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Michael Pollan On Cooking As A Spectator Sport
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in this week for Terry Gross.
Writer Michael Pollan has become something of a crusader for changing the way
we think about food in America. By growing and processing food on a massive
industrial scale and transporting it thousands of miles for consumption, Pollan
argues, weâre burning too much energy, damaging the environment and undermining
But lately, Pollan has been watching television, specially shows about food and
cooking, which he says are amazingly popular. In a cover piece for this weekâs
Sunday New York Times Magazine, Pollan explores an interesting paradox: While
we seem to love watching people cook on television, weâre cooking less
ourselves. The piece is titled, âOut of the Kitchen, On to the Couch.â
Well, Michael Pollan, welcome back to FRESH AIR. In this piece in this weekâs
Sunday Times Magazine, thereâs this amazing picture of the Julia Child set.
Remind us: What was unique and path-breaking about her cooking show?
Mr.Â MICHAEL POLLAN (Writer): Well, Julia Child came onto the air in 1963 on
WGBH in Boston. And there had been a couple cooking shows before that, but none
had really connected with the audience in a big way and had won so many fans.
Right from the start, people wrote in, saying they wanted more Julia, more
Julia. And she just had that way that some, you know, celebrities have of
connecting with people right through the camera. She was a natural and very
unstudied, and therefore, she felt very authentic to people. But, you know, the
mistakes were there. It was unscripted. It had kind of the feel, that anything-
could-happen feeling of live TV, even though it was taped, but it was uncut and
unedited. And indeed, she did drop things and make mistakes and lose her way
and sweat and have to wipe her brow with a paper towel. And so there was
something very real about it that people responded to, and I think they found
it very empowering.
DAVIES: You make the point that it was done without editing. So you had to wait
with her while the butter melted or, you know, the onions browned, andâ¦
Mr.Â POLLAN: You had this great sense of the duration of, you know, of what
really the rhythms of being in a kitchen were like. So while, you know, she was
waiting for the butter to stop sizzling, you know, you waited, too. And she
would just vamp and, you know, offer some kitchen tips and lore. And so you had
this sense of something unfolding right before your eyes and that sense we all
know of desultory chat in the kitchen was recreated in her show.
DAVIES: Now she, in effect, spawned a whole new genre of television, I mean,
the cooking show, which if we fast-forward, you know, four and a half decades,
has really taken off. And you make the point that there are a lot of different
kinds of cooking shows. What are some of the different kinds of shows and
personalities that we see?
Mr.Â POLLAN: Well, if you go through the day on the Food Network, youâll find
during the day, there really are a lot of shows that teach you how to cook.
Theyâre called dump-and-stir shows, because everybodyâs got their ingredients
in these little dishes and they dump them into the pot and stir them and add
another one. And youâve got Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee and, you know, all these
- mostly women - who are teaching you how to prepare.
In a way, theyâre very much the children of Julia, although I think their style
is very different and the kind of cooking they do is very different. Itâs all
about the shortcut. Itâs very impatient. It kind of assumes that we donât have
time to cook. So hereâs some tricks that allow you to appear to be putting a
fancy meal on the table, you know, in 20 minutes or something like that.
So I donât think they have the kind of conviction that Julia had, even though I
think theyâre probably useful to some people. And the Food Network has research
suggesting that people download the recipes after they watch the show. So they
may be trying to cook some of these.
Now as you go through the day, though, in primetime, you get a very different
kind of cooking show. And there are two, actually, in primetime. One is the
athletic cooking show. You know, youâve got âTop Chefâ over on Bravo. Youâve
got âIron Chef America.â Youâve got âChopped,â âThe Next Food Network Star.â
You have all these shows that are really, theyâre more like sports than
cooking, in fact. Theyâre competitive. Theyâre very macho, and I think thatâs a
very interesting thing about them.
I think one of the things that Food Network has done is has made the kitchen a
safe place for men by ramping up the testosterone. And, you know, you can argue
whether thatâs a good or bad thing, but I think anything that gets men in the
kitchen is a good thing.
