City politicians rush to save Ticketmaster's user fees

After court ruling, company could get hit with fines for 'scalping'

  • A stack of old Ticketmaster tickets pictured at The 8x10, a Federal Hill music venue.
A stack of old Ticketmaster tickets pictured at The 8x10, a Federal… (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore…)
February 23, 2013|By Luke Broadwater and Wesley Case, The Baltimore Sun

Musician Jackson Browne's managers were so excited when they heard Maryland's high court had struck down Ticketmaster's unpopular user fees in Baltimore that they promised free lifetime tickets to the city resident who had filed suit alleging he'd been ripped off by "exorbitant charges."

The Ravens, Orioles and Baltimore concert venues — along with city politicians — didn't share the singer's jubilation.

Concerned that Ticketmaster and other ticket vendors might refuse to handle events in Baltimore, the City Council is poised to carve out an exception to its long-standing anti-scalping law, which bars companies from charging fees in excess of 50 cents on top of a ticket's stated price. A council finance committee is scheduled to vote this week on a measure aimed at allowing Ticketmaster to continue to charge its fees.

"I don't understand why the city would want to change a good law that protects its citizens," said Andre Bourgeois, the 50-year-old Inner Harbor resident whose legal victory stunned area businesses last month. The anti-scalping law "just means that the face price of the ticket has to be what the ticket actually costs," he said.

At issue are service fees Ticketmaster charges on top of the stated price of a ticket. As any concert-goer or sports fan knows, these fees can sometimes spike the total cost of a ticket to more 120 percent of its stated price.

Bourgeois filed suit against Ticketmaster and the Lyric Opera House in 2011 after being charged $12 in user fees on a $52 ticket to see Jackson Browne in 2009. His hope was that Ticketmaster would be forced to stop charging the fees for events in Baltimore — and to issue refunds to customers who have paid the charges.

According to his suit, Ticketmaster takes in about $1 billion annually from user fees on $8 billion in ticket sales worldwide. It does not estimate how much of those sales come from Baltimore.

In January, Maryland's highest court ruled that Ticketmaster's fees violate a 1948 Baltimore ordinance designed to curb scalping of Navy football tickets. What happens next — whether Ticketmaster should be ordered to stop charging the fees, and whether customers should get refunds — is still to be decided by the federal court in Baltimore.

In 2011, Ticketmaster owner Live Nation agreed to pay $22.3 million to customers to settle a class action lawsuit in California over fees.

The Baltimore City Council bill would create an exception to city law making clear that Ticketmaster and similar companies may continue to charge their fees.

Ticketmaster and Live Nation declined to comment for this article. The Lyric Opera House also declined to comment.

Bourgeois thinks the City Council should leave the anti-scalping law as it is.

"Ticket pricing should be transparent and honest," said Bourgeois, who works in sales. "There should be one price for a ticket. No add-ons."

His position resonates with many concertgoers, who complain that ticket vendors seem to go out of their way to add new fees.

"They're like, 'We had to go to the trouble of selling you these tickets. So, there's a fee for that. And, you wanted to pick up the tickets, too? You'll have to pay for that,'" said Tyler Laporte, music director at Towson's WTMD radio station.

"And there's this time limit to buy the tickets, so you feel pressured to buy them or you lose your place in line. They straight up hold you hostage," Laporte said.

Kevin Cross, 35, of Bolton Hill — who recently paid $25 in processing and service fees for tickets to a Belle and Sebastian show — says his main complaint with the charges is their seemingly arbitrary nature.

"What frustrates me is it's not the cost of doing business," said Cross, an attorney. "It doesn't cost $25 to do an online transaction. It doesn't bear any relationship to the cost of the transaction or the cost of holding the concert."

But the venues that rely on companies like Ticketmaster, Ticketfly and MissionTix say they don't want to be in the business of processing large volumes of tickets, so they appreciate the service such vendors provide.

City Councilman Carl Stokes, who introduced the bill seeking an exception for the ticket companies, said the Lyric Opera House, Ravens, Orioles, Hippodrome and the National Aquarium are among the organizations asking the council to change the law. Although Orioles tickets are now sold through a different vendor, the court ruling would apply to those user fees as well.

"One big concern is Ticketmaster would say, 'We're not doing business in Baltimore anymore if we can't charge more than 50 cents,'" Stokes said. "Fifty cents is much too small an amount for their services."

Though Stokes' bill would set no limits on the fees ticket vendors may charge, he says the measure is designed to buy the council time until it can fully consider and propose a new regulation on user fees. That could limit the fee to a percentage of the ticket price, he said.

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