Ticketmaster has been under fire of late--from two members of the rock group Pearl Jam, who charged at congressional hearings in late June that the ticket service gouged performers and concert fans with high service charges; from the Justice Department, which claims to be "looking into the possibility of anti-competitive practices in the ticket industry"; and from music fans in several states, who've accused the company of a variety of sins in class-action lawsuits. But few of Ticketmaster's critics may be angrier than Janet Esty.
Esty staged her first Colorado Indian Market and Western Art Roundup in 1982 and since that time has overseen twenty similar (and generally successful) events in the Denver-Boulder area. But her 21st function, dubbed Colorado SummerFest and held June 24-26 at the Aurora Public Market, was a disaster, drawing fewer than 1,500 people in spite of a vigorous advertising plan and impressive entertainers who came from as far away as New Zealand. And while Esty, who was expecting a throng of 20,000 to 30,000 people, is still looking into exactly what went wrong, she feels certain that she knows where the problems started. "It was virtually impossible to get tickets through Ticketmaster in advance or during the event," she says. "I find it hard to believe that they were so incompetent."
In response, Ticketmaster of Colorado general manager Don Orris concedes that the service may have made some mistakes in regard to SummerFest but adds, "I don't think anything we could have done could have deterred 20,000 people from attending the event."
Colorado SummerFest was something of a departure for Esty. It was scheduled to be the first major festival staged at the new Stapleton Events Center, on the grounds of Stapleton International Airport. Because she was told she could use indoor space at Stapleton as well as the tarmac outside the airport's terminal, Esty determined that she'd need more than the two stages--one large, one small--that she employs for her Indian Markets. Thus, she obtained three full-size stages for SummerFest and booked far more than her usual number of artists. Her diverse lineup of performers eventually included the Lelooska Dancers, from Alaska, and the New Orleans-based Rebirth Brass Band.
By early 1994, however, it became clear that Stapleton would still be Denver's airport during the SummerFest weekend. So she moved the festival to the Aurora Public Market, a modern facility but one unfamiliar to many locals. Because of this change and the scope of the project, she decided that for the first time she would sell advance tickets through a ticketing service. She claims to have chosen Ticketmaster for this task simply because the company's name and logo appear in virtually every advertisement for public events.
Esty says her contract with Ticketmaster gave it exclusive rights and stipulated that the Ticketmaster phone number and logo appear in all advertising. The minimum service charge to which Esty says she reluctantly agreed was $1.75 on each $10 advance ticket. She set day-of-show ticket prices at $12.
SummerFest advertisements began appearing in local newspapers in mid-May, and shortly thereafter, Esty began calling the Ticketmaster number in order to reassure herself that the correct information was on the company's computers. She claims to have been startled at the result. "It took me forever to get through to them," Esty says, "and when I'd finally get through, I couldn't find out about the right event. Some operators told me it was taking place at Auraria. One even said it was at Bandimere Speedway." She adds that she didn't know until after she'd signed the contract that local Ticketmaster calls are answered in Los Angeles--by operators possibly unfamiliar with Denver-area venues--and that additional service and credit-card charges might be tacked on to tickets by sellers at some Ticketmaster outlets.
When Esty called her Ticketmaster rep to complain, she says, she was reassured that the correct information was in the computer and any errors would be corrected. But subsequent test calls proved just as problematic: Esty says she was told on more than one occasion that the festival was either sold out or canceled. And because Esty did not include another information number in her advertisements (she acknowledges that this was a miscalculation), potential fans had nowhere else to turn. A crowd less than a tenth the size that had been expected arrived on SummerFest's first day, and Esty says she was inundated with complaints about Ticketmaster.
By the next day Esty had passed out written statements to the festival artists that included her suspicion that difficulties with ticketing were behind the small turnout.
Just how many people were able to buy tickets through Ticketmaster is in dispute. Esty says only 171 tickets from the service were used, while Ticketmaster's Orris puts the total at approximately 500--"which is a pretty decent number when you consider that's about 33 percent of the total volume of the show." Orris says Ticketmaster responded promptly to each of Esty's complaints and conducted test calls of its own that found the vast majority of operators quizzed to have given accurate information about SummerFest. He adds that many other factors besides ticket problems could have contributed to the festival's flop: the new location, the complicated nature of the event, record heat that struck the city that weekend, the busy summer concert season and the wide variety of entertainment options other than SummerFest.
In regard to allegations that operators gave inaccurate venue information, Orris says that problem will be alleviated in September, when Ticketmaster's largest office outside Los Angeles will go on line in Denver; the start-up staff will number 160 operators, with room to expand to more than 200. In the meantime, he defends Ticketmaster's reputation for good service. "We're like any company--we make mistakes, and we're not perfect," he says. "But we think overall that we do what we do better than anyone else. Clients like Fey Concerts, Fiddler's Green and the Denver Nuggets are having or have had record seasons, and we think we had a part in that."
One of those clients, Barry Fey, of Fey Concerts, says he has had problems with Ticketmaster in the past. "We had a hell of a war with them when they wouldn't refund service charges on shows that were canceled in 1991," he says. "But most of that's been cleared up." He believes that Esty erred by not listing an information number other than Ticketmaster's in her advertisements, but he admits that the information given by the service's operators isn't always accurate.
Esty, meanwhile, is still steamed at the ticket service. "They seemed to be the experts," she says.
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