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Sports, theater and concert fans are itching for events to start happening again. So are clever ticket sellers who’ve figured out ways to cash in on unsuspecting customers shopping online.
Reveal’s Byard Duncan starts with an examination of the tricks and traps that await fans who try to buy tickets online, at the hands of some of the largest companies in what’s known as the secondary ticket market.
Then Reveal’s Ike Sriskandarajah visits his favorite theater in Oakland, California, which went dark in March because of the pandemic. Like venues across the country, the Paramount Theatre plans to reopen its doors in 2021, and we find out what it will look like.
We end with an essay from reporter Yoohyun Jung, who’s been a fan of K-pop music for most of her life. But when she went from being a fan to working in the business, she saw some disturbing things that gave her a new perspective on this international phenomenon.
Reported by: Byard Duncan, Ike Sriskandarajah and Yoohyun Jung
Lead producer: Katharine Mieszkowski
Edited by: Taki Telonidis
Production manager: Amy Mostafa
Production assistance: Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra
Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda
Digital producer: Sarah Mirk
Episode art: Maxwell Erwin
Special thanks: Andrew Donohue, Rachel Brooke, Soo Oh and Melissa Lewis
Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan
Host: Al Letson
Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson.
Al Letson: Do you remember the last live event you attended before the pandemic? Was it a game, a concert, a theater performance? For me, it was a Brittany Howard concert. So good. The audience was in it, the band was amazing, and Brittany put on a show. When I’m feeling the disconnection of the pandemic, I go back to that moment when I was singing along badly with Brittany onstage.
Al Letson: Today, a few of us are trickling back into stadiums and arenas, about 14,000 lucky people were able to buy tickets to this year’s Superbowl with all the special COVID rules: a mostly empty stadium, masks for players and coaches on the sidelines, and no cash at concessions. But in one sense, this year is like years past. Many of those who got their hands on a ticket, they paid dearly for it.
Audio: Just to get up into the nosebleeds, it’s going to cost you about $9,000. That’s a lot of money because of the …
Al Letson: This issue, how much tickets cost and who’s actually making money off them, it caught the attention of Byard Duncan, my buddy here at Reveal. So Byard decided to pass on coughing up thousands, even tens of thousands for the Superbowl. But a couple years ago, he had an experience buying NBA tickets that left him scratching his head.
Byard Duncan: It was my best friend’s birthday. He’s a Philadelphia 76er’s fan, and I decided I wanted to surprise him with Sixer’s tickets. They were playing the Sacramento Kings, which is not so far from Oakland here where I live.
Al Letson: This was January, 2019. Byard googles “Kings-Sixer’s tickets” and eventually gets directed to a website called TicketNetwork.
Byard Duncan: The tickets were pretty close to the floor. They were reasonably priced too, since the Kings haven’t been good in more than a decade. So I was looking at the layout of the Kings’ arena and I selected two seats.
Al Letson: Byard checks out and the money leaves his bank account. Well, not so fast. A couple weeks later before leaving the Reveal office on a Friday night, he looks up his email confirmation and notices something strange. It doesn’t actually include any tickets.
Byard Duncan: Just said, quote, “Get excited. We’ve received your order and you’re on your way. We’ll contact you soon with more details on how you’ll get your tickets.” But it was the night before the game, and I didn’t have any more details about where I could get my tickets.
Al Letson: So he calls TicketNetwork’s customer service number.
Byard Duncan: The guy on the other end took a minute and he looked for the tickets and came back and said, “These tickets aren’t available.” I was like, “Wait a minute. How is that possible?”
Al Letson: Remember, Byard has already paid for these tickets. He gets put on hold. After awhile, the customer service rep comes back on the line and says, “Good news.” He can get comparable tickets, and he proposes a new section. But Byard has the seating map of the arena pulled up and he notices …
Byard Duncan: But that section’s way farther away than the tickets I thought I had bought. So I asked him: “Okay. Those tickets are way farther away. What do they cost?” He tells me: “Oh, they’re the same price as the tickets you bought.” At this point, I’m like, “Well, isn’t that awfully convenient for you that they’re the same price and they’re worse tickets?”
Byard Duncan: So here’s where I’m beginning to get really angry. There are two sides to me. One is investigative reporter: curious, patient and methodical. The other side, though, is a rabid NBA fan. So, angry sometimes, and I have to say I was experiencing both of these things in this moment. Unfortunately, both sides involve a lot of swearing too.
Al Letson: Byard gets put on hold again. But this time he starts digging. He heads over to Pacer, a big database of federal court records.
Byard Duncan: I go on Pacer and look up TicketNetwork, and I immediately find the complaint for a lawsuit that’s actually going on while I’m having this conversation with customer service. It’s from the New York Attorney General’s Office.
Al Letson: It turns out that New York’s top lawyer had recently accused TicketNetwork of engaging in what was described as “a massive scheme to trick tens of thousands of unsuspecting consumers into buying tickets that the sellers did not actually have.” It begins to sink in for Byard that he might be one of them.
Al Letson: After more time on hold and some arguing, he makes TicketNetwork agree to give him his money back. Then, he gets real tickets the day of the game directly from the Sacramento Kings’ website.
