows, it's got to be a little uncomfortable."

>Changing policy

Can anything be done to ensure that more tickets are sold at face value to people who want to attend events, rather than being snapped up by middlemen using special technology who inflate the price?

Conte said he will do everything he can to prevent a repeat of the Neil Young ticket debacle. "I have our attorneys writing a clause for our [rental contract] agreement that essentially will say that as part of our ticketing, we require that a block of tickets be held for people who are waiting in line. And if they refuse to do that, then they can go play somewhere else. We're a not-for-profit organization and all these concerts are important to our success, but more important to our success is the people who come to Shea's. We don't want them to have a bad experience here."

At UB, said Wedekindt, "We started blocking [buyers from] certain states like California and Arizona, because we were seeing a lot of ticket broker activity coming out of those states."

After a performance is over, said Wedekindt, "We do keep the e-mails and addresses of our ticket buyers, we do go through those lists and if we see anything that looks suspicious, we will remove them from our list. But they are very crafty. They have found every way around the system, and they are doing it probably in all the states."

Some artists are so disturbed by ticket brokers, Wedekindt said, that "they are starting to make the tickets will-call only. So if you can't physically be there to get the ticket, you can't resell it, you can't forward it to somebody, and that's one way they are trying to prevent the scalpers from getting access."

Meanwhile, for people who didn't get tickets and are considering shelling out two or three times face value to see Neil Young on Nov. 30, Conte has a suggestion - don't.

"Do not succumb to paying $500 to see Neil Young," he said. "If people decide en masse that they're not going to support this because they don't want to pay these premium prices, the ticket brokers would go away, because they wouldn't have any business anymore."

aneville@buffnews.com

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