The problem is, though, theyâre not exactly in the kitchen. Theyâre in the
Kitchen Stadium, where âIron Chef Americaâ takes place. And the way these shows
are produced, you know, it looks exactly like âMonday Night Football.â
Youâve got the slow-mos, you know, only instead of a, you know, instead of a
quarterback sneak, itâs the mincing of an onion. Youâve got the pre and post-
game interviews, where people, you know, talk about theyâre - what they did or
their nervousness or whatever it is. And youâve got this really fast kind of
attention-deficit-disorder-type editing and lots of rock and roll and lots of
clashing knives and these huge gusts of flames coming out of these kitchens
that are just wild.
So itâs a great visual spectacular. Whether you learn anything from watching
these shows is a whole other question. You certainly donât learn anything about
cooking because they go by way too fast. They donât offer the recipes, so you
donât really know how to make this stuff. And the food theyâre making is kind
of so spectacular that itâs really unlikely, I think, that anybody is trying
this at home.
DAVIES: Now youâve noted this paradox, that weâre watching cooking shows and
food shows more than ever, but weâre actually cooking less. Why?
Mr.Â POLLAN: Weâre spending, on average, 27 minutes a day cooking and about four
minutes cleaning up, so basically about a half hour. Any one of these shows
takes twice as long to watch as that, which I think is very interesting because
the main excuse people give for not cooking is they donât have time to cook,
but somehow theyâre finding time to watch other people cook or eat on TV.
And I do find this a paradox, and thatâs what I really tried to explore in this
article. And, you know, I think there are a couple reasons. I think we do feel
pressed for time, and weâre very tired at the end of the day. And I think weâve
got, you know, women in the workforce now in a way we didnât when Julia Child
came on the air in 1963.
So there are a lot of pressures keeping us from cooking, but we also have a lot
of powerful corporate interests working very hard to keep us from cooking.
You know, weâve got all the manufacturers of processed foods. Weâve got all the
restaurants, and theyâre all telling us weâre too busy to cook. And I think
these shows are, in a sense, part of the problem. I think that they give us the
vicarious experience of cooking. Theyâre not designed in such a way to motivate
us the way Julia Child was designed to motivate us.
DAVIES: Now, thereâs a history to this, the decline of cooking, and our
grandmothers would have made everything from scratch. They would never have
used a cake mix. But now, even when people do cook, theyâre using a lot more
prepackaged and prepared ingredients. How did that happen?
Mr.Â POLLAN: You know, thereâs a very interesting history to that, the rise of
packaged foods. And now weâre, of course, moving into the era of packaged
meals. But really, it takes off after World War II, and you had these food
manufacturers whoâd come up with all these very clever ways to feed the troops
by freeze-drying things, dehydrating them.
You know, you had instant orange juice. You had instant coffee. You had
instant, you know, mashed potatoes. And after the war, there was a kind of a
peacetime conversion of these field rations, and that really was the first
explosion in processed food. And they werenât popular at first.
Itâs very interesting. There was a really uphill battle to convince American
women in particular that serving this kind of dreck was equivalent to serving
real food. And - but they kept working at it. And you know, the story of the
cake mix, in a way, was - is the paradigm.
They came up with these, you know, just-add-water mixes to make your angel food
cake or whatever it was, and consumers rejected them. They felt that it was
cheating to make cake from a mix. And the marketers studied the problem and
tried to figure out how could they persuade women to accept these cakes. And
then they figured out that if they left something for women to do - and in this
case it was cracking open an egg instead of having dehydrated eggs in the mix -
that giving them that act would allow them to feel like they had actually
cooked that cake.
So thereâs been a kind of defining downward of what it means to actually cook
from scratch, and a lot of people will feel that, you know, using a cake mix is
cooking from scratch. And compared to opening up a pack of Twinkies, I guess it
DAVIES: Weâre speaking with Michael Pollan. He has a piece in this Sundayâs New
York Times Magazine called âNo One Cooks Here Anymore.â Weâll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If youâre just joining us, our guest is writer Michael Pollan. He has a
piece in this weekâs Sunday Time Magazine about our fascination with cooking
shows, but the fact that we donât seem to be cooking so much anymore.
You know, I donât tune in to cooking shows, but if I come across one while Iâm
channel-surfing, Iâll always linger a while. Itâs just so much fun to watch
somebody cook. What is that fascination?
