Eric Church, at the 2011 Academy of Country Music Awards, has found both success and ticket resellers. (photo: ericchurch.com)
Eric Church has a song called "Springsteen" on his current album Chief, but the country rocker discovered he has something else in common with the Boss since he moved up to the arena level and ticket sales are hot: ticket resellers are all over his tickets, going as far as joining his website and fanclub to game a system he and his team set up to provide value for fans.
"Scalpers piss me off," Church says. "I've never encountered this in my life, we've never been at this level, and, quite frankly, we were unprepared."
The tour went up in two legs, and the success of the first leg brought the resellers out for the second, Church says. Fan club members-the Church Choir-can purchase as many as eight tickets as well as access to the GA pit and front row seats. Both of the those are coveted by fans and are making their way to the secondary market as resellers try to tap into their value, flying in the face of Church's goal to not only have those tickets go to his biggest fans, but to price them conservatively.
"We tried to make our tickets very accessible to fans, we kept the ticket prices low," he tells Billboard.biz. "What we didn't count on was all these big ticket brokers would join our fan club, infiltrate our system, take advantage of our system, and buy up all these tickets. Now, at a lot of these buildings that are selling out, there's 500-600 tickets left to sell, and we don't have any of 'em. Ticket brokers are [asking] $200 $300 $400 a ticket. It penalizes the fans; that was gonna be their pit ticket, their front row ticket."
Manager Fielding Logan, who handles touring responsibilities for artists at Q Prime South (Black Keys, Sara Watkins), says the process has been educational. "I've learned so much in the past three weeks about scalping," he says, adding that his education has been driven by Chruch's success. "It's the old 'good problem to have' thing."
Logan says once he started looking at who was buying tickets and trying to spot resellers, the process was actually pretty easy. "When you look at the order list for a show in Pikeville, Ky., which is as far away from an Interstate as you can get in the Eastern U.S., and you've got 25 orders from Connecticut or Las Vegas or New York or Milwaukee, it's easy to spot who's reselling tickets," he says. "And I can see when they've used a fan club code to buy those tickets. In the eye-opening department, I guess maybe deep down I had some suspicions of this, but on Eric's Nashville show, there were 75 orders from Wake Forest and Durham, N.C., with a lot of variations of the same e-mail address. So I did some sleuthing and looked at our fan club membership and this one guy had joined the fan club 14 times. Now we have updated our fan club policy to very clearly say, 'if you're reselling tickets, it's grounds to cancel your membership.' When I was first figuring out what was going on, probably half my day for three days was spent on just looking at order lists and cross-referencing."
Church believes in keeping both his ticket prices and entrance fees to the fan club low. "The down side is, the lower your ticket prices are, the more these ticket brokers can buy up, infiltrate your system, the more money they have to work with, and the more they can mark it up," he says. "We've been trying to play that game of keeping their access away on the back half of the tour, and it's still a challenge. They are just some slimy sons of bitches."
Church understands if fans really can't go to a show and don't want to eat their tickets, or other fans appreciate the convenience of buying on a secondary site instead of the mad rush at on-sale. "I'm okay if they want to take that stance, but stay out of trying to infiltrate the fan club," he says. "There were some on-sales through the fan club that I would say half to 60% of the tickets we were offering were being picked up by brokerage companies. They were joining en masse. If [brokers] didn't go to the fan club and waited on the [general] on-sale, I can handle aspects of that. But they infiltrate the fan club and get pit tickets or front row tickets that we want our fans to have first shot at for being members of the Church Choir, they come in and scoop them up and mark them up thousands of percentage points and come back and try to sell them to the same fan, that's the part that bothers me the most. If we wanted our tickets to be high we would have made 'em high."
Resellers talk a lot about fans rights and convenience these days, but neither Church nor Logan are buying. "They can spin it however they want to spin it about convenience and the rights of the ticket holder, but in the end it's about profiteering," he says, adding that he believes fans who buy tickets and then can't go for whatever reason are a "miniscule part" of what's represented on the resale market.
"I immediately knew I wasn't the first person to try to root this stuff out, and I won't be the last. It's a problem," Logan says. "My final takeaway from it after talking to the promoters and Ticketmaster is I just have to use the tools that Ticketmaster offers to try to do the best we can [to stop it]. You can have ticket limits on the show, but if you do not set up your show with Ticketmaster for those limits to be enforced, it's kind of like lip service. You can do Will Call only, a portion to Will Call only, you can do geographic limits. We're going to make sure we're using the tools we're allowed to use without going through every line of 3,000 orders trying to figure out which orders to immediately cancel."
Church wants to be clear that he's ticked off because he thinks fans are being screwed, not because he doesn't participate in the revenue a $300 EC ticket brings on the secondary market. "The revenue thing, it's never been about that for me," he says. "If you make it about that at any point in your career, if you come in and go 'we need the money now, mark the ticket prices up,' you have one shot at that and then it's over. For me it's always been about more and more people, not more and more money. It's about getting more people in the building, more people turned onto the music, that's the template we've believed in since the beginning."