When the April 8 Bruce Springsteen concert at Kiel Center was announced a few weeks back, the excitement among Bruce freaks was palpable, the scramble for good seats plotted with a certain amount of anxiety. No one wants nosebleeds. Such tickets would at best seem bittersweet: You're there, but barely.
So ticket-gathering strategies were laid out: secret Ticketmaster locations recommended, those where the lines were less hectic; favors called in -- "Know anyone at Contemporary?"; friends and relatives deployed to hoard line tickets. Credit cards cocked and loaded, fans searched in vain for the bull's-eye that is a prime seat at a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert.
Gradually, and inevitably, the options played themselves out as the reality set in that Corvette owners had no better odds of getting a spot on the floor than Chevette owners, that the Great Equalizer, the lottery-styled ticketing system, would blindly mix the blue collars with the white. Because of the Boss' strict controls of the prime seats -- rows 1-16 -- fans would have to duke it out on the phone lines to secure a golden ticket.
But those buying tickets online had a different option: Visit www.kielcenter.com. Load the page and wind your way through the site, and at the end of the line, off to the side of the page, is a note: "Click here for the premium seat provider for this event." The link ends up at Ticket Solutions, a company that claims to guarantee a pair of seats in the first 17 rows for the price of $275 per. And you could order those tickets before tickets to the show officially went on sale a couple of days later.
"Premium" tickets? From the kielcenter.com Web site? From all appearances, the Kiel Center site links directly to a ticket scalper's.
Wrong, says Kiel Center's Cindy Underwood. "Our official Web site is www.kiel.com." Until a few months ago, the venue had a hold on kielcenter.com through their Web contractor, but, she explains, they lost it. "Supposedly because of some changeovers over there, the rep who we worked with to get all of our Web-site stuff up last year had put www.kielcenter.com on hold. He never did anything with it, but we thought everything was done. It was released, though, and Tickets.com purchased it. They have been notoriously doing this around the country with other buildings. They're eating up what people might think our Web address would be. So when you type in kielcenter.com, it comes right up to Tickets.com. It doesn't even say anything about the Kiel Center or the building or anything. They've bought it. It's gone, and the only way we can get it back is, obviously, if we bought it."
The result is confusion. Undoubtedly scores of surfers aiming to land at the official Kiel Center Web site have instead ended up at the site owned by Tickets.com. Once the surfer gets there, the page never mentions its lack of affiliation with the venue; it simply reads, "For Programming and on-line ticketing info at Kiel Center in Saint Louis please click on the banner below." That banner takes you directly to the Tickets.com Web site, and you are gradually led to information on the Springsteen show, including choices for buying tickets: from "another ticketing agency" -- Tickets.com's main competitor and the official ticketing agency for the Kiel Center, Ticketmaster; online through the use of the site's auctions; or from a premium-seat service -- a ticket scalper.
Though the whole thing seems a bit shady, Tickets.com, which couldn't be reached, isn't doing anything illegal by snatching Kiel Center's logical domain name or by linking to Tickets Solutions, the Overland Park, Kan., firm offering the $275 Bruce tickets, doing nothing that the city or state could prosecute, doing nothing but cashing in on the public's desire to see Bruce Springsteen in concert.
Scalpers -- or their euphemism of choice, "brokers" -- get tickets the same way you do, by ordering them from Ticketmaster. But they've got bodies, and they blitz the booth. "A scalper will have an office set up with 20 or 30 people all trying to order the same tickets," says Erin Miller of Ticketmaster. "So they might call the charge-by-phone number, also have people at the outlets, also have people on the Internet, basically using every way possible to get tickets. It's just one of those things where there are more of them then there are of you, so they might end up getting some of the better tickets just because there are so many of them working for the same tickets."
Many acts combat the scalpers by placing limits on the number of tickets a person can purchase for the best seats. Springsteen restricts to two the number of tickets any one buyer can get in the first 16 rows. The owners of those tickets must pick them up at the "will call" window of Kiel Center on the day of the show, where these lucky concertgoers are given wristbands and led to the gate. Springsteen makes it incredibly difficult to scalp his prime tickets.
So how could Ticket Solutions guarantee such good tickets? It's possible that the company has some sort of relationship on the inside that secures good seats for them. Recently national promoters House of Blues were nailed by the Backstreet Boys for diverting prime seats to the Boys' Denver concert to scalpers. Such a scenario isn't common, but it's possible, says Ticketmaster's Miller: "But generally that would be grounds for losing your job. For example, if a scalper were to approach me to try and do something like that, I would lose my job. It's not a good thing to do. I'm not saying it's impossible, but if a person at the venue or the ticketing company was smart, they'd know better than to do it." More likely in this case is that Tickets Solutions doesn't have these tickets and can't get them, but it entices fans by baiting them with prime tickets, then switching to the next best -- 17th or 18th row.
