Grunge meets grins as Pearl Jam testifies on ticket fees

July 01, 1994|By Verne Kopytoff | Verne Kopytoff,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON — An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified the drummer for the rock group Pearl Jam. He is Dave Abbruzzese.

The Sun regrets the error.

WASHINGTON -- Two members of the rock group Pearl Jam made an unusual and often comical appearance before a deferential House subcommittee yesterday, outlining charges of monopoly against Ticketmaster, the nation's leading concert ticket distributor.

The hearing yesterday had a rare, casual atmosphere as members of Congress asked rock stars decked in purple velvet shorts and rope shoes about the nature of grunge music.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"What does Pearl Jam mean?" one inquiring lawmaker, Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey of California, wanted to know. The band members declined to comment.

Another lawmaker, Rep. Collin C. Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, sought to show empathy for Pearl Jam by recounting his own background in country music.

Pearl Jam recently filed a Justice Department complaint, alleging that Ticketmaster imposes excessive service charges on concertgoers -- as high as $8 -- and is guilty of antitrust violations. When the popular band tried to organize its own low-cost concert tour this summer without Ticketmaster, they claim, Ticketmaster warned arenas with which it has exclusive contracts not to book the band.

As yesterday's hearing started, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossardand bassist Jeff Ament were surrounded by a phalanx of photographers who caught them in their sworn-testimony finest.

Mr. Gossard wore an oversize button-up orange shirt with purple velvet shorts and rope shoes. Mr. Ament was just as natty -- blue-and-white striped shorts, a green flak jacket and baseball cap turned backward, with just a single lock of blond hair showing on the side, over a blue bandanna knotted around his head.

Besides the gaggle of media, the room was filled mainly with young Capitol Hill interns dutifully taking notes. A smattering of fans filled out the rest of the audience.

Rep. Craig Thomas, a Wyoming Republican, acknowledged the out-of-the-ordinary response to a meeting of the Government Operations Committee's subcommittee on information, justice, transportation and agriculture. "This is a better-attended hearing than we normally have," he said dryly.

And the subcommittee chairman, Gary Condit, a California Democrat,warned the crowd to maintain the appropriate level of Washington decorum. "There's no beach balls. No Frisbees."

As it turned out, however, the lawmakers seemed to fall under the band's spell.

"I just think they're darling guys," Ms. Woolsey said into her microphone. Later, she added, "The music won't rock if the consumers are rolled."

Mr. Peterson said, "I'm the only card-carrying member of a musicians association on this committee." He mentioned that as a Minnesota state legislator, he wrote the "Willie Nelson amendment," which he said allowed country music star Willie Nelson to perform within 100 miles of the Minnesota State Fair.

Mr. Peterson said he made extra preparations before the hearing. "I have to admit that I tried to learn a few Pearl Jam songs," he said, "but it was beyond my repertoire."

The band members -- no word on the whereabouts of Pearl Jam's leader and lead singer, Eddie Vedder, drummer Dave Krusen and guitarist Mike McCready -- tried their best to keep things serious and focused on antitrust issues.

"Our efforts to try to keep prices for tickets to our concerts to this low level and to limit the possibility of excessive service charge mark-ups have put us at odds with Ticketmaster," said Mr. Gossard. "It is today virtually impossible for a band to do a tour of large arenas or other significant venues in major cities and not deal with Ticketmaster."

The problem, the members said, is lack of competition among ticket distributors. Ticketmaster was allowed to take over its national competitor Ticketron in 1991, after an antitrust review by the Justice Department.

It was on this point that the subcommittee had jurisdiction -- to call for a review of that Justice Department decision. Another committee hearing on the subject is expected.

Band members told members of the committee that they had canceled their planned summer tour because, without Ticketmaster and the established arenas with which it has exclusive contracts, setting up venues was too difficult.

Pearl Jam, a popular Seattle-based rock band, has recorded two successful albums and several Top-10 songs.

The band sells out its concerts. The members said they try to keep the highest-priced ticket to $20.

"The money, at this point, really isn't that important to us," Mr. Ament said.

"We think the victim . . . is being a person who doesn't have a lot of money to spend on tickets."

Fred Rosen, chief executive officer of the Los Angeles-based Ticketmaster, strongly denied that his company is a monopoly.

"Our fees have always been competitive with the other people who bid" for contracts to distribute tickets, Mr. Rosen said. "Ticketmaster is certainly an easy victim."

A spokesman for the Baltimore Arena said that venue has an exclusive contract with Ticketmaster.

"We do have some differences, but as a general rule, we are satisfied with Ticketmaster," said Gary Handleman, vice president of facilities for Center Management. "I wouldn't say they have a monopoly."

Center Management runs the city-owned arena and many others on the East Coast, including the Patriot Center on the campus of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where Pearl Jam played several months ago. "Apparently, they weren't dissatisfied there," Mr. Handleman said.

Mr. Handleman acknowledged, however, that his company's parent, Center Group, has a financial interest in the regional Ticketmaster corporation.

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