Diary of a Ticket Scalper

I wrote this article for a newspaper in New York City called the New York Press back in the mid-nineties. It was before I came across this whole Internet marketing thing, and I had hopes of becoming a newspaper writer.

It’s some hackneyed link-bait (well, Letter to the Editor bait back them), but also a fun trip back in time to where I learn lots of things that were later applied to affiliate marketing.

Scalping ticketsMy first time, it was an exhilarating combination of anxiety, thrill and guilt. I felt like somebody was playing with a Slinkee in my stomach. Everything seemed as though it was moving in slow motion as I asked them to come with me. It was a mother and daughter. It was Bon Jovi during the “Slippery When Wet Tour” at the Capital Center in Landover, MD where I made my first ticket sale.

The wild excitement of the transaction left me breathless. This was before I assumed a morality about scalping, so I more or less pulled off an underhanded bait and switch on the unsuspecting concert-goers.

As I approached the two, they told me that they were interested in upgrading their tickets, which were located in section 128 (lower level, behind the floor). Quickly viewing my tickets, I told them that I would give them my two best tickets for their tickets, plus $50. Gratefully, they made the deal with me. I neglected to inform them that my two best tickets, section 101 (lower level, behind the floor), were slightly worse than their seats.

That day, I came to realize that I committed a huge faux pas in the ticket industry. It was quickly imparted upon me that it is not only immoral to deceive, but also dangerous. Granted, these two individuals were not likely to seek me out for redemption. But, there are some people that may not be quite so gracious about being duped. After a couple of scare stories, I decided to go straight.

There is a certain honor and mutual respect among the street hustlers, not unlike that of the major business conglomerates. In deference to my fellow “ticket re-sale entrepreneurs,” I engage in a practice akin to the anti-trust laws of big business. Basically, the sellers from the various ticket brokerage houses converge in order to reach common, fixed prices. It is quite improper to undercut a competitors prices.

Die Scalper Scum!
He wore hypocrisy like it were a fire-brand. A misplaced hate was evident in the blood-shot eyes as he charged towards me with a small, frayed sticker. I was startled and uneasy when I finally focused on the profound statement of the mangy waif. The bumper sticker read: Die Scalper Scum!

It was a steamy, mid-summer Sunday in Washington as I peddled my wares in the areas surrounding RFK Stadium. That time of the year, again… the Grateful Dead were in town with their traveling parking lot sideshow – the Deadheads.

It’s funny, you would think that these folks would appreciate me. Hell, the concert was sold out and here I was bearing the precious tickets. Such was not the case. Not only did these Bohemian strays fail to exhibit any respect towards my trade, they had a downright disdain for me.

Perhaps I just do not understand. On one hand, they embrace the capitalist spirit. The parking lot scene is a marketplace with every conceivable item for the modern nomad: Guatemalan blankets, import beers, kind bud, t-shirts, and humus. All available in exchange for cash-money.

But then on the other hand, there is deep-seeded hatred for the scalper. It truly escapes me, these Deadheads assault me with epithets and beer cans because I dare make profit in their sanctuary. Then they turn around and charge a buck or two for some anti-scalping bumper stickers that cost them a few pennies each. What’s the difference, brother? All people are equal, but Deadheads are more equal!?

Moonlighting as a Scalper
Scalping. I worked for a licensed ticket broker when I lived in Maryland, but that wasn’t my only job. Like many “20-somethings,” I was also working a straight, 40-hr week office job. But, since the grind of pushing paper in an entry-level position doesn’t pay the salary to support my wants and needs, I found it necessary to supplement my income. Hence, my second job in the entertainment business.

I’m sure you all remember the scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High where two kids are trying to buy some hot Van Halen seats from Damone. When one kid states that he doesn’t want to pay the increase in price, his pal states, “C’mon Arnold, all the other scalpers are sold out!” Damone quickly retorts, “SCALPER! Did you call me a scalper? Listen gentlemen, I perform a service here, and this service costs money. Now, do you want the tickets or don’t you?”

The point here is that the broker, hustler, scalper or whatever is providing an invaluable service to the consumer. As with any other marketable commodity, a subsequent “convenience fee” is passed along to the buyer. Those who invest time and money in the ticket business are on a roller coaster ride, and depending on the whim of the fans during a particular year, a perennial seller could be a bust.

