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A head full of dreams (and a pocket full of cash)

The best concert tickets used to go to the hearty who were willing to sleep on the sidewalk outside an arena for the right to be near the front of the line.

That era went away, replaced by one in which the best tickets went to the quickest fingers on a computer keyboard.

But now there’s an even newer reality and in this version, the best tickets all might be gone before the general public has a chance.

Welcome to the era of the presale.

Before tickets for the Coldplay concert scheduled for Aug. 1 in First Niagara Center go on sale Friday, nine different presale opportunities will have been offered. Presale tickets already were made available to customers with Citi credit cards and Coldplay fan club members beginning Monday and continuing through 10 p.m. Thursday. Presales through Facebook and Live Nation; opportunities to purchase through radio sponsors; tickets for First Niagara Center Insiders and Citi Cardmember Preferred customers; pricey Platinum seats and VIP packages – all will be on offer between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. Thursday.

“This is becoming more and more common,” said Jennifer Van Rysdam, First Niagara Center’s vice president of arena events. “There are some artists who don’t do any presales at all – Bruce Springsteen, for example. But this is a decision made by the artist, and most of them opt to do it.”

The music industry in general, and the concert industry in particular, is a lot like every other industry in the country – it’s doing its best to find new ways to monetize the products it offers. This applies to concert promoters – Live Nation, in the case of Coldplay – and artists alike.

Promoters can sell some of the best seats to select shows ahead of the general public on-sale date, which pleases the credit card company underwriters.

Artists can demand allocation of a set amount of tickets to sell through their own websites, and in many cases, make those tickets part of VIP experiences that involve all-in deals offering a ticket, exclusive merchandise, and meet-and-greet walk-throughs.

Coldplay is preselling a VIP package for its Buffalo show that guarantees a seat in the first three rows, a special laminate, access to a preshow lounge, a commemorative concert ticket, a Coldplay guitar pick set, and a few other gift bag-style items, for $750 per ticket. You won’t be meeting the band for this price. Nor will you know your exact seat number until the day of the show. You will, however, enjoy the illusion of exclusivity. And a good seat for the gig.

When Paul McCartney came to town in October, bots – computers that grab tickets through online sales for vendors who then turn around and sell those tickets through secondary services at an often vast profit – were the main cause for the lack of tickets come general public on-sale day. A few weeks later, Sen. Charles Schumer held a news conference in front of First Niagara Center, where he introduced a bill targeting cyber scalping, with an emphasis on bots and their effect on the ticket availability for the McCartney concert in Buffalo.

Bots certainly are a part of the problem. But it’s possible that the official McCartney presales had at least as much to do with the scarcity of available tickets.

“The bots are kind of a convenient bogeyman,” said Chris Grimm of Washington, D.C., consumer advocate with the nonprofit the Fan Freedom Project. “Through all of the data we’ve been able to view through the Freedom of Information Act, we haven’t seen all that much hard evidence that bots are the real problem here. What we have seen is plenty of evidence of secondary brokers using multiple credit card numbers and large teams of people to grab a lot of seats for resale during the presales.”

This suggests that the entire conception of a “presale” is a bit of a hoax.

“Let’s not kid ourselves – these aren’t ‘presales.’ The tickets are on sale,” said Grimm.

The idea, then, is to drive people toward the credit card in question, to bolster fan club membership for the artist, to do as much as possible to guarantee a sellout on the day of general public on-sale, and too, in Grimm’s parlance, “hedge the promoter’s risk while offering the mirage of exclusivity.”

What’s wrong with that? Perhaps the lack of transparency in the process would bother those who end up ticketless despite their best intentions. The Fan Freedom Project was able to obtain documentation through the Freedom of Information Act that revealed consistently excessive numbers of tickets being held back from the general public sale.

“We surveyed documents from venues all over the country and found that, on average, 60 to 90 percent of a venue’s tickets are being held back,” said Grimm. “For example, for Justin Bieber’s 2012 show in Nashville, 93 percent of the tickets were held back. One Direction’s last tour was a similar situation. Some of these tickets are held for the promoter, for guests and so forth. But the majority of these are held for presales.”

This might explain why those McCartney tickets evaporated within a minute of going on sale to the general public last fall.

That said, “I’ve never seen an on-sale where there were no great seats available for the general public,” according to Van Rysdam. “They stagger the tickets that they hold back, so that there is availability in every price-point come the general public on-sale.”

Some understandable frustration has been generated among the concert-attending public as a result of the presale option, particularly among that part of the fan base that can remember a time when all the tickets for a concert were released at the same time and could be purchased on a first-come, first-served basis.

“Our position at Fan Freedom is, ‘Do what you want to do, but at least be honest about it,’ ” said Grimm, in reference to the artists/promoter presale trend. “When Walmart wants to sell $5 Blu-ray players on Black Friday, they have to disclose how many Blu-ray players they actually have in stock. The same should apply to concert tickets. If you’re holding back 60 to 90 percent of the tickets from the general public on-sale, make that clear to the customer.”

Grimm calls all this “a form of scalping, really, which is not necessarily a problem, if seeing a particular show is worth it to you.”

But isn’t scalping the enemy of the concert industry? Maybe not, according to Grimm.

“The thing people have to realize is, the promoters and ticket agencies don’t really want to stop scalping – what they really want is to be the only scalper out there. They want to get rid of the competition.”


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