Mr.Â POLLAN: Well, you know, I thought a lot about this because there are many
things that we no longer do in our own lives very much, changing the oil in our
car or ironing shirts or reading newspapers, that we donât watch other people
do on TV. We donât find them very interesting.
So why cooking? And I think thereâs something really visceral about cooking. I
think when youâre scanning the dials and you skip by one of these shows,
suddenly you see this gorgeously photographed food, you know, this cascade of
cherries in the Food Network promo or meat, you know, being lapped at by
flames. And, you know, itâs no wonder that we respond viscerally to this.
This is food. We have evolved to be attracted to this stuff. And I think these
shows are, theyâre kind of like the campfires in the cable forest. Theyâre
really kind of viscerally attractive to us. And I also think â you have to
remember, all of us have spend time in our childhoods watching cooking.
We watched our moms cook. We watched - some of us were lucky enough to watch
our dads cook, too. And there is something we like about that process. You
know, it always has a beginning, middle and an end. Thereâs a kind of alchemy
that goes on. You know, you take these kind of unpromising, raw ingredients,
you know, chunks of animal flesh and plants, and you add fire, and suddenly you
have something really attractive to eat.
Thatâs a kind of nice little story. And so I think that thereâs something about
watching cooking that really takes us back to that, you know, that primitive
flame and those very comforting moments in our kitchens with our parents.
DAVIES: Well, and you note that anthropologists have - some at least - have
developed some interesting theories about the role of cooking in, you know, the
evolution of the species and the original development of civilization.
Mr.Â POLLAN: Yeah, it may well be - and I think that this is a fascinating
avenue of research - it may well be that cooking is fundamental to our identity
as humans. It may be the discovery of not fire, but cooking, that transformed
us from primates who, you know, subsisted on raw food, who spent six hours a
day chewing it - because raw food is very hard to digest.
Cooked food is very different than raw food from a biological perspective. Itâs
easier to digest, and you get more calories out of it when itâs cooked. It kind
of unlocks the nutrients very often. And so that when humans discovered this
way of dealing with food, that they could cook it, they suddenly had this new
source of calories and that it allowed us, as an evolutionary matter, allowed
our brains to get bigger and our guts to shrink because we didnât need the huge
digestive systems that, say, apes need to digest all that raw plant matter.
So it may well be cooking that allowed the human brain to develop, and this is
a theory thatâs been advanced more recent by a Harvard anthropologist named
Richard Wrangham in a terrific book called âCatching Fire.â And he really makes
a good case that this is the defining event that made us human - not the
discovery of language, not the discovery of fire, but the discovery of cooking.
And if thatâs true, if cooking is that fundamental to our identity as humans,
that would suggest that the collapse of cooking in our own time would be
something that we would feel strongly and that would be, in some sense,
destabilizing to give up one of those struts of our identity.
And so it may be that we are nostalgic for that experience, and if weâre not
going to do it ourselves, we at least want to watch other people do it.
DAVIES: And I wonder if the culmination of that evolutionary path is that we
now stuff ourselves with fat and sugar and our guts expand and our brains
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.Â POLLAN: Well, we may see that happen. You know, I mean, one of the things
processing of food is - you know, we talk about processed food as being
unhealthy. What does that really mean?
Well, when you take, say, fruit and turn it into fruit juice, you have sped up
that food and your absorption of that food because it doesnât have the fiber
anymore and youâre just getting that shot of sugar.
A lot of food processing is reducing food to its primary colors, you know, to
sugar and salt and fat and removing it from the packages it has in nature,
which contain lots of fiber and result in healthier products that you donât
absorb quite as rapidly or completely so that, in a way, over-cooked â weâre
over-cooking food - and thatâs really one way to look at processed food - and
thereby ending up with lots more attractive calories that, you know, explain,
you know, our girth.