Calls to Tickets Solutions were no help. Asked to describe their business, the salesman on the other end laid it out it simply: "Basically, we buy and sell tickets. All we are is a broker. Just like a stockbroker. That's all we do." Asked how this differs from "scalping," he seemed baffled, claiming to not understand the question. He then declined further comment and asked that we "call back and ask for the public-relations department. His name is Russ." Russ declined to comment.
There is no Missouri law prohibiting the scalping of tickets to musical events, though, curiously, it is against state law to scalp tickets to sporting events. "Any person, firm or corporation," reads the law, "who resells or offers to resell any ticket for admission, or any other evidence of the right of entry, to any public sporting event for a price in excess of the price printed on the ticket is guilty of the offense of ticket scalping." However, one could still legally purchase tickets to Rams games from Ticket Solutions despite the law, says Scott Holste of Attorney General Jay Nixon's office, "because ticket scalping is not illegal in Kansas. You'll see that often in the Kansas City Star -- classified ads for Chiefs tickets there, for any sporting event there, and they'll all be based out of Kansas." All year long, Rams tickets were available through Ticket Solutions, and as long as the transaction took place outside of Missouri, the buyer couldn't be prosecuted.
The Missouri Legislature, though, is currently reviewing three bills that would alter the current law: one that expands the provisions of the law to all entertainment events; one to legalize the practice for licensed brokers only; and one to scrap the law altogether and make scalping legal for all.
The city of St. Louis does have a law on its books making it illegal to scalp tickets to concerts, but only if the sale is conducted inside the city limits. That is to say, if you want to buy Backstreet Boys tickets from a broker located in Kansas, or off the eBay online-auction service (a scalper's paradise, it seems), it's perfectly legal.
In theory, if the seller conducts the transaction in the city of St. Louis, a law is being broken. But there's really no way anyone could get nailed for scalping if the seller has a lick of sense: As long as the scalper's not dumb enough to do it in front of Kiel Center on the day of the show -- the only time a city cop might theoretically be keeping an eye out for such a heinous crime -- he is relatively safe. It's doubtful that much city manpower is being devoted to curtailing the infraction. Even the scant few officers who patrol outside venues on the day of a concert are hired by the artist to do so, and they mainly keep an eye out not for scalpers but for bootleg-T-shirt vendors. The artists have been paid for the tickets; they haven't been paid for those shoddy T-shirts, and so they aggressively try to stamp out these transgressions.
What's the big deal about scalping, anyway? It's a victimless crime; in the end, everyone involved gets exactly what he or she wants.
It's more the essence of the commodity for sale that's troubling, which is why the scalper has always been held in contempt by the concertgoing public. Even the name sounds evil. The simple truth, though, is that scalpers profit from gauging and then manipulating the desires of music fans. Nothing's more sacred to a hardcore fan than experiencing the transcendence of their favorite music performed by the artist who created it. That there are people out there who earn their livelihood by preying on this desire is ethically dubious.
Added to this is that Bruce Springsteen goes out of his way to ensure that the overpaid stockbroker can't buy his way into the front row while the underpaid truck driver languishes in the upper deck -- that for four hours E Street is a bubble of classlessness. A scalper undercuts the performer's desire and ultimately ends up committing the ultimate crime: being a party-pooper.
But in the big picture, who cares? The Boss has made his money, the tickets are gone and two people are getting exactly what they want: The seller is getting paid and the buyer is getting tickets. And is it so bad that city cops aren't wasting their time investigating the comings and goings of a few scalpers? If some nutcase is willing to shell out a few hundred bucks rather than stand in line for a few hours to see his favorite artist, let him. There are more important crimes for the police to investigate, laws that are much easier to enforce.
At last glance, tickets to the Springsteen show at the Kiel were still available, though the show is expected to sell out. Ticket Solutions is offering 19th-row seats for $300 apiece. On eBay, pairs in less desirable spots were available at face value (the bidding was up to $850 for a pair of fourth-row seats for the Dallas show).
Of course, there's some irony in paying $850 for prime seats to hear a songwriter whose lyrics sing the praises of the humble life, who paints portraits of the injustices of the working-class skids, who sings that he'll be there "wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand." Paying that much money, given the context, would take some of the fun out of it. Wouldn't it?
Send local tapes, tips, discs and detritus to "Radar Station," c/o The Riverfront Times, 6358 Delmar Blvd., Suite 200, St. Louis, MO 63130; or Radarstation@rftstl.com.