You Can't Always Get What You Want

Forty people -- including one New Times staff writer -- are standing in line at a Miami Beach drugstore early on this Saturday morning. They haven't come to get their prescriptions filled, though. Today is September 17, and at 10:00 a.m., throughout South Florida, Ticketmaster will begin selling the 45,000 tickets available for the upcoming Rolling Stones concert. Ninety minutes later, the show will have been sold out. For now, these 40 early risers are still hoping for the choicest seats.

It is likely that most of them intend to purchase the maximum allotment of twelve tickets per customer, and that they will shell out for the $50 seats rather than the $25 nosebleeds. It is equally likely that several of those present have no intention of attending the November 25 Voodoo Lounge tour date at Joe Robbie Stadium. On closer inspection, some of these people don't look like rock fans with fat wallets. They look like down-and-outers wondering where their next meal is coming from.

They're the ones working for the ticket brokers.
At nine o'clock a drugstore employee will dole out a numbered ticket to each person in line, then draw ten corresponding tickets, one at a time, from a box. This is the "random-distribution system," a lottery Ticketmaster employs for high-demand events. The ticket-holder with the first number gets to be first in line, and so forth. After the first five, the brokers are likely to lose interest: With 101 Ticketmaster outlets in South Florida, plus another 150 telephone operators standing by, the really good seats -- fewer than 10,000 altogether -- will be gone within a few minutes. (A Ticketmaster spokesman will later report that at one outlet in Hallandale, the top-priced tickets sold out in one minute flat. Here, at this Eckerd on Alton Road, they will last seven and one-half minutes.)

Todd Rubin, the 28-year-old part owner of Todd's Tickets and Steve's Seats in Hollywood, is a broker. Should any of his scruffily dressed representatives pull one of the top five lottery spots, Todd's will invest a large chunk of change, enough for each to purchase the twelve-ticket maximum, plus a commission (typically $50). Then the business, a licensed travel agency, will resell the tickets at prices ranging from $99 to $250.

Which, of course, is legal.
Florida Statutes Section 817.36 prohibits ticket scalping, making it a misdemeanor to sell a ticket for more than one dollar above its original price. Brokers get around the law by registering as travel agencies and then packaging tickets with other services -- delivery, dinner, a limo ride to and from the concert, et cetera.

Ticketmaster terminal operators say that some brokers attempt to bribe them. Mabel Pe*a, for instance, says that before the Stones show went on-line, she was offered $1000 to "pull tickets" A set aside the best seats. "I told them to get the hell out," says the petite, dark-eyed Eckerd manager. "Do you want to know what I really said?" she confides. "I said, 'Get the fuck out of my store before I have your ass arrested.'"

Though he refuses to divulge all his business secrets, Todd Rubin says his company steers far clear of such hanky-panky. Rubin does, however, admit to purchasing tickets -- often at prices above face value -- for resale. As the buyer in such transactions, he is operating within the law. The seller, however, is in murkier legal terrain. Still, according to Metro-Dade police, the chances of getting caught are slight. "A police officer can't arrest on a misdemeanor unless it occurred in his presence. They'd have to sell the ticket to a police officer, says Bill Kinnebrew, a Metro officer.

"There's a false atmosphere around, that ticket brokers are making a killing. We very rarely get a ticket at face value," Rubin complains. The expenses associated with brokering add up, he asserts. What's more, he and other brokers are performing a public service: "We take from Ticketmaster what they deny to the general public -- good seats."

He does have a point there. These days the only people who seem to have anything nice to say about Ticketmaster are the people who work for Ticketmaster. The company, which has a de facto monopoly on ticket distribution in Florida and several other states, tacks a five-dollar "convenience charge" to every Stones ticket sold. An additional "processing fee" of 50 cents ($25 seats) or $1.50 ($50 seats) is attached to telephone ticket sales.

Critics, including the band Pearl Jam, have complained that such surcharges are tantamount to monopoly price fixing. Ticketmaster is now under investigation by the antitrust division of the Justice Department. Legislation that would require all distributors to clearly identify extra charges has been proposed in Congress. And class-action lawsuits against Ticketmaster are pending in at least eleven states, including Florida.

In the meantime, there's the lottery.
"I tell you, I got to be desperate to do this," says a woman waiting in line for Todd Rubin. Brokers commonly pay homeless people to stay in line overnight for tickets, at locations such as the Knight Center Ticketmaster outlet downtown. But those ticket sales are strictly first come, first served, so a spot at the front of the line guarantees pay dirt. "We try to stay away from [the lotteries]," the woman says with distaste. "They're not profitable."

And indeed, Todd's Tickets and Steve's Seats won't come away from this particular Eckerd with any booty for resale today; the broker's standees fail to draw a top lottery spot.

Who gets number one?
Put it this way: On the day after Thanksgiving, a whole lot of rock and rollers at JRS will be yelling, "Down in front!" Not us.

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Elise Ackerman