But I also think itâs the collapse of cooking that is, in part, responsible for
the obesity epidemic. And I think that this is a connection that is seldom
DAVIES: You mean the collapse of cooking in the home, as opposed to in big,
Mr.Â POLLAN: Yes. Or we might say allowing corporations to cook for us has
contributed to obesity. I donât think you can pin the whole thing on that. But
itâs very interesting to watch, as the amount of time spent cooking has fallen
by about half since the 1960s, you know, obesity has risen dramatically. Now
why should that be? Well, there is some very interesting research that
correlates the amount of time that a culture spends cooking with its obesity
rates, and that when you donât cook and you rely on corporations to cook for
you, you tend to eat more special-occasion food, things like French fries.
I mean, take the French fry. Itâs a great example. I mean, the French fry did
not become the most popular vegetable in America, which it now is, until
corporations relieved us of all the work of preparing them. French fries are a
whole lot of trouble to make. Youâve got to wash the potato. Youâve got to peel
the potato, slice the potato, fry the potato and then clean up a kitchen thatâs
going to be a wreck. And, you know, you wouldnât do that very often, and
indeed, people didnât do it very often.
But now, since corporations are making all the French fries, we can have them
two or three times a day, and many of us do. So, you see, when thereâs
something built into the process of cooking that delays gratification, the work
itself makes you think twice before you embark on a cake or French fries or
fried chicken. And so as soon as you outsource that work, it becomes possible
to indulge in all these special-occasion foods that no longer are special-
occasion foods. Theyâre everyday foods.
DAVIES: You know, itâs clear from your article that you think weâd all be a lot
better off if we learned to start cooking from scratch more often. Do you see
that happening? Can we reverse this at all?
Mr.Â POLLAN: Well, Iâm optimistic that we can. I think youâre right to suggest I
think itâs very, very important. Itâs hard to imagine. You know, we have this
food movement going on and this rediscovery of local, fresh food and farmersâ
markets and artisanal meat production and everything. None of this is going to
go anywhere unless people cook.
You do not find microwavable entrees at the farmersâ market. You find raw
ingredients. So I donât see how we really reform this food system unless people
are willing to take up everyday cooking again.
Will it happen? I talked to some marketing experts, and they all just laughed.
They say forget it. Cooking is over. One of them, a guy named Harry Balzer(ph),
very insightful expert on food habits in America, said here, let me give you an
You remember 100 years ago, if you wanted chicken, you had to go out and kill a
chicken and gut a chicken and pluck a chicken. Thatâs what having chicken
meant. Well, nobody does that anymore. It would be considered crazy. Thatâs
what cooking is going to look like to your grandchildren. Itâs going to be just
as outlandish as going out to kill a chicken.
Well, I surely hope heâs wrong, but he may be right. I think, though, that the
cost of not cooking is so high in terms of our health and, I would argue, our
happiness, because with the collapse of cooking goes the family dinner, also,
and that these are really important human institutions. And I think that we are
in a feedback loop of discovering what their loss has really cost us.
DAVIES: You know, last October, you wrote a piece in the Times Magazine called
âFarmer in Chief,â which was an open letter to the next president - the
election was still going on then. And you essentially argued that changing the
way we grow and process food was critical to energy policy and, thus, a matter
of national security â you know, the way we grow and process food at an
industrial scale and transport it thousands of miles drains energy, pollutes
the environment and harms our health. And you said that itâs really important
for the next president to take a lead in changing things. How would you rate
President Obama on the challenge of rebuilding the food culture?
Mr.Â POLLAN: Well, I think Obamaâs taken some very encouraging steps. I think
that Obama has shown that he recognized the links between the way we grow food
and feed ourselves and the health-care crisis on the one side and the climate-
change and energy crisis on the other.
So Iâm encouraged by some of the rhetoric. Iâm encouraged by some of the
appointments. There are some progressive people in the USDA, the Department of
Agriculture. And there has been the new agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, has
spoken in, you know, very encouraging terms about the importance of local food
systems, the importance of farmersâ markets, the importance of organic food.
So all that is very encouraging, I think. But, you know, frankly, the most
important thing thatâs happened has been the garden that Michelle Obama
planted, which has had a galvanizing effect around the world.
Thereâs now a garden in Buckingham Palace. People are planting gardens all over
America. You canât find seeds in garden centers, thereâs such a run on
gardening. I think thatâs a very encouraging thing. I donât think it is merely
symbolic. And by the way, I think itâs very deliberate on the part of the
Obamas. I think they understand that before you can begin to change this food
system, you need to raise consciousness about it because for a lot of people,
the food system works just fine.
