By Nick Grasso
Spring 2020 JRN 205
Joe Villasana’s $641 vanished into the ether of the live entertainment industry.
He splurged for a ticket to see Rage Against the Machine at the 12,000 seat Don Haskins Center in El Paso, Texas, but the band’s reunion tour has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Villasana pleaded for a refund from two Ticketmaster representatives, but they thwarted his efforts. Instead, the pair ingrained in him their company’s new policy: “Ticketmaster cannot issue a refund until the concert is cancelled.”
“$641 is a lot of money,” Villasana said, “I would rather have that money in my bank account instead of in limbo.”
Villasana is a victim of the struggle between concert goers and promoters that will scar the live music industry for years to come. Concert goers like Villasana need their money back as 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment in the coronavirus’ wake. But internationally renowned arenas and ramshackle clubs must eschew refunds to keep the lights on while their seats are empty. If Ticketmaster and venue owners refund all the money they earned from now postponed shows, the live music industry could go bankrupt.
This dilemma has devastating repercussions. Live music is a $10 billion industry, entertaining over 100 million attendees every year and employing thousands of unsung sound and lighting engineers, drivers, and hospitality workers. It is also the primary source of income for musicians, as recorded and streamed music is a loss leader more promotional than profitable.
Essentially what [these] companies are telling consumers is that they want consumers to float them for a long time, no interest loan, with no date on when they should expect to be repaid, or for the services they paid for to be provided.John Breyault, National Consumers League representative
As the coronavirus inundated the economy, ticket holders awaited automatic refunds. “I kind of assumed that’s what was going to happen,” Richard Perazzo said. He spent $560 for two tickets to Mega Mezcla, an annual concert over 17,000 people attend to celebrate Latino music, which has been rescheduled for August 29. Ticketmaster recently declared that they would begin offering refunds for postponed shows after May 1 as new dates are scheduled, but has not offered Perazzo his money back at this time.
John Breyault, a representative of the National Consumers League, advocates for the millions of ticket holders who expected returns as the pandemic loomed overhead. He believes ticket sellers should “provide refunds to consumers automatically, whether the show is cancelled or postponed or rescheduled.”
Breyault staunchly opposes Ticketmaster, which reportedly updated its refund policy just as the economic repercussions of the pandemic started to unfold in the United States. “Essentially what [these] companies are telling consumers,” he said, “is that they want consumers to float them a long term, no interest loan, with no date on when they should expect to be repaid, or for the service they paid for to be provided.”
Ticketmaster’s claim that it will unveil refunds when new dates are set is a “half measure,” according to Breyault. He cites the current predicament of Taylor Swift fans as an example. “Taylor Swift has said she’s not going to tour until 2021, so for consumers that purchased tickets to her shows that are postponed, they’re still in the lurch. Ticketmaster is still holding onto their money because no dates have been set for the new shows yet.”
Their money idles in a complicated supply chain that merely begins with Ticketmaster. From there, the money travels to venues, concert promotors, management firms and eventually, performers.
Rick Eberle, former owner of the Crazy Donkey club and current CEO of the Rick Eberle Agency, has experience in many sectors of the music industry, including Goliaths like Live Nation. He suggests that refunds can only be determined by the venues due to rescheduling and accounting. Popular venues with a larger revenue stream “may be able to very easily backtrack and give those refunds. [For] other ones, it may be difficult to do that, especially for the Mom and Pops.”
We did make some deposits on shows which were not recoverable. We hope to try to put some of those deposits towards our next bookings with these shows. So, it’s surely a significant loss for the center.Alan Inkles, director of SBU Staller Center for the Arts
If independent venues had to refund all their customers – especially before a presumably light summer season – they may have to close shop. “I don’t have any money to give them really, except when we go on sale and I sell new tickets,” said Michael “Eppy” Epstein. He owns My Father’s Place, a small independent club of legend during the ’70s and ’80s that reopened in Roslyn, NY, thirty minutes outside of New York City, in 2018.
Epstein controls a one-man customer service department from his home office and cajoles his customers to stand by My Father’s Place while he rebooks three months of shows. He cajoles his customers and says he has retained 97% of his ticket sales. “If on the rescheduled dates you can’t make it cause you got to go to a bar mitzvah, or your grandchild’s birthday party, or your grandmother’s wake, then we’ll give you your money back,” he said. “But I’m not going to do that without coercing you or pleading with you to look at what else is on the website that you might want to see.”
A handful of venues, including Stony Brook University’s Staller Center for the Arts, a nonprofit 60 miles east of Manhattan, cancelled the remainder of their spring shows and automatically refunded ticket holders. Alan Inkles, the Director of the Staller Center, described the decision as “the cleanest way to go,” but acknowledges that it was imperfect, and is not practical for every venue. He endured what he considers “tough negotiations” with various artists and bookers.
“We did make some deposits on shows which were not recoverable” Inkles said. “We hope to try to put some of those deposits towards our next bookings with these shows. So, it’s surely a significant loss for the center.”
Eberle believes the biggest factor jumbling refund disputes is that “there’s no industry standard that someone has to uphold.” The scramble for revenue and refunds may draw the live music industry into a precarious future. “I don’t know if it’ll ever recover,” Eberle said.