Al Letson: When a reporter has a bad experience, sometimes it turns into an opportunity to start digging, so that’s exactly what Byard did. He found a multi-billion dollar industry that preys not only on sports fans but on concert and theater-goers too.
Byard Duncan: After my experience with TicketNetwork, I thought, “Okay. If I really want to understand what just happened here, I need to start by casting a pretty wide net.” So I sent public records requests for 10 years worth of complaints to every state attorney general’s office in the country and to the Federal Trade Commission.
Byard Duncan: The complaints I got back weren’t just about TicketNetwork. They describe all sorts of problems with the industry’s major players: StubHub, Vivid Seats and Ticketmaster too. One complaint that caught my eye was from Sharon Ballentine. She fell into several traps.
Sharon Ballenti…: I am retired with my husband in Wilmington, North Carolina. I have a checkered background.
Byard Duncan: She means like an eclectic background, not like she killed a guy.
Sharon Ballenti…: I have been everything from a teacher in Thailand and in Taiwan to doing Defense Department technical meeting planning, and ended my career as a farmer and managing a nonprofit.
Byard Duncan: Sharon and her husband are major supporters of the arts too: operas, museums, historical events, live theater. She calls this stuff “the bread of life.” She missed it a lot in 2020.
Sharon Ballenti…: Mingle with others. Listen to good music. Go to a good play, even to the movies.
Byard Duncan: Back in 2019 a couple months after my own experience, Sharon saw a full-page ad in her local paper for a production of Jersey Boys, a 2005 Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Audio: You from my neighborhood, you got three ways out: You could join the army, you could get mobbed, or you could become a star.
Byard Duncan: Sharon said she followed the web address on the ad. She landed on a website she thought was the official box office for the Wilson Center, a theater nearby at Cape Fear Community College. It had ticket listings, a seating chart and directions.
Byard Duncan: Pretty quickly though, things started to feel a little off. For starters, she said, the website couldn’t provide her with actual seat numbers. And right at the end of the transaction process, her total for two tickets skyrocketed to $481.93. But since she assumed she was on the official site, she pulled the trigger anyway.
Byard Duncan: She later discovered she could’ve gotten them directly from the Wilson Center for a total of just $170. Oh, and just like me, after the money left her account, she didn’t even have the tickets she wanted yet. Instead, when she called customer service for answers, a representative told her, “Sit tight. We’re working on it.”
Sharon Ballenti…: He said that they would email me the tickets. I said, “All right, go ahead. I would like them right away.” And he said, “No, I can’t do that.”
Byard Duncan: One reason he couldn’t do that? He didn’t actually work for the venue itself. Without realizing, Sharon had landed on what’s called a “secondary ticket market,” a website where tickets get resold. She was confused and furious and didn’t want these overpriced tickets. She blurted out, “Well, what do you suggest I do?”
Sharon Ballenti…: And he said, “Oh, we have a great answer for you for that. You go out and sell them on the secondary market.”
Byard Duncan: Sell what exactly? She didn’t even have the tickets yet.
Sharon Ballenti…: I thought, “Whoa! This is really a scam.”
Byard Duncan: After Sharon hung up the phone, she decided to report this website to North Carolina’s attorney general. The URL was boxoffice-tickets.com.
Sharon Ballenti…: Do you remember JFK’s old adage? Don’t get mad, get even.
Byard Duncan: The company affiliated with the website was the same one I dealt with, TicketNetwork. Although Sharon was ready to get even, they seemed prepared. A few days after Sharon filed her complaint, TicketNetwork’s legal team sent a response to the AG. It was a point-by-point dissection to all the things she should have noticed about the site.
Byard Duncan: She should’ve seen the tiny disclosure on their home page that this was a resale marketplace where prices may be above the venue’s price. She should’ve noticed that her tickets had a so-called delivery date when they would hopefully arrive. Finally, she should’ve realized the site, quote, “does not act as a primary sale box office,” even though it’s called “boxoffice-tickets.com.” TicketNetwork declared no refund is due from the seller.
Sharon Ballenti…: I will tell you I was ballistic. I had obviously been scammed, and I thought, “This has got to affect other people too. I can’t be the first one.”
Byard Duncan: Sharon is definitely not the first one to fall into what I’ve come to call “the ticket trap.” I’ve read thousands of pages of complaints from all kinds of people, folks trying to go to music festivals and sports fanatics who have lots of experience buying tickets. They describe a sort of obstacle course of tricks and deceptions that major players in the secondary market have perfected over the years.
Byard Duncan: TicketNetwork, for its part, maintains that it helps create a competitive marketplace where more inventory drives prices down. We’re going to break down how it works step by step, beginning with the website she thought was official.
John Breyault: My name is John Breyault. I’m the vice president of Public Policy, Telecommunications and Fraud at the National Consumers League.
Byard Duncan: I called up John to talk about these so-called “white label websites” like the one Sharon stumbled onto. Regulators and ticket buyers say they’re designed to deceive people into believing they’re on an actual box office site. The sites look official. Sometimes they’ll have the venue’s name in their web address or pictures of the marquee or a section about the place’s history.