Thereâs plenty of cheap and abundant food. The fact that it makes people sick,
the fact that it takes an enormous toll on the environment, on animals, on
workers, isnât really clear to everybody so that thereâs a kind of raising of
consciousness that needs to happen. And I think that Michelle Obama is playing
a very important role in that. And then you can follow, one hopes, with a
different kind of farm bill that would encourage the kind of fresh, local food
that Michelle Obama has been extolling.
So, you know, Iâm encouraged. I donât see any evidence that theyâre willing to
take on agribusiness in any significant way yet. I think whatâs more likely to
happen is that this administration will take steps to educate people on the
value of real food and cooking and that they will also do things to promote
local food economies.
Whether they will also go after the large food companies, it may happen in the
anti-trust realm. It might happen with the farm bill, but there is, you know,
some huge obstacles to real reform at that level, beginning with the
agriculture committees in Congress.
DAVIES: Well, Michael Pollan, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr.Â POLLAN: Well, thank you very much, Dave.
DAVIES: Michael Pollan is the author of âIn Defense of Food: An Eaterâs
Manifestoâ and âThe Omnivoreâs Dilemma.â His cover story in this weekâs New
York Times Sunday Magazine is called âOut of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.â Iâm
Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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Scalping And Scarcity: The Economics Of Live Music
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. Iâm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
Our next guest, John Seabrook, says just about everyone agrees that the live
music business these days is dysfunctional. Much has changed since the â60s,
when flower children crowded into the Fillmore to see Jefferson Airplane.
Ticket sales and concert promotion are concentrated heavily in two big
companies. Music lovers resent the extra charges they get when they buy from
Ticketmaster, and artists, who need concert revenue now more than ever, see as
much as half the cash their fans pay for tickets go to scalpers and Internet
Seabrook explores the problems of the live music business in a piece in the
current issue of The New Yorker titled: "The Price of the Ticket: What does it
take to see your favorite band?" John Seabrook is a staff writer for the
magazine and the author of three books including "Flash of Genius And Other
True Stories of Invention."
Well John Seabrook, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It used to be when we wanted to
go to a rock concert, if we were real fanatics we'd bring our lawn chairs or
sleeping bags and camp out in front of the box office. Now it seems if we want
to go to concert we have to deal with Ticketmaster - a lot of its done online.
How did we get to the point where Ticketmaster controls so much ticketing?
Mr. JOHN SEABROOK (Staff Writer, The New Yorker Magazine): Yeah, if you go back
to the â70s, and if you started going to shows back then you remember waiting
in line. You had to go to outlets and record stores to buy tickets or go to the
box office and there was no central computer control pool of tickets, so it was
sort of hit or miss as to where you went and where you lined up.
Some places sold out quickly, other places had tickets left over. And that, of
course, presented this business opportunity for Ticketmaster, realizing that if
you could pool all the tickets together and if you could exclusively sell all
the tickets, then you could offer fans the best available seat no matter where
they bought their tickets and then you could charge them a convenience fee for
So that was kind of Ticketmaster's business model. And as that has grown, and
as the Internet has evolved along with it, youâve gotten to the point where you
stand a much better chance online in front of your computer at the moment the
tickets go on sale than getting in line 12 hours or 24 hours ahead at a box
office, because by the time you get to the front of the line the tickets are
going to be sold to all the people who are in front of their computers.
DAVIES: All right, so now you go to Ticketmaster and you pay the ticket price
and fees. How big are the fees?
Mr. SEABROOK: The fees have grown. Now there's three separate fees and together
they amount to around 30 percent of the price of the ticket. Some of that money
goes back to the promoter and to the owner of the venue where the show is
taking place and then Ticketmaster keeps the rest. The reason the fees exist is
because the face price of the ticket is often set low, in some cases far below
market value, because the artist wants to maintain the sort of sense of common
man with the fan and not charge what the market might bear for that ticket. And
so Ticketmaster and LiveNation then use the fees to kind of supplement the
price of the ticket, which is, in their view, too low for them to make enough
money to do what they do. So that's why the fees exist.