Why Don’t Some People Like Scalpers?
Oddly, there is an anti-scalping contingency out among the teeming masses. Sure, there are plenty of sensible consumers out there, but for every good American, there is a societal tumor… the guy who doesn’t tip the bartender, he sneers at children and puppies, and he hates scalpers. As I would ply my trade, I had come to expect a portion of the population to attack me with various indignations. Over time, I managed to develop a thick skin and tolerant nature towards the frustrated and ignorant.

A couple of summers back, I was dealing my tickets at the annual Jimmy Buffett shows. The rains poured down in a non-stop deluge. Under the guise of a dedicated “Parrothead” (Buffett fan), I roamed the parking lot with a water-logged sign which read, “I need two tickets . . . PLEASE!” As you may imagine, people were anxious to get out of the rain, so they were giving me their tickets for $5 and $10 each. Being that it was a sold-out event, I quickly parlayed the tickets for prices up to ten times what I had paid.

After a short term of observation, a few rain-soaked alcoholics had caught on to my financial capers. As they considered Buffett some sort of twisted religion, they viewed me as the anti-Buffett; some type of man/monster that would openly engage in commerce to directly profit off of their obsession. Suddenly, this legion of furious drunks confronted me and mumbled, among other things, that they were going to kick my ass. Fortunately, some more sensible drunks came to my defense before I was attacked by the vigilant “Parrotheads.” Thus far, I have managed to rely on my quick wit to fend off the occasional misanthrope, but my mace is ever present.

Another risk of the buyer/seller is the possibility of cancellation for a concert or sporting event. A perfect example is the Great Baseball Strike of 94/95. Do you think the fans were the only losers in this whole debacle? Think again. Brokers have damn near drowned in all of the lost revenue. Sure, the tickets could be refunded, but that is minus the service charge. While the lost surcharge may not affect Joe Average, it certainly adds up when your coffers are filled with tickets numbering in the thousands.

And then there is the topic of how the ticket seller obtains the tickets. Quite frankly, they get them the same way that everybody else does… they sleep out for them.

The Price I Pay
In my quest for the golden ticket, I have put up with all types of hell and circumstance from New York to South Carolina. There have been occasions (U2, Stones, Springsteen, Dead) when my friends and I would go out for up to five days straight, so that we could secure the front spots in line at multiple TicketMaster locations. I wouldn’t figure that the average fan would care to embark on one of these adventures. Fortunately, the homeless folk are generally willing to work for an evening or two in exchange for twenty bucks and a bottle of Cisco.

Through my countless ticket buying trips, I’ve slept on many a sidewalk. Of course, when it was raining or snowing, the front seat of the car has been a more appropriate alternative. Bear in mind, the majority of these waits have occurred in the inner-city. Actually, I am able to claim the dubious honor of having slept on the streets of two American cities which were the per-capita “murder capitals of the country” at the time of my visits (Washington, DC & Richmond, VA).

Fighting chronic back pain and boredom, the diet generally consisted of cold pizza and hot Coke. This combination is not very pleasant when you figure that there usually aren’t any 24-hour rest rooms at the local TicketMaster. Just imagine for a moment… you’re squatting in the marvelous ambiance of a dark alley, a marinate of garbage and urine hangs heavily in the air.

The Charmin is squeezed firmly in your left hand, while your right hand is for balance, the only thing between you and the toilet. The longer it takes, the more your legs shake from balancing in the odd position. Not too many roaches, that’s because of all the hungry rats that infest your living quarters. Yet some characters, in their glorious sanctimony, have the gall to complain about a mild mark up?

When I think about it, I always wonder why the act of marking up the price of a ticket breeds such intense hatred in both people and Deadheads. The logistics of the market are quite basic. So long as there is a portion of the population that would rather pay a graduated price than wait out for tickets, there shall remain a seller’s market. To seek the bastards that perpetuate the continuation and livelihood of the scalper, you invariably need not look farther than your best friend, your cousin… your hypocritical mirror.

What it all comes down to is that the guy on the street that is hustling tickets is providing a service, and as Damone from Fast Times said, that service costs money. Most assuredly, there is a reasonable degree of overhead in this business and the cost is inevitably going to be passed on to the consumer. In the immortal words of U.S. economist Milton Friedman, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”