Byard Duncan: Back in 2014, TicketNetwork and its business partner settled a lawsuit with the State of Connecticut and the FTC over these kinds of sites. As part of the discovery process, TicketNetwork was forced to hand over a list of all the web domains they’d registered. That document is 74 pages long. It includes addresses like chittychittybangbangonbroadway.com, jerryseinfeldtickets.com, chicagowhitesoxtickets.org. Anyway, a list of 4,234 URLs, all registered by TicketNetwork.
John Breyault: As long as there’s money to be made scalping tickets, as long as there’s money to be made for these white-label sites, the operators of them are going to get creative to try and really operate in the margins of what can be considered acceptable.
Byard Duncan: As part of the settlement, the FTC forbade ticket resellers from using the word “official” in most ads, websites and URLs. It also said resellers could not represent directly or by implication that a resale ticket site is an actual venue site. But consumer advocates like John are quick to point out that there’s a lot of wiggle room left for secondary sellers to operate.
John Breyault: If I’m selling Yankees tickets, for example, and my background on my website is pinstripes, that may not necessarily be illegal under the terms of the consent order. But certainly, I would think it denotes some kind of affiliation with New York Yankees.
Byard Duncan: I found that white-label sites have persisted for years since the FTC handed down its restrictions. Turns out it’s easy for consumers to feel duped, even while the sites insist they’re following the government’s rules. Like that site where Sharon Ballentine landed when she wanted to see Jersey Boys. She said it had her fooled from the very beginning.
Sharon Ballenti…: The advertising that was done, although the word “official” was not used, made it seem like it was official. So rather than go in and research another site, I thought I was going into an official website for the Wilson Center.
Byard Duncan: One of the most striking things I learned about these sites is that white labels had an average markup of roughly 180% over what you’d pay at the venue. That’s according to a study from the Government Accountability Office. By comparison, resale sites that don’t impersonate venue, their markup was usually about 74%, so in other words, the sneakiest sites had the biggest gouge.
Byard Duncan: So Sharon, like many others, tumbled into the ticket trap. First, she was directed to a secondary site when all she really wanted to do was find the actual venue. Next up, the murkiness around what she’d actually end up paying.
Frank Pallone: I’m particularly concerned by the hidden fees that the ticketing industry charges American consumers at the very end of the purchase process.
Byard Duncan: This issue of hidden fees is such a big deal the government has regulated it in other industries like airlines. In February of 2020, the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce talked about it at this hearing on ticketing. Democrat Frank Pallone of New Jersey was the chair.
Frank Pallone: … [inaudible 00:15:27] and we’re all familiar with this. You search for a ticket online and one price is initially displayed, but when you go to check out, hefty fees are added and the final price is much higher than the original price shown.
Byard Duncan: Remember, right at the tail end of her transaction, Sharon saw her total balloon to $481.93 for two tickets she later found out were worth $170. At one point in the hearing, three of the industry’s major players, TicketNetwork, Vivid Seats and StubHub, are asked how exactly they come up with fees. First to answer is TicketNetwork’s CEO, Don Vaccaro.
Don Vaccaro: On the sites that we control, we determine fees by what the others in the marketplace are charging.
Byard Duncan: Vivid Seats.
Speaker 10: It’s market competition, so it’s subject to discipline by the market. If there’s a lower price, we have to match it.
Byard Duncan: StubHub.
Speaker 11: Because we’re a marketplace, the sellers determine the price of the tickets. We-
Frank Pallone: If your fee’s too high, people are going use your site. Is that kind of the market determines? Mr. Perez …
Byard Duncan: So these companies are all basically locked into a game of chicken with each other. The main thing that really dictates where they set their fees and how they apply them is what the other guy is doing.
Byard Duncan: Buyers tend to make decisions based on advertised prices which are often already inflated, then last-minute fees get stacked on top of that. One consumer summed this up perfectly. Quote: “I’ve never gone grocery shopping and been hit with a soup packaging fee after scanning my Campbell’s cans.”
Byard Duncan: I went back to Sharon again with all of this.
Sharon Ballenti…: Incredible. They don’t have any way to credibly tell the consumer what that fee is. It is suddenly slapped on as you check out.
Byard Duncan: Okay. The last step in the trap? It’s maybe the wildest one. Remember, Sharon paid for tickets, but when she asked TicketNetwork to email them to her, they couldn’t do it. Something similar happened to me. The night before that NBA game, I hadn’t gotten my tickets either, just a promise that they’d arrive eventually.
Byard Duncan: These are signs that what we both bought were so-called “speculative tickets,” tickets that brokers don’t even have in the first place. Instead, they advertise seats at dramatically marked up prices, try to buy the actual tickets later, and keep the difference.
Byard Duncan: For really popular events though, sometimes brokers can’t even get tickets, so they back out on their sales. Ahead of the 2015 Superbowl, some people who’d bought airfare and booked hotels learned too late that the tickets they thought they had didn’t even exist. This Seattle Seahawks fan was in tears.
Audio: For two weeks I thought for sure I was going to be in there, and now I don’t get to do that. It’s tough. It’s upsetting that you could just, “Sorry. We don’t have your tickets anymore.”
Byard Duncan: The FTC tried to crack down on this too, sending out a warning letter to secondary market sites in 2010 demanding they make it obvious when tickets are speculative. But that fine print can be easy to miss.
