"I do things honestly," the scalper was saying. "Not like this."
"This" was the situation at the Wabash Avenue Tower Records early in the morning on a Saturday a few weeks ago. At 8 AM tickets for Bruce Springsteen's acoustic performance at the Rosemont Theatre were to go on sale. The scalper, like a lot of the Bruce Springsteen fans in attendance, was a bit perturbed to see that an ambitious competitor had gone the extra mile that morning. The lineup was supposed to have been determined by a random-number drawing administered by Tower employees. But where most of the fans wanting to buy tickets were Lincoln Park professional types, the first 25 people in line were mostly down-and-out-looking men, the stand-ins of choice for scalpers. The crowd and the scalper had jumped to what seemed an obvious conclusion: someone had compromised the drawing, perhaps with help from an insider at Tower.
"I do it fairly," contended the scalper, who calls himself Mike. To him "fairly" means hiring helpers but depending on their sheer numbers and the luck of the draw to score some tickets. "I just bring a lot of people. I ask my friends too--anyone I can get," Mike said.
Mike is one of two people involved in scalping tickets I've had conversations with lately. Given the circumstances under which I spoke to them--they requested anonymity--I can't vouch for the truth of anything they said, but I thought their views might be worth passing along. Mike is obviously a pro. He had a wad of money an inch or two thick from which he peeled off bills for his stand-ins in line. He got into the business, he said, about six years ago, when a big rock tour came through town. "I just kind of fell into it," he said. "I had some extra tickets and I sold them and it just progressed." He now makes a more than decent living dealing in tickets for concerts, sports events, Monet, you name it. His biggest sale: a 50-yard-line Super Bowl ticket he bought for $1,850 and turned around for $2,250.
From Mike's perspective the bad guy in the ticket-selling business isn't Ticketmaster or the scalpers but the promoter, Jam Productions. "They hold back 75 percent of the good seats," he contended. "It's all politics. They're for the people who know someone from Jam or the owners [of the venue]." The Bruce Springsteen sale that day was a perfect example, he said. "They went to the balcony [i.e., sold the available floor seats] in six or seven minutes and then took half an hour to sell out." He said the scalpers, or brokers, "are fighting over nothing. They're fighting over the crumbs. If they didn't hold back seats, there would be enough for everybody."
"That's a total bunch of crap," Jam partner Jerry Mickelson told me. "Jam had 50 tickets [for the show]. The building had 50, and the record company and group had tickets."
Soon after speaking with Mike, I got an anonymous call from someone who said he worked at a store with a Ticketmaster operation but wouldn't identify himself further. "Doug" said that store employees like himself can make $4 to $10 for each ticket they get to a scalper. The money is generally worth the risk, he said. The risk? "If something does come down," he noted, "the scalper is still around, but you're out of a job."
"What usually happens is that the person who's working for [the store or Ticketmaster] pulls the [randomization] tickets early to give to a broker," Doug said. "Then the broker will hopefully be a little more subtle than just blatantly hand the tickets out [to his helpers]. The people who already have the tickets get in line, draw their random ticket, switch them, and then they're first in line."
As Doug indicates, the randomization procedures the stores use to stop people from camping out in line overnight have become the new challenge to scalpers. Stores also use wristbands. Fans are required to come in and get numbered wristbands (the tough plastic ones like many clubs use to identify those of drinking age) the day before an early-morning sale. The stores are supposed to attach the wristbands to each fan's wrist to ensure that each customer gets only one.
Mike took issue with my column about the wristband sale of Grateful Dead tickets at the Merchandise Mart Carson Pirie Scott early last August. He said that my story implied that Carson's personnel were in on the scam and that that's not true. "They're clean," he said. (For the record, my story didn't imply that the Carson's employees were in on anything, just that they let scalpers abuse prominently posted rules.)
Doug explained how the wristband scam works. "It's easy. You just give the scalper the first 100 wristbands. Then you can draw a supposedly random number, like 80, and he'll still get the first 20 tickets."
"It's so flagrant," he said. "People are always screwing up, walking up as they put their wristbands on, and nobody does anything about it."
I asked Doug--whose tales, I again have to note, I have no way of confirming--why he does it. "Well, you can just about get double what you get paid at the store," he said. You mean for the day? I asked. "No, for the week," he replied. "You know, these people only get paid $5 to $10 an hour. If you're getting that much for each ticket you sell to a scalper, you can double your income."