DAVIES: But it really ticks people off doesnât it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEABROOK: Yeah, it makes people very, very angry. I mean the fees have been
a source of fan outrage since they began. And in the mid â90s there was a big
to-do because Pearl Jam, the band Pearl Jam, decided that they were sick and
tired of fees and werenât going to take it anymore and announced that they were
going to do their 1994 tour only playing in venues that did not have exclusive
contracts with Ticketmaster and they urged other artists to join them in this.
But as it turned out, the only venues...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEABROOK: ...they could find to play in were you know racetracks and out of
the way places that the fans couldnât find. The shows were poorly attended. The
tour was cancelled midway through. No other artist...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEABROOK: ...joined them and that was the last time a major artist has
publicly challenged Ticketmaster until this February when Bruce Springsteen did
DAVIES: Now there is this huge resale market for tickets, what we call scalping
when itâs done on the sidewalk in front of the concert hall. How has the
Internet changed the resale of tickets?
Mr. SEABROOK: Well, basically, with the Internet you no longer have to actually
be physically present at the venue to scalp tickets. You can buy season tickets
to the Anaheim Angels from Atlanta, Georgia, and sell them to people in
California over the Internet and you never have to actually be physically
present at the venue and you don't have to bear the stigma of, you know, being
perceived as a scalper and standing there on the sidewalk and actually selling
tickets. And so that's made it possible for practically everybody to be a
scalper. And over the last few years there's been a lot of money made by
college students and housewives and, you know, every other kind of person who
decides to â oh, I'm going to buy two tickets to this hot show. I'm not going
to go but I think the show's going to sellout and I'm going to resell them on
Craigslist or eBay or StubHub or TicketsNow and make some money.
DAVIES: You have to tell the story of this woman, Amy Stevens, that you write
about in the piece and her entry into that world.
Mr. SEABROOK: Yeah, Amy Stevens was a young woman from Atlanta. She's a mother
of three. And she came to New York in 2001 with two tickets to see "The
Producers" which cost her $200 each. And then it turned out she wasnât able to
use those tickets and so she put them on eBay and she listed them at $400 each
and they promptly sold. And she said wow, you know, I just made $400. So she
went back to the theater and bought some more tickets and put those on eBay and
they sold for $400 too. And then she realized wow, this is kind of a good way
to make money. And then she went back home and bought season tickets, actually
to the Anaheim Angels, and the tickets guaranteed the ticketholder a right to a
seat at a playoff game, and that was the year that the Angels went all the way
to the World Series, and she sold those tickets for $1,500 each.
And by that point she was kind of in a business. And she called it Amy's
Tickets and started buying college football games and she bought season tickets
to Atlanta Falcons, other shows and, you know, within a few years she was
grossing a million dollars a year.
DAVIES: A million a year. Wow. Now with this many tickets being resold, I mean,
what that tells us is that clearly the face prices of the ticket arenât
capturing their market value and that there's a lot of revenue that's not going
to either the artists who are performing at live concerts, or the promoters who
have, after all, taken some risk in hiring a venue and hiring security and
buying insurance and all. Do we have any idea how much revenue the industry is
losing to folks who are reselling their tickets?
Mr. SEABROOK: Well there's never been a systematic measurement of the entire
industry. There are estimates that there's almost, if there's three billion
dollars worth of money being made on face value tickets, there's another three
billion being made on - the secondary market - on above face value prices. But
the only actual studies that have been done have been on specific concerts.
And in the piece I talk about one that a Princeton economist named Alan Krueger
did at a Springsteen show in 2002, where he and 12 Princeton students went
around the floor before the show started and asked people where they had gotten
their tickets and how much they paid for them. And they found that a quarter of
the people had bought them on the secondary market and paid - the face price of
the ticket was $75 and they paid an average of $250 for those tickets. And so,
by adding all those numbers together they calculated that Springsteen's loss in
not charging market value for the tickets was about the same amount of money as
he made from selling the face value tickets at the box office. So it does seem
to - it correlates about one to one.
DAVIES: So in other words, they're essentially about half of the revenue...