Byard Duncan: In 2016, a Billy Joel fan in New York complained about seeing marked-up tickets on StubHub before they were officially on sale. And in June of 2019, consumers in Rhode Island were misled into buying speculative Hamilton tickets. When they arrived at the theater, they learned they’d paid five times as much as some of the people sitting next to them.
Byard Duncan: Many people like Sharon and me don’t realize that what we’re actually buying from these sites is just a promise that someone is going to try to get tickets for us. It’s not just ticket buyers who is out either.
Christy Grantha…: I’m Christy Grantham, the director of ticketing at the Wilson Center in Wilmington, North Carolina. We seat about 1,500 people.
Byard Duncan: You could say that Christy is the person Sharon Ballentine wishes she’d reached from the very beginning, someone who actually would’ve sold her Jersey Boys tickets directly. For years, Christy has seen up close the tactics that secondary sellers use.
Christy Grantha…: They’re selling tickets on Row W. I’m looking at my chart, and no one’s bought any tickets on Row W. They have no tickets to sell. They’re selling them for $234, and I’m selling them for $30.
Byard Duncan: Again, that’s $30 from the venue and $234 on the secondary market for tickets they haven’t even bought from Christy yet. Okay, but so what about when they do buy them from her and sell them at a higher price? She’s still filling up the house, right? So why does she care?
Christy Grantha…: I care a lot and for a lot of reasons. I don’t want someone to spend their entire entertainment budget on one event that they really want to go to when they could come to five events, including that one that they really want to come to, and they can have so many more wonderful experiences in my venue.
Byard Duncan: Except they get caught in the ticket trap. I should note here that Sharon did, in fact, get tickets to Jersey Boys. Many folks who buy speculative tickets do end up with seats somewhere. But in Sharon’s case, she says they weren’t the ones she thought she’d paid for. She told the state attorney general that she felt misled by TicketNetwork.
Byard Duncan: But I think the more important point here is how simple it all could’ve been. Sharon wanted to see a show. Christy was there about nine miles from Sharon’s home waiting to sell her tickets at a fair price. But secondary sellers like TicketNetwork were able to swoop in, make lots of money and leave both of them frustrated.
Sharon Ballenti…: This particular company could put Bernie Madoff to shame. I mean, it was so beautifully organized.
Al Letson: After figuring out the machinery of the ticket trap, Byard wanted to talk to the people pulling its levers. What they had to say next on Reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Today we’re talking about the secondary ticket market, where sports fans and concertgoers sometimes feel ripped off.
Al Letson: This has been going on for a long time. Even in the 1800s, speculators were jacking up ticket prices for readings by Charles Dickens and PT Barnum’s circus. For just as long, people have been trying to bring it under control. Here’s Reveal’s Byard Duncan again.
Byard Duncan: This whole regulatory fight has been like a centuries-long cat and mouse game. These days it plays out in the halls of Washington.
Devin Willis: I wanted to share an experience that may have happened to me.
Byard Duncan: This is Devin Willis. It’s June of 2019 when she was attorney at the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. She’s moderating a panel about deceptive practices within the world of online ticket sales. She talks about trying to buy tickets to Hamilton at a Philadelphia venue called the Forrest Theater. She does a Google search …
Devin Willis: … and it takes me to this landing page. It shows Philadelphia Theater. It has the theater name underneath it, Forrest Theater. Hamilton’s right there in the middle. Then there’s a phone number there that I recognize [crosstalk 00:22:50] theater, how the play was.
Byard Duncan: You know the drill by now. The tickets she sees are listed for $469 a piece. Worth it, she thinks, for Hamilton on opening night.
Devin Willis: So I must be at the right place.
Byard Duncan: She’s not. The actual tickets? She learns later that they’re not even on sale yet.
Devin Willis: Am I crazy? So I am now frantic. I go back and I’m trying to see, well, what did I buy and who did I buy it from?
Byard Duncan: The point here is that even the people in charge of enforcing the rules around ticketing, they’re liable to get confused too. Today, there’s this big cluster of federal, state and local regulations all cross-hatching the US. They can be easy to get around.
Byard Duncan: The rules vary by jurisdiction. For example, ticket resale laws are incredibly strict in Arkansas, but brokers who live out of state still sell there. Federal regulators may make an example out of a company here and there, but it’s up to the states to really crack down, and they don’t always do that.
Byard Duncan: I really wanted to talk to someone behind one of those companies. This is Don Vaccaro.
Don Vaccaro: Hi. Is this Bynard?
Byard Duncan: This is Byard, yeah. Is this Don?
Don Vaccaro: Yeah, Byard. I’m sorry. I apologize. Byard; very simple to pronounce.
Byard Duncan: Don is the CEO of TicketNetwork, the company affiliated with the sites where Sharon and I ended up. He founded it in 2002, but he first got into reselling tickets in the late 1970s.
Don Vaccaro: I went down to Madison Square Garden to buy some tickets for some friends to go to a concert.
Byard Duncan: When he arrived, he noticed that the Garden had just kicked off another sale for the rock band Jethro Tull. This was pre-Internet, of course, so word hadn’t really gotten out yet. Don saw an opportunity.
Don Vaccaro: And I was actually able to get some great seats for that show and able to go back and sell them, make a profit.
