WASHINGTON — JEFF AMENT, the bassist for the Seattle rock group Pearl Jam, remembers what it was like to be a teenager with a favorite band, but with no money to see the band play.
Today, Pearl Jam is billed as America's hottest act, and Mr. Ament and his fellow band members are trying to enable more of their fans to see their favorite band without emptying their pockets. ``I don't want to become something I despised as a kid,'' he says.
In an unusual case for competition, Pearl Jam has asked the United States Department of Justice to investigate Ticketmaster, the nation's largest ticket-distribution company, on antitrust charges, as the band tries to force the industry to lower concert-ticket prices.
At issue is choice, testified Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard before the House subcommittee on Information, Justice, Transportation, and Agriculture last Thursday.
``We do not want to force Ticketmaster to do business on our terms, but we believe we should have the freedom to go elsewhere if Ticketmaster is not prepared to negotiate terms that are acceptable to both of us. That is the essence of competition,'' he said, speaking before the committee in a peach linen shirt and black velvet shorts.
Ticketmaster president Fred Rosen, however, says the band tried to force the company to set its service fee at $1.80 so the band could charge $18 and keep the total price below $20. He says Ticketmaster only makes 10 cents per ticket sold, and that's not much, considering the work involved.
Music-industry insiders also say Ticketmaster ``kicks back'' some money it makes from service fees to promoters and venues, so as to encourage them to keep doing exclusive business with the company. Ticketmaster denies these accusations.
But the music industry, including Pearl Jam, does concede that Ticketmaster does a good job, using a highly sophisticated computer system that allows workers to sell out an arena show in 15 minutes.
Mr. Rosen maintains that there is competition, citing the Home Shopping Network as an example. But Pearl Jam, in trying to plan a summer tour without using Ticketmaster, found the task nearly impossible. The band's choices were either to use Ticketmaster or to sell the tickets themselves. Selling tickets themselves and setting up shows at arenas that did not have exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster proved to be too much work. Playing in ``nontraditional'' venues - like fairgrounds - required the band to ``build the venue from the ground up,'' adding its own security and bathrooms, Gossard said.
Working with Ticketmaster, however, proved undesirable to Pearl Jam because the company's $3.25 service charge pushed ticket prices over the band's $20 limit.
Unable to recover from the dispute in time to organize a summer tour, the band had to cancel tour plans altogether.
As a result, no one gets what he or she wants. Pearl Jam won't play this summer or make money through summer of '94 concerts.
Ticketmaster, meanwhile, misses out on selling millions of tickets to shows that would have been guaranteed moneymakers. Promoters and venues lose the revenue - in concessions, ticket and T-shirt sales, and added business to local establishments like restaurants and hotels - a band such as Pearl Jam brings in. Finally, consumers will not have the chance to see the band perform in a live concert this summer.
The Justice Department now has to decide what to do with a problem it may have helped create. In 1991, the department agreed that a Ticketmaster buyout of its main competition, Ticketron, would not violate antitrust laws. The buyout effectively eliminated all of Ticketmaster's major competition. Pearl Jam filed its complaint against Ticketmaster in early May.
Other ways to buy tickets do exist. A consumer can go to the box office, but that is often inconvenient. Tickets are usually only on sale the first day they are offered or the day of the show.
Ticketmaster's highest service fee has been $15 on a $350 ticket. An average Ticketmaster fee is $4 per ticket. If the customer buys over the phone, Ticketmaster adds $2 plus another $2 for shipping.