Ticketmaster Refunds Fees That ‘Sickened’ The Cure

“This is all thanks to Robert Smith.”

Ticketmaster made sure fans of The Cure knew who was responsible for the few bucks that bounced back to their bank accounts this week in the email alerting ticket buyers that they were on the winning end of an unprecedented moment in the live industry.

But let’s go back to the beginning. 

The English rock legends said they wanted to keep prices reasonable for their forthcoming tour. They put strict resale and transferability limits on the tickets for the 30-stop North American trek and many tickets, even for lower-cap venues, could be had for $20 and were rarely more than $50.

The tickets themselves, that is.

As the tour’s onsale proceeded, many fans took to social media to note that combined fees and charges could often be higher than the ticket price. One viral post showed four tickets for $20 each with more than $92 in fees added on. The Cure frontman Robert Smith, in his all-caps manner, tweeted “I am as sickened as you all are by today’s Ticketmaster ‘fees’ debacle. To be very clear: the artist has no way to limit them. I have been asking how they are justified. If I get anything coherent by way of an answer I will let you all know.”

Acknowledging that seeing The Cure for $43 per seat, as was the case in the aforementioned viral example, is completely reasonable, and, simultaneously, that shock at paying $43 for tickets promised at $20 is also completely reasonable, there’s a pretty straightforward explanation for the seemingly extravagant fees. Fees aren’t ad valorem, like most taxes are. They’re flat. Anyone who’s found a sweet secondary market or last-minute deal on sports tickets is aware of the phenomenon. Perhaps a seat can be had for $5. But the fees are the same as if the ticket was $500. In the first instance, $25 raises the price 500 percent; in the second, an extra $25 is meaningless.

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In all likelihood, here’s what happened with The Cure: the venues, the promoter and, yes, Ticketmaster, used a boilerplate fee schedule.

“Most of the time you build a fee schedule, which dictates what the fee breakout is between promoter, ticketing company and other fees at various price points.  In my experience, it’s literally a spreadsheet that has columns for ticket prices, promoter rebates, ticket company fees, credit card processing, final cost to consumer, etc.  That then gets programmed into the system,” veteran ticketing and marketing consultant Mike Mauer says.

The fee structure, in fact, appears to be the basic model for lawn tickets at Live Nation owned and operated sheds, sources tell Pollstar

Maybe it’s business as usual, rather than an oversight or malign, and they hoped no one would notice. But notice they did.

Smith tweeted March 18 that the ticketing giant “agreed” the fees are “unduly high” and that refunds of $5 or $10 per ticket would be forthcoming.

Ticketmaster has often defended the fee structure that so commonly irritates fans. In a February blog post, the company said it doesn’t “control or keep most fees,” saying the charges are largely set and retained by venues to recoup costs associated with putting on shows and that lowering those fees could result in higher face-value ticket prices as venues would charge higher rent. Most of the fees, as Mauer claims, ultimately end up back with the promoter. In this case, that’s Live Nation, of course, which means the refunds issued by Ticketmaster are those that would have ended up with its corporate parent in the end. Ticketmaster did not respond to requests for comment.

Smith was plainly not exactly right when he said “the artist has no way to limit” fees, since that’s exactly what transpired. Ticketmaster said as much in the email. Nor was Ticketmaster being deceitful.

In the post-“Eras” era — anything after the disastrous onsale for Taylor Swift’s return to stadiums, a world-changing watershed moment for ticketing, at least until the  next one — Ticketmaster has repeatedly, sometimes exasperatedly, insisted it can accommodate virtually any request an artist makes. 

What The Cure is demonstrating — or, more cynically, what Ticketmaster is allowing The Cure to take credit for — is that artists really do hold a tremendous power, just as Ticketmaster said all along.

It’s evidence they can point to the next time they are hauled in front of policymakers or when the public gets a mean case of the reds: we just do what the artist wants.

It’s all thanks to Robert Smith.