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: ...from these performances are going to people who were smart enough to
buy up tickets and resell them.
Mr. SEABROOK: It's the only business where the value of the commodity goes up
as soon as it leaves the store.
DAVIES: It seems clear that the reason this happens is that the performers and
the promoters donât charge what they could get for the tickets in the first
place. Why don't they? Or are there some acts that do?
Mr. SEABROOK: Well, artists get to set the ticket prices and particularly if
you're a superstar band and - you know, like the Eagles or Neil Diamond or the
Rolling Stones - you basically control all the pricing decisions. And a lot of
artists donât want to charge market value for the best seats for a couple
different reasons. One is, is that they donât want their fans getting mad at
them - saying hey, I've been your fan for 20 years, I used to pay $40, now
you're asking me for $250. That's one reason. Another reason is artists want
shows to sellout because sellouts are good not only for promotion value but
because they make the show better for everyone, including the musicians. I
mean, what you definitely would never want to have happen if you're an artist
is have, you know, thousand dollar seats up front that nobody buys and
everybody's sitting in the back.
It would be a bit like the Yankees this year who tried to charge three thousand
dollars for the best seats at the new stadium, nobody bought them. There was an
embarrassing lack of people sitting right behind, you know, the infield and so
they ended up lowering the prices. So that's another reason.
And thirdly, sellouts also help, you know, they sell more beer that way. The
parking fees are better. So even though you're losing a little bit - or a lot
of money on the face value of the ticket, you know, you can make some of it
back on the parking and the beer sales and the merchandise sales and that sort
So, but I mean I think culturally rock concerts began in the â60s as sort of
quasi-social/political movements and there was a certain amount of sort of
anti-capitalist sentiment floating around when rock concerts were born and now
they have kind of grown out of that. And now with the decline of the record
business, theyâve had to shoulder the moneymaking that the record business used
to do, but they still havenât quite shed their roots as these â60s happenings.
And that's why you see a lot of below-market-value tickets because, you know,
even though it may be a commodity and it may be an economic transaction, most
of the stakeholders are invested in maintaining the elusion that it is not,
that it is a party that they're throwing for people. And if you charge people
too much for the party, it kind of ruins the party.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEABROOK: So that's why ticket prices are low.
DAVIES: John Seabrook is a staff writer for The New Yorker. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is John Seabrook. He's a staff
writer for The New Yorker. He has a piece in the current edition about tickets
and the live music industry.
Now there are these ticket exchanges where people can get resold tickets and
pay a premium for them, you know, StuHub and others.
Mr. SEABROOK: Right.
DAVIES: Ticketmaster can only charge face value, although they do add on these
fees. But they recently acquired a secondary ticket-marketing company called
TicketsNow. So you got them charging the face value, controlling all the
tickets, but they also have this associated company which then resells unsold
tickets for much, much higher prices. It would seem to present a potential for
a great conflict. And, of course, this became the big issue in the Springsteen
concerts in May that you write about. What happened there that created such
Mr. SEABROOK: Yeah. So TicketsNow is the company that Ticketmaster bought in
2008, and TicketsNow is a secondary market company, the second largest -
StubHub is the largest. And they are an auction house for reselling tickets.
TicketsNow doesnât actually own the tickets but they charge commissions from
buyers and sellers and guarantee the transaction. So they, in effect, function
like an eBay of tickets.
So on February the 2nd, the Bruce Springsteen tickets went on sale for the
first leg of his Working On A Dream Tour. There were 26 dates on the first leg.
All of them went on sale the same day and that day was one day after his
appearance at the Super Bowl. So, you know, there's a lot of interest and
particularly in New Jersey which, of course, is Springsteen's home and where he
was doing only two shows at the IZOD Center so, of course, there's going to be
a giant amount of demand. So when the tickets went on sale, there was a
technical problem caused perhaps by the enormous demand. Ticketmaster hasnât
been totally clear about it. But it made it impossible for a lot of people who
were trying to buy tickets at nine in the morning to buy those tickets and
instead, those people were directed - redirected to TicketsNow, which has been
Ticketmaster's policy when shows sellout to redirect people to TicketsNow. But
they're not supposