Pearl Jam Took on Ticketmaster 20 Years Ago

Craig Rosen
·Writer

It was 20 years ago that Pearl Jam took on the man in an epic battle that became so large that it ended up on Capitol Hill, with even then-President Bill Clinton weighing in on the issue through a spokesperson.

The man in this case was ticketing giant Ticketmaster. Pearl Jam was at the height of its game coming off the monster success of their 1991 multi-platinum debut album "Ten," and its 1993 follow-up "Vs." That album debuted with sales of more than 950,000 copies in its first week of release, setting a sales record at the time with a debut tally that's almost unheard of in this day and age.

"Vs.," which was originally going to be called "Five Against One" after a lyric in the song "Animal," was aptly titled. At the time, Kelly Curtis, the band's manager said they were "fighting on all fronts." While the band squared off with their record company over promotional videos (Pearl Jam didn't want to make any) and their own inner-demons with guilt over their sudden success, perhaps their biggest battle was with Ticketmaster.

In 1994, the band became less focused on promotional activities and began to cultivate a direct relationship with its audience. Singer Eddie Vedder discovered his fans were paying what he felt were exorbitant service charge fees to Ticketmaster when purchasing tickets to the band's gigs. As a result, the band scrapped a 1994 summer tour saying it ran into "unconscionable activity" and "outright greed" among the concert industry players, a source told Billboard's Eric Boehlert at the time.

Pearl Jam was so serious about the battle that bassist Jeff Ament told me in December 1994, upon the release of the band's third album, "Vitalogy," that he wasn't sure the band would tour the U.S. to support that release. "It depends on what happens with the Ticketmaster thing," he said, "but we'll try to put something together by next summer."

The band attempted to stage its own tour of non-Ticketmaster venues, which often took it to non-traditional venues, where Ament said the band's crew had to build "shows from the ground up, a venue everywhere we went."

Today, those who were close to the situation look back it as Pearl Jam trying to accomplish a herculean task. Representatives for Pearl Jam and Ticketmaster didn't immediately reply to our requests for comment, but Eric Boehlert, who covered the battle for Billboard and later Rolling Stone, notes it was a historic moment in time. "We'll probably never seen anything like it again," he says. "Not only within the music industry, but within the world of pop entertainment. Economically and politically, there was absolutely no upside for Pearl Jam to launch a Ticketmaster battle."

Indeed, by merely launching the battle, some felt the band was putting its career on the line. "When you think about the minuscule chances that most artists face in terms of attaining superstar status, the idea of then jeopardizing that, or challenging the existing business model, is unthinkable to most people. And it’s certainly unthinkable for the managers, agents, and attorneys who advise celebrities today," adds Boehlert, who is now a senior fellow for Media Matters for America. "Imagine Brad Pitt announcing he wouldn't allow his movies to be shown in AMC Theaters until they lowered the ticket prices to $10?"

As the battle heated up, Pearl Jam filed a petition with the Justice Department, insisting that Ticketmaster was a monopoly, which led to a congressional hearing on the matter.

"This thing has been building up for a long time," Pearl Jam guitarist and co-founder Stone Gossard told Chuck Philips of the Los Angeles Times on the eve of the hearings. "And deep down, it's really not about money. It's about music. It's about fairness. It's about a band who believes good intentions can translate into sound business practices, and a giant corporation that's completely out of touch."

At the time, a Ticketmaster spokesman dismissed Pearl Jam's move as a "brilliant marketing ploy" to boost album sales, while the ticket distributor maintained it "operates fully within the parameters of all applicable laws."

It wasn't the first time that Ticketmaster's business practices had come under the microscope of lawmakers. Back in 1991, the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division investigated the company before it was allowed to purchase assets from a competitor.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8T3B44D7iA

This time around, however, the congressional hearing was spurred from Pearl Jam's rallying cry, which became so loud, even then President Clinton took notice.

"The White House is impressed by Pearl Jam's commitment to its fans," said George Stephanopoulos, the "Good Morning America" co-host who was then senior adviser to the president for policy and strategy. "We want to make it very clear that we can't judge the merits of the band's allegations against Ticketmaster or prejudge the Justice Department action in any way. But that said, we think the goal of making concert-ticket prices affordable is a laudable one. It's something we believe in."