Byard Duncan: This is what people used to just call “scalping.” Things took off from there. First, Don set up his own brokerage. Then he got into software. Today, this whole business has largely moved online and become much more regulated than the guy in a trenchcoat on a street corner days.
Byard Duncan: TicketNetwork became one of the largest secondary sellers in the US. In normal years, there’s more than a five and a half billion dollars of tickets listed on their exchange. The first thing I wanted to ask Don is, how does TicketNetwork actually help fans?
Don Vaccaro: When you add to supply of tickets, the equilibrium price goes down, okay? It’s true in every marketplace.
Byard Duncan: Don views primary ticket sellers like the behemoth Ticketmaster as these monopolistic bad guys. He says what he’s doing is giving fans options, more places to buy tickets.
Byard Duncan: But here’s the thing. There’s a key ingredient here that economists say is missing: transparency. On sites like the one Sharon visited, people think they’re at the venue’s box office and they think they’re seeing the face value price. They also don’t expect huge fees right at the finish line. People don’t even realize they could be comparison shopping.
Byard Duncan: In the thousands of pages of complaints I read about the market’s major players, it was often the same story. Consumers felt deceived, manipulated, ripped off. And according to a former New York attorney general, there’s evidence that’s by design.
Byard Duncan: When the state’s top lawyer sued TicketNetwork back in 2018, the company had to hand over a bunch of internal documents. One of them was about their speculative listings. That’s when brokers sell tickets they don’t actually have in hand yet. TicketNetwork admitted these listing, quote, “create the appearance of plentiful inventory on the exchange when there are little or no real tickets.”
Byard Duncan: I’m wondering, Don, in your view do you think consumers would willingly buy speculative tickets if they understood what they buying were speculative tickets?
Don Vaccaro: Here’s what I’d like to say to that: Is when you go to a hotel and you book a room in a hotel, do you think you’re booking the actual room that’s available? You’re not. You’re booking from a …
Byard Duncan: This is what it was like to try to get answers out of Don. He would change the subject or answer my question with another question.
Don Vaccaro: That’s why hotels [crosstalk 00:27:23] as far as [crosstalk 00:27:23] …
Byard Duncan: He even flat-out denied that his company has received complaints recently.
Don Vaccaro: Actually, I don’t think we’ve had a complaint in the longest time from anyone.
Byard Duncan: This is just not true. On top of complaints like Sharon’s that I got through records requests, others about TicketNetwork are easy to find. They’re on the Better Business Bureau, Yelp, Twitter. But Don says TicketNetwork is not the problem. He points his finger again at the big primary sellers like Ticketmaster. He says customers are worried about being able to transfer tickets to someone else.
Don Vaccaro: And they’re concerned about the data that they give up and that they share when they’re buying a primary ticket or they’re transferring a primary ticket.
Byard Duncan: This is not what fans mentioned in the complaints I read. Almost all of them were worried about getting deceived and gouged by companies like Don’s. Although, Don did admit …
Don Vaccaro: Look. We’re not perfect. No one’s perfect. We’re here to make our sites better. We can always do better.
Byard Duncan: One of the people in charge of making Don’s company do better is Rebecca Kelly Slaughter.
Rebecca Kelly S…: I think having competition in the ticket marketplace is great at every level. But I don’t think there’s any justification for companies to misrepresent who they are as sellers.
Byard Duncan: Rebecca is the acting chair of the FTC. She specializes in consumer protection and competition. Remember that the FTC cracked down on TicketNetwork and two of its website partners for profiting from deceptive mimicking tactics. The three had to pay $1.4 million to the State of Connecticut where TicketNetwork is based. Despite that crackdown, though, sites like these are still all over the place, and I wanted Rebecca’s take on some examples I found.
Byard Duncan: Here I’m going to share my screen. The official site for this is jonesbeach.com, which you can see the [crosstalk 00:29:21] here in the [crosstalk 00:29:21] …
Byard Duncan: I show her two sites: the venue’s official site, then a secondary site with a lot of similarities. It’s really easy to confuse the two.
Byard Duncan: You can see they have a little seahorse, they have a picture of the venue. So I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how it seems possible to conduct business like this while playing by the FTC’s rules.
Rebecca Kelly S…: I’m not going to say that conducting businesses like this does play by the FTC’s rules. And to be clear, the rules of the FTC are the laws of the United States.
Byard Duncan: By Rebecca’s own admission, this site very well could be operating illegally. So I asked her: Why is it so hard to rein this stuff in?
Rebecca Kelly S…: There are a lot of violations out there to investigate and pursue, and our resources don’t even come close to allowing us to do that. The FTC had 50% more full-time employees at the beginning of the Reagan administration than it does today. Our workload has increased astronomically in the intervening 40 years.
Byard Duncan: Congress has been trying to give the FTC more tools. In 2016, it passed legislation to stop the use the bots that vacuum up thousands of tickets in minutes. But nobody enforced it until this January. There’s also proposed legislation, something called the BOSS Act, which aims to further tighten restrictions on white-label websites, the ones that often look like venue websites but aren’t.
Rebecca Kelly S…: I mean, I will seek in my mind for a good-faith argument for why they are good for consumers, and I can’t find one.
Byard Duncan: Also, it would curb the practice of selling tickets you don’t even have yet.
