Upstart ticket companies could save students money, shake up market

When the Department of Justice approved the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation early this year, reactions among some music and business commentators bordered on the apocalyptic. With the world's largest ticketing company gobbling up the world's largest event promoter, it seemed like the DOJ signed off on the Death Star of the event industry. Who could compete against such a monolithic entity in the ticketing market? And would anyone be able to afford to go to a concert again once Ticketmaster finally took out its trembling competitors and raised its already-steep convenience fees into the stratosphere?

Turns out, though, that the answers may not be as grim as some of the alarmists predicted. In the months since the merger, upstart young ticketing companies have indicated that Ticketmaster could face challenges from some innovative new models--and that, in the shadow of the merger that spooked music fans the world over, competition may finally flourish in any industry that has been raising cries of "monopoly!" for well over a decade.

So far, the biggest waves in the under-crowded pond have come from Ticketfly and Eventbrite. Ticketfly has garnered praise for its versatile, cutting-edge software for clients, and should appeal to budget-conscious consumers by promising ticketing surcharges that are about 30 percent lower than Ticketmaster's hefty fees. Meanwhile, Eventbrite hopes to wedge its way into the ticketing market by luring small venues and grassroots events with its free ticketing services for no-cost events, and may expand into bigger venues and events with scalable software that places a premium on user interactivity and cost transparency.

Any college student who attends concerts or sporting events regularly knows the pain of an online checkout process at Ticketmaster. Tickets for popular, mid-level touring acts such as Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings run up to about one-and-a-half times the ticket's face value thanks to the company's convenience charges and facility fees, which can really put a dent in a student's entertainment budget over the course of a few shows. And on the occasions when Ticketmaster gets a hold of popular university sporting events, students can end up paying 150 percent increases over face value to see their school play.

Andrew Dreskin, co-founder of Ticketfly, said that Ticketfly manages to offer significantly lower post-checkout prices by providing self-service software that mostly allows clients to manage the ticketing process themselves, which keeps Ticketfly's overhead low and creates a business model that can react quickly to customer demands. Founded in 2008, Ticketfly has leveraged its lower fees to tempt about fifty venues away from Ticketmaster so far, including the prestigious Merriweather Post Pavilion in Maryland.

"It's simply more cost-effective for us than some of our competitors," Dreskin said. "We're lean and mean and that really helps, that self-service method. In the wake of the merger, there are a significant number of venues and event promoters looking for an alternative [to Ticketmaster], and we've been very busy as a result."

Dreskin said that Ticketfly hopes to incorporate social networking to create an online hub where users can review shows, trade tickets and talk about music--sort of like having a Yelp rolled into your ticket browser. And he also said that, this year, Ticketfly hopes to expand into college campuses by picking up a greater share of the market for on-campus events, which often slip through the cracks in Ticketmaster's dominance of the market.

"We recently provided tickets for a Weezer show at the University of Maryland, and we're starting to focus more on campus shows," he said. "We think there's quite an opportunity to become a main provider on campuses. The college event ethos fits very well with the Ticketfly ethos, which is a focus on the cutting-edge, indie and progressive."

In order to get a promoter's take on Ticketfly's model, I noted a local venue on their list of clients and decided to call up Double Door in my hometown of Chicago. Phil Kosch, the venue's booking manager, told me that Double Door switched to Ticketfly last year after listening to customer feedback about Ticketmaster's high convenience charges. Although Kosch said he enjoyed a positive relationship with Ticketmaster prior to the switch, he said that Ticketfly's lower fees ultimately provided the siren's call that led Double Door to the newer company.

"We love 'em so far," he said of Ticketfly. "When people buy a ticket for twenty dollars, they don't want to end up paying ten more in fees. So everyone's ecstatic about the decision [to switch ticket providers]."

Although Ticketfly offers the most direct challenge to Ticketmaster's historical dominance in the world of concert and event ticketing, San Francisco, Ca.-based Eventbrite hopes to open up the process of organizing and ticketing for smaller customers by offering free ticketing for no-cost events. Eventbrite's software allows clients to track a variety of data about event attendees and their ticketing and traffic habits, and the free ticketing services could potentially help schools cut costs and offer streamlined ticket processes on everything from on-campus music festivals to an accounting club's fundraiser.

Recently, Eventbrite provided tickets for an on-campus MGMT benefit concert at USC, and Eventbrite's Director of Marketing, Tamara Mendelsohn, said that the company has built some of its most loyal customer base on college campuses since its 2006 inception.

"We're definitely seeing a lot of interest from colleges and universities," she said. "When you buy a ticket, you can instantly share that with all your Facebook or LinkedIn friends, and we're just seeing huge usage of that feature from college students. It's a great way for clubs and organizations to get the word out about their events, and it's very simple to get it online."

Although Eventbrite currently only deals in general-admission events, Mendelsohn said that Eventbrite eventually plans to take on the larger concert tours and other major events that Ticketmaster tends to command.

"We definitely see ourselves moving into larger and larger events," she said, "because we think our platform scales really well. So we're ready to see 10,000-person beer festivals [on Eventbrite]. But at the end of the day, it's about democratizing ticket sales, and allowing small organizations like college groups to leverage the power of a large ticketing organization in a way that wouldn't have been possible before."

Steven Kent is the Dollar Store Dilettante, a blase lad who knows more about saving a buck and stoking his hipster credentials than all his editors combined. His Money College column runs Sundays; send tips and best MP3s of Pitchfork bands to Steven at steven.t.kent@gmail.com.

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