Despite all the publicity, the band's visit to Capitol Hill was all for naught. In early July 1995, the Justice Department issued a terse press release that read: "The Department of Justice has ceased its investigation of Ticketmaster. No further investigation will take place."

That decision left the band defeated and disillusioned. "That was it, after a year of struggle," Vedder told Spin in 2001. "It was really amazing to be right up close and get absolutely stomped on by a huge corporate entity."

Ament had similar feelings. "That whole thing was a joke," he told Spin. "The Department of Justice used us to look hip. Stone and I spent a week with this guy John Hoyt; he was drilling us with serious questions that we were [supposedly] going to get asked, and then it didn't feel like we got to utilize any of it. It made me a lot more cynical about what goes on with the government."

Ironically, Pearl Jam's own attempts to stage a tour without using Ticketmaster services may have helped get Ticketmaster off the hook, since sources said the band's use of ETM Entertainment's services proved other companies could compete with Ticketmaster.

Although the battle in Washington, D.C. was over, Pearl Jam soldiered on with their own tour booked in non-Ticketmaster venues, and their fans were definitely siding with the band. On July 11, 1995, when the band played Chicago's Soldier Field, 47,000 fans spontaneously chanted, "Ticketmaster sucks!"

While Clinton and the band's fans may have given Pearl Jam props, fellow artists were strangely silent on the issue. There was also some inter-band strife. After Pearl Jam completed the sessions for "Vitalogy," drummer Dave Abbruzzese was kicked out of the group, with the band citing political differences. For one thing, Abbruzzese disagreed with the Ticketmaster boycott.

The battle also took a toll on the band. Vedder became so violently ill from food poisoning prior to the band's show in June 1995 at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, that he had to be hospitalized. Although he left the hospital to play the show, he had to bail out seven songs into its 21-song set, leaving Neil Young to take his place.

Eventually, the band canceled the remaining dates with Vedder, saying later, "I think we all agreed that it had gotten insane, that it was no longer about the music."

Ament later admitted it hurt the band. "We were so hardheaded about the 1995 tour," he told Spin. "Had to prove we could tour on our own, and it pretty much killed us, killed our career."

Fast forward to 2009: Ticketmaster and the world's largest concert promoter Live Nation merged. Before approving the merger, U.S. antitrust officials required Ticketmaster to license its ticketing software to Live Nation's leading competitor, Anschutz Entertainment Group. Two years later, AEG rolled out its own ticketing service, axs, which as of August 2011, was the exclusive or the primary ticket provider for more than 30 U.S .venues and nine U.K. venues.

For example, in Los Angeles, axs handles ticketing for concerts at Staples Center and several smaller venues around town. Interestingly, when Pearl Jam played two dates in L.A. in late November 2013, the played the Los Angeles Sports Arena, which is handled by TicketMaster, but it appears the band and the ticket distributor have made peace. Tickets to that show included a line noting that $2 from each ticket sold was going to Pearl Jam's charitable arm the Vitalogy Foundation.

As far as the concert-ticketing business in general, Gary Bongiovanni, CEO/editor of concert business trade publication Pollstar, notes that it's pretty much the same as it ever was.

"Really not much has changed, although AEG's axs Ticketing has a number of major arenas now, which previously might have been Ticketmaster arenas. It's still almost impossible to tour without hitting Ticketmaster buildings," he says. "And I think axs ticketing surcharges are probably similar, so I don't know that the world has really changed much from when Pearl Jam launched the fight that at this point everyone has pretty much given up on."

And, of course, there are still some Pearl Jam fans out there that still detest Ticketmaster. While that may be the case, there are those who still hold Pearl Jam in high regard for at least trying to change the status quo, even if the band ultimately failed.

"Some people might look back and label Pearl Jam’s Ticketmaster crusade as fool-hearted," says Boehlert. "But I think it stands as an extraordinary act of bravery and one of the great populists gestures in rock history."

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