When Larry Lewis went online about three weeks ago to purchase tickets to Farm Aid at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, he discovered the concert was sold out. So he turned to StubHub, a website that re-sells tickets to concerts, sports and other live events.
And when he saw how much the tickets to Farm Aid cost, he grew angry.
“Seats were about $800,” said Lewis, who lives in Glenville. “The lawn seats were north of $200.”
Lewis said he generally finds the practice of scalping — buying tickets and reselling them for more than face value — irritating, but he was especially bothered by the highly inflated prices of Farm Aid tickets, because Farm Aid is a charity event, raising money to benefit family farms.
“Some entity bought up these tickets,” he said. “The money they make selling them is not going to charity.”
Farm Aid, with a packed lineup headlined by Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp and the Dave Matthews Band, is one of the year’s marquee concerts and will mark the end of SPAC’s 2013 season when it kicks off at 1:30 p.m. Sept. 21. Tickets ranged from $45 to $150, and the event was sold out by July 3, less than a week after tickets went on sale.
On its website, StubHub says, “In keeping with the charitable purpose of this event, StubHub will donate its seller commission and buyer fee to Farm Aid.”
What Lewis experienced isn’t unusual.
The Internet has contributed to the rise of what’s known as the secondary ticket market, with brokers buying up tickets to resell online, often at marked-up prices. Though there are limits on how many tickets people can purchase at once, ticket brokers have ways of getting around this restriction, such as using multiple credit cards with different names.
“These secondary market guys are taking a chance,” Lewis said. “They’re buying up a bunch of tickets and hoping to sell them for more money. That’s fine for the stock market, but not when it’s an event that’s for the community.”
Scalping has been around for decades.
In 2007, then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer signed a bill lifting caps on how much scalpers can charge for tickets, which many believe has made the problem worse. Under the old law, resale of tickets was capped at 45 percent over face value for large venues and 20 percent for venues with fewer than 6,000 seats.
Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors in Schenectady, said scalpers have sold seats to some Proctors shows at sky-high prices that are completely out-of-whack with the actual price of the ticket. One of the most egregious examples of this practice was a patron who spent $480 for a ticket to “Les Miserables” earlier this year; on the Proctors website, ticket prices for the event ranged from $20 to $90.
“It’s outrageous,” Morris said. “A lot of scalpers are thieves.”
Marcia White, president and executive director of SPAC, said scalping for SPAC’s 2013 events “is about the same as it’s been in previous years.” The fact that it hasn’t gotten worse doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.
White said SPAC advises customers to make sure they’re buying a valid ticket from a legitimate seller and recommends people become SPAC members to get early access to tickets.
“We feel that any time a [customer] buys a bad ticket, it’s unfortunate because it ruins the experience,” she said.
White said she had little insight into ticket prices on the secondary market, but said sold-out concerts were more likely to result in more expensive scalped tickets.
“A lot of people want to go to Farm Aid,” she said. “We knew from the beginning that there were going to be a lot of challenges with the tickets. We knew it would sell out quickly, and it did.”
Morris said in addition to selling tickets at sky-high prices, many scalpers double-sell tickets, providing buyers with bar codes that prove worthless once they get to Proctors because only the name of the scalper is on the ticket. So far this year, Proctors has forwarded 20 examples of double-sold tickets to the state Attorney General’s office, Morris said.
Double-selling “happens any time there’s a big show,” Morris said. “It’s happening more and more and more.”
Sophisticated scalpers often create websites that resemble a venue’s official website in an effort to trick consumers into buying marked-up tickets from a scalper, rather than the venue itself.
Morris said customers sometimes are unaware they’re visiting a website run by a ticket broker. In other cases, customers are aware and are simply trying to find better tickets than the ones available through the venue’s official website. As a result, Proctors and other theaters have made an effort to educate patrons; in Proctors’ case, this entails reminding them to go to http://proctors.org to purchase tickets.
Morris said he worries the unscrupulous practices of scalpers could sour people on attending shows at Proctors.
“Performing arts centers are community based,” he said. “We depend on repeat customers.” When a patron is ripped off, “that kills us.”
Bob Belber, general manager of the Times Union Center, said he doesn’t think scalping has worsened, and double-selling tickets to Times Union Center events was a rare occurrence. He said most concertgoers understand how to acquire tickets through conventional means, as well as the risks associated with buying on the secondary market.
“Sometimes they pay more [on the secondary market],” Belber said. “Ever since [the state] lifted the cap, the price has been whatever the market demands, whatever someone is willing to pay. ... The diehard fans will do whatever it takes to get the best seat.
“I can’t say I’m a fan of this. I’m of the old school; I’d like people to be able to buy tickets at their actual price. This is the way the system works today, and it seems to be working fine.”
Belber noted people can still purchase tickets to Times Union Center events at the box office without paying a service charge. The Times Union Center also sells tickets through Ticketmaster, which adds a fee; if tickets are sold out, customers are directed to TicketsNow, a secondary-ticket website owned by Ticketmaster. Belber said he likes this arrangement; patrons might be buying scalped tickets, but the site is legitimate, and buyers are purchasing valid tickets.
Many venues have also implemented measures aimed at keeping tickets out of the hands of scalpers. Proctors limits buyers to eight tickets and scans for repeat credit cards.
When the state’s scalping caps were lifted, Spitzer and other elected officials said the Internet had made it impossible to enforce scalping laws. Sanjay Putrevu, a professor in the School of Business at the University at Albany, said that is true to some extent, but scalping has likely gotten worse as a result of the change to the law.
“In the past, there was the fear of a regulatory body coming after you,” Putrevu said.
Some, including Morris, believe more can be done to address scalping.
“If there’s a price cap, then the incentive isn’t there to do things that are unethical, like replicate a venue’s website,” Morris said. But for a cap to work, “there needs to be some level of policing.”
Anti-scalping laws can also educate people about what they should and shouldn’t be paying for tickets, making them more aware of when they’re at risk of being ripped off, Morris said. He noted Florida’s anti-scalping law forbids reselling a ticket for more than $1 above face value.
“In Florida, the theaters and facilities are able to say, ‘Don’t pay more than this,’ ” Morris said. In New York, “you have no clue.”
Russ Haven, legislative counsel for the New York Public Interest Research Group, said regulating ticket prices is in the public interest.
“You’re mostly talking about large venues that were built and paid for by the public,” he said, “so the public really has an investment in wanting the average family to be able to pay ticket prices.”
But Haven said it is unlikely anything will change.
“The Legislature doesn’t seem willing to go back to preventing unlimited markups,” he said.