Topic 8: Don't leave home for a concert without it

Debate Question: Is this corporate arrangement ethical?

Source: Star-Ledger

Don't leave home for a concert without it - Arts center deal gives AmEx holders priority
BY MARK MUELLER Star-Ledger Staff
Star-Ledger Staff
Wednesday, April 24, 2002

In a new marketing arrangement that strikes a discordant note with some music fans and consumer advocates, the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel is giving holders of American Express cards an exclusive first shot at tickets for dozens of concerts during the upcoming season.

Industry observers call the deal the most far-reaching marriage yet between a concert venue and a corporate sponsor in restricting early access to tickets.

Others call the agreement simply unfair, saying it could relegate the less well-off -- or those who hold different credit cards -- to the proverbial cheap seats. The critics say the policy is particularly troublesome because the arts center, while leased by a publicly traded company, is owned by the state.

"It just doesn't seem fair," said Ev Liebman, assistant program director at NJ Citizen Action, a state watchdog agency. "It sounds like it could end up giving preferential treatment to people who might be considered well-heeled at the expense of others. People should have access to those tickets whether they have an American Express card or not, particularly at a state facility."

Under the deal, announced with little fanfare on the arts center's Web site, American Express cardholders will get exclusive access to tickets from May 1 to May 3. The remaining tickets go on sale to the general public May 4.

Jim Steen, a spokesman for Clear Channel Entertainment, the company that runs the Monmouth County amphitheater, said the policy will apply to the majority of summer concerts, or about 30 to 35 shows. The full concert lineup will be announced April 30.

Steen, who would not disclose the financial terms of the arrangement between Clear Channel and American Express, defended the deal, saying fans won't be cheated.

"Theoretically, a show could sell out. However, it's very unlikely," he said. "We're the largest concert promoter in the country, and we have more experience with pre-sale than anyone else, and we think the possibility of someone not being able to purchase tickets because they don't have an American Express card is very small."

Working on behalf of the general public, Steen said, is a provision that about half the bands who play the arts center have in their contracts. That provision requires that some premium tickets be held back for the public regardless of marketing arrangements.

In addition, Steen said, Clear Channel hasn't yet made a final determination on whether to save some seats for the general public on its own.

He called the kind of arrangement between Clear Channel and American Express an increasingly common one in the industry over the past three years.

Clear Channel, which signed a 20-year lease with the arts center in 1996, instituted the same policy for about a dozen concerts at the venue in 1998, Steen said. Applying the American Express pre-sale preference to most of the arts center's concerts is simply an expansion of that effort, he said.

Steen also said pre-sale exclusives have been offered by bands, radio stations and fan clubs.

Industry observers acknowledge the increasing use of such marketing deals, but they say it is hardly usual for a single facility to give a select group of people first shot at so many shows.

"It's certainly not a common practice," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of Pollster, a trade magazine. "I can imagine this will put off some people who don't have an American Express card. It might not affect the Barry Manilow fans, but if any of those shows appeal to young kids, they're probably not going to have those cards.

"It remains to be seen how much flak they're going to get from this promotion. I hope they're being paid well."

Joe Koeberl, 18, an employee at Morristown ticket-seller Scotti's Records, said he expects complaints will roll in once the public learns about the policy.

"It's probably going to upset a good amount of people," Koeberl said. "It takes away the good seats, and all you have left is lawn seats."

The open-air arts center, with space for 17,500, has 7,000 seats. The remaining patrons spread out on the lawn.

Liebman, of NJ Citizen Action, said she believes the state Division of Consumer Affairs should review the corporate arrangement to make sure it's equitable. Reached late yesterday, a Consumer Affairs spokeswoman did not immediately comment.

Last modified: Wed Sep 13 14:57:24 EDT 2000