Rebecca Kelly S…: This has been the topic of enforcement attention for a decade and the problem is still there. So it is clear that more needs to happen.
Byard Duncan: Under President Biden, Slaughter anticipates more momentum at the FTC around consumer protection issues like ticketing.
Rebecca Kelly S…: It’s an area that we know Congress cares about, we know the American public cares about, and we need to continue to care about.
Byard Duncan: Until then, fans will have to protect themselves. I learned the most important thing you can do is scrutinize the website before you buy your tickets. Read the fine print and look for phrases like “resale marketplace” or “Prices may be above or below face value.” If you really want to be certain you’re buying from the venue, consider picking up the phone and just giving them a call.
Byard Duncan: And hey, if the show is legitimately sold out, the tickets are available at a premium on the secondary market. To a certain extent, that’s just supply and demand in action. Maybe it’s out of reach or maybe it’s worth it to you, especially after a whole year without live events.
Al Letson: That’s Reveal’s Byard Duncan who plans to see his beloved Golden State warriors in person as soon as it’s safe again. Our story was produced by Katharine Mieszkowski, who can’t wait to take her daughters to see Weird Al Yankovic.
Al Letson: Reveal’s Ike Sriskandarajah misses the Friday night classic movies and concerts at his favorite theater here in Oakland. They closed up, but he dropped by to ask when we might be able to go back and what it will be like when we do.
Leslee Stewart: Hi. Nice to meet you. Come in.
Ike Sriskandara…: Hi. Nice to meet you.
Ike Sriskandara…: I met Leslee.
Leslee Stewart: [crosstalk 00:32:57] is Leslee Stewart, general manager at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, California.
Ike Sriskandara…: Hey, thanks.
Leslee Stewart: Jason. This is Jason.
Ike Sriskandara…: And Jason.
Jason Blackwell: Jason Blackwell, assistant general manager.
Ike Sriskandara…: I usually shake hands, but we won’t do that anymore.
Leslee Stewart: I know. [crosstalk 00:33:10] Yes.
Jason Blackwell: [crosstalk 00:33:10]-
Ike Sriskandara…: They let me do something I’ve been wanting to do since the pandemic began.
Leslee Stewart: And this not the [crosstalk 00:33:16]-
Jason Blackwell: This is not my first time.
Ike Sriskandara…: Be inside a theater. But not just any theater.
Audio: A new era in motion picture history was ushered in with the gala opening of a magnificent $3 million Paramount Theater.
Leslee Stewart: Coming into the Paramount Theater, you’re walking into 1931.
Ike Sriskandara…: Jason heads through the dark lobby for the switch box.
Jason Blackwell: So here we go.
Ike Sriskandara…: Soft amber light starts to fill the room, and you can see on the walls these golden maidens. They look like they’re just waking up, and it all feels like sunrise.
Jason Blackwell: I can’t tell you how happy that just made me. Oh, all the lights coming on. Yeah, it’s fun.
Ike Sriskandara…: It’s as elegant as the Empire State Building with a concession stand.
Audio: There are many superlatives which apply to the Paramount. One of them …
Ike Sriskandara…: For 90 years, this landmark theater has hosted movie premieres, later concerts, lectures, even naturalization ceremonies. But since coronavirus …
Leslee Stewart: Our last show was Buddy Guy and Friends March the 3rd, 2020.
Jason Blackwell: Yep. Yeah, that was the last time we had anyone in the building.
Ike Sriskandara…: The poster for a canceled jazz show from March 11th of last year still hangs in the lobby.
Leslee Stewart: Honestly, I thought we’d be closed for months, maybe few weeks. Maybe May. Never thought that we would be in this situation.
Ike Sriskandara…: At first they explored the idea of roping off six feet between seats, but that reduced their 3,000 person theater to 450. That small an audience wouldn’t cover the costs, so they rescheduled all of their events from last spring to the fall. Then to early 2021, and now …
Leslee Stewart: I’m actually now rescheduling the rescheduling events to 2022.
Ike Sriskandara…: Baby Shark, the live show, has been rescheduled now four times.
Leslee Stewart: Poor baby shark, he’s just swimming from month to month. It’s very sad.
Ike Sriskandara…: It is sad. In the meantime, the Paramount secured a federal PPP loan for about $250,000, but they still had to let staff go. And they still don’t know when they’ll be able to have anybody back.
Jason Blackwell: Let’s be clear. The County has not given us any guidelines for reopening.
Ike Sriskandara…: Without any government directive, the Paramount and 1,100 other venues are looking to their trade group for guidance from the likes of Russ Simons.
Russ Simons: I am a part of the International Association of Venue Managers, and I lead that group’s COVID-19 industry response.
Ike Sriskandara…: The group put out a detailed and wide-ranging guide to safe reopening, not an easy task give that the concerns of the Paramount are very different from the Superdome or from a venue in Arkansas where local health rules have allowed for indoor concerts since May.
Ike Sriskandara…: Generally speaking though, here’s what many Americans might expect when we do take our seats. The first is a lesson the industry learned after 9/11. Before the attack, event staff tried to mostly be invisible.
Russ Simons: But following the security issues in 9/11, what we learned was, is the public is desirous of a visible and obvious presence.
Ike Sriskandara…: Back then, the Paramount printed the word “Security” on their crew’s jackets. Audience members saw Security everywhere. This time, the audience will see janitors everywhere.
Ike Sriskandara…: Concessions will work differently too. Instead of a waiting in line, you may be ordering on your phone and picking up at a window. And Russ says there’ll be fewer choices.
Russ Simons: The truth of the matter is, is we probably had too many menu items by a good 60%, and if we were having a genuinely honest conversation, perhaps 80.
Ike Sriskandara…: Goodbye, soft pretzel. Next, and this is probably the most important, venues will ask about your health records.
Russ Simons: I think you’ll probably see a hybrid where some zones of the building or sections or levels may be vaccine-oriented.
Ike Sriskandara…: Two shots could get you floor seats. A rapid negative test, maybe you’re in the balcony. The venue manager’s group says they’re still working out the details, and the venues, they’re going to have to figure out how to pay for it. All of this will take time.
Russ Simons: I don’t see this being a successful endeavor in the next three to six months. But I believe that the work that’s being done in the next three to six months could make the second half of this year a lot more entertaining for your listeners.
Ike Sriskandara…: It’s not looking great for summer blockbusters. But come Nutcracker season …
Russ Simons: Yeah, I feel pretty good about the Nutcracker this summer. I do.
Ike Sriskandara…: If that happens, I hope I get to see it in my favorite theater.
Al Letson: That was Reveal’s Ike Sriskandarajah.
Al Letson: The pandemic shut down concerts and plays all over the world, including K-pop concerts. A few moved online. In fact, one sold more than 700,000 tickets. In a moment, what one fan discovered after she got a rare close-up look inside the world of K-pop. You’re listening to Reveal.
Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s not just fans in the US who are anxious for sports events and concerts to open up again. It’s K-pop fans all over the world.
Al Letson: (singing)
Al Letson: South Korean boy band BTS is one of the most well-known K-pop groups in the US. Fans copy their dance moves, buy their clothes, and hang on their every tweet. K-pop has become a culture of its own, and it’s a huge international business. When money’s involved, things can get complicated.
Al Letson: Yoohyun Jung is a data journalist who first followed K-pop as a fan. Then she got a rare look at the business side.
Al Letson: (singing)
Yoohyun Jung: K-pop gives me an odd sense of pride. When I see BTS, I feel like they’re beautiful national treasures, and I’m like a sloppy broke journalist in the US. But, hey, we’re the same. I was born in Korea but spent half my life here and in Canada, and K-pop is one of those things that has kept me connected to my roots. When I was in the fifth grade, I was going to school in Vancouver and my parents used to send me CDs of this boy band called g.o.d.
Yoohyun Jung: (singing)
Yoohyun Jung: I swear I went to bed with that CD. Then later, when I lived in Arizona, I really liked this other group called Super Junior.
Yoohyun Jung: (singing)
Yoohyun Jung: But in 2017 is when I fell hard, really, really hard.
Yoohyun Jung: (singing)
Yoohyun Jung: In the spring of that year, I started watching a South Korean reality TV show called Produce 101. It was a cutthroat competition show where week by week viewers would vote for their favorite contestants out of 101 boys. That’s why it’s called Produce 101. At the end of the season, the top 11 would become a boy band called Wanna1. That’s W-A-N-N-A-1.
Yoohyun Jung: Something about voting for someone every week and watching them get so emotional over whether they were going to make it made me feel like I was responsible for their success. People were literally campaigning for their picks like they would for political candidates.
Audio: [Korean 00:41:33].
Yoohyun Jung: This contestant is thanking his supporters for voting for him. When the contestant I was voting for got picked in the end, I felt like I had a hand in it.
Audio: Altogether, let’s shout, “We love you, Wanna1!” One, two, three …
Audio: We love you, Wanna1!
Yoohyun Jung: None of this would be fun without other people, and it’s so easy to bond with others who love the same thing as you do. There are massive networks of communities surrounding K-pop.
Yoohyun Jung: To me, the fandom was like a doorway to Korea. Every time I checked out of real life and went online to see what was going on there, I would be tuning into Korean culture and talking about Korean things. Mostly, I was just so excited to speak Korean again.
Audio: [Korean 00:42:16].
Yoohyun Jung: I really crossed the point of no return when I went to see Wanna1 perform in person. In the summer of 2017, Produce 101 had ended, and the 11 boys selected from the show were finally going to make their debut. It turned out that the band’s first public appearance was going to be in the US at a K-pop convention in Los Angeles called KCON. Obviously, it was fate. There was absolutely no way I wasn’t going.
Yoohyun Jung: (singing)
Yoohyun Jung: KCON was awesome. Wanna1 was awesome. I was having a great time. But then there were also moments when I was starting to feel like, “Wait a minute. This is kind of shady.” Every single thing was commodified to the max. K-pop has figured out this formula for making money, and it’s been chemically engineered to make you crave more and more, like fast food. Everything is for sale: music, merchandise, even an artist’s time.
Audio: Oh, my god.
Yoohyun Jung: For instance at KCON, organizers were selling cheaply-made merchandise for a chance to meet Wanna1. I’m talking about things like banners, fans and light sticks, things that no one was ever going to use. And the more you bought, the higher the chance you had, but there was no guarantee. So fans were lining up in droves to spend thousands of dollars on garbage.
Yoohyun Jung: Even after feeling uncomfortable about that experience, I still went to Wanna1 concerts and spent a ton of money buying random, useless stuff to get into fan events. That’s what you do when you’re addicted; you lose control.
Yoohyun Jung: Then in 2018, I moved back to Korea for family reasons. Later, I got a job working for a K-pop radio program. I was like, “Sweet. I’ll get to see K-pop idols all the time.” I did, and it was totally cool for a while. I’d walk in the building and literally Super Junior would be in the elevator.
Yoohyun Jung: (singing)
Yoohyun Jung: Remember I said I liked them in high school? Yeah, well, they’re in the elevator. Another perk was getting tickets to TV shows where K-pop acts promote their latest music.
Audio: [Korean 00:44:43].
Yoohyun Jung: At the end of the show, all the different groups come out on stage, and they announce the number one artist of the week to congratulate them.
Audio: [Korean 00:44:50].
Yoohyun Jung: There was one week where all the artists came out at the end, and the whole stage was bright and pink. Everybody’s cheering the winner. I realize all the young people are just props for the grown-ups, and the goal was to make huge amounts of money off of them. And I’m one of those people who’s making a living from these kids. It reminded me very much of a puppet show.
Yoohyun Jung: It’s hard to reconcile that kind of experience with also being a fan and a consumer. Now that I knew how the sausage was made, I couldn’t help but feel icky about what I was buying. Being a fan started to become not very fun, and there were some truly miserable moments, especially as I attended more Wanna1 concerts all over Asia. But the experience that really took the cake was in Malaysia.
Audio: [foreign language 00:45:46].
Yoohyun Jung: I think the event company overbooked the show. Thousands of people were trapped in these two standing sections that were not meant for that many people. It’s hot and humid, and even before the show begins, I’m looking around at all these petite Malaysian teens and women who already look like they’re going to faint.
Yoohyun Jung: Then, boom, the music starts and the fans in the back start pushing. People in the front who are already squished to the max are now passing out. I’m near the front row, screaming my head off for help. I make eye contact with one of the Wanna1 members, and I remember seeing this horrified look on his face.
Yoohyun Jung: They stopped the show. The band is now asking people to please be safe. But then these girls who are on the verge of passing out, they were screaming not to be taken out. Like, “No, please let me stay.” They didn’t want to miss the chance to see their idols.
Yoohyun Jung: The funny thing is, the event company still carried out this extra meet and greet event after the concert. You’d think they’d have shut the whole thing down, but no. These idols were products, and we were going to consume them as scheduled because money had been paid for their services. They still had to smile, look cute and do the whole K-pop idol thing.
Yoohyun Jung: I was still excited to see them up close, but when I finally did, I saw that they were exhausted and horrified. I think I said to them, “Are you okay?” It was clear to me that they weren’t.
Yoohyun Jung: Even if there isn’t a disaster like this one, it’s common for K-pop idols to be overworked. They tour constantly. They sign contracts with companies that invest a ton of money in them from when they’re really young. The companies control everything about the artists’ lives, including what they eat, who their friends are, where they go to school.
Yoohyun Jung: But only a fraction of these idols make it big or even make enough money to break even. Some of them end up with mountains of debt to the companies they sign on with. Some artists end up struggling with mental health issues. At least three high-profile K-pop idols have died by suicide in recent years. Others make the news for different reasons, by being involved in crime. The charges and convictions range from DUIs, drug use, tax evasion and even sexual assault.
Yoohyun Jung: Those stories really got to me when I was working for the K-pop radio show. Part of idolizing something requires that you take the human out of it. But if you’re in the industry, you’re forced to see the human side of K-pop, which meant I couldn’t stay a willing customer. It took some time to give up being a fan, though. It helped that my favorite group, Wanna1, had a natural end. They disbanded in January, 2019, when their contract ended. I went to the final concert, mostly for my own closure.
Yoohyun Jung: Then there was a revelation this year that the votes and rankings for the entire Produce 101 franchise were rigged. The show’s top producer, Ahn Joon-young, ended up going to prison. To think that the thing you were so addicted to was a fraud, that ought to sober you up.
Yoohyun Jung: I still love K-pop in all its glory: the catchy music, the dance routines and the flash music videos. It’ll always be that thing that connects me to my culture. But you can love something without letting it change you. There are people out there who are counting on you to lose control and turn over your bank accounts, like I did.
Yoohyun Jung: (singing)
Al Letson: Yoohyun Jung is a data journalist living in Hawaii. She’s also a musician and scored some of the music in this story.
Al Letson: Our lead producer for this week’s show is Katharine Mieszkowski. She had help this week from Ike Sriskandarajah and Taki Telonidis edited the show. Thanks to Reveal’s Andy Donohue, Soo Oh and Melissa Lewis. Victoria Baranetski is our general counsel. Our production manager is Amy Mostafa.
Al Letson: Score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo, Arruda. They had help today from [Amita Ganatra 00:50:35]. Brett Simpson is our production assistant. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Matt Thompson is our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Kamarado, Lightning.
Al Letson: Support for Reveal’s provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.
Audio: From PRX.