Louis CK’s Latest Scheme: Should Ticketmaster Worry?
Business + Economy

Louis CK’s Latest Scheme: Should Ticketmaster Worry?

REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Louis C.K. – the comic phenom who upended traditional business models by producing his own comedy special and selling it directly online – is at it again. C.K. announced yesterday that he’s selling tickets for his upcoming tour exclusively through his own website, bypassing usual outlets like Ticketmaster in much the same way he worked around companies like HBO with his downloadable film. Tickets will cost a fixed $45 for all dates, with no added fees or taxes. And C.K. threatened to void tickets resold by scalpers or resellers.

C.K.’s concert film proved to be a huge success – he said he broke even within 12 hours and took in $1 million in 12 days – and other comics soon followed his lead. If his upcoming tour is successful, as is expected, will other artists again follow suit? And if they do, what does it mean for Ticketmaster, which still reigns supreme over the ticketing industry?

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Even as upstart ticket sellers like Eventbrite, Ticketfly and Etix (which Louis C.K. brought on to help sell his tickets) have emerged in recent years, Ticketmaster (now owned by Live Nation) is still the Goliath, with more than 12,000 venues and promoters in its orbit. As of 2011, the company accounted for about 70 percent of all tickets sold for arenas, sporting events and music clubs nationwide (excluding season tickets). For the biggest stars and venues, that number is even higher.

It’s been quite some time since a major artist has challenged the company’s hold on the industry. But any music fan over the age of 30 knows this isn’t Ticketmaster’s first scuffle with an entertainer. The band Pearl Jam famously tried and failed to bring Ticketmaster to its knees in the 1994, when it filed an antitrust complaint against the company, angered by service charges that had been tacked on to ticket prices. The Justice Department ruled in Ticketmaster’s favor and after refusing its services, Pearl Jam subsequently had to cancel its 1995 tour. A few years later, the band came back to Ticketmaster and its groan-inducing fees, tail between its legs.

But that was before the Internet emerged as a potentially democratizing force in the ticketing industry. (Ticketmaster made its first online ticket sale in 1996.) Today, the barrier to entry to alternative means of selling tickets is virtually nil. If Louis C.K. exploits this new landscape successfully, he might upend the idea, reinforced by the Pearl Jam battle, that Ticketmaster is a necessary evil.

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Still, working around Ticketmaster will present plenty of challenges. For this tour, C.K. has been forced to get creative with his locations, scheduling more shows in smaller venues in order to get around the exclusivity deals that most of the largest venues have with Ticketmaster. Such deals have been attractive for venues, which often receive bonuses in the millions of dollars for signing them. But if more major artists decide to go it alone, the deals could eventually become more of a burden than they’re worth.

The comedian acknowledges that for now his approach will yield less money than if he’d stayed within the Ticketmaster fiefdom – for an entertainer of his stature, a handsome profit should still be in the bag, but it could take a few more financial windfalls to convince a broader swath of artists to strike out independently.

“My goal here is that people coming to see my shows are able to pay a fair price and that they be paying just for a ticket. Not also paying an exorbitant fee for the privilege of buying a ticket,” he wrote on his website.

For a guy who cracks up millions of people with his mocking quips, that’s an unusual jibe in that it’s made for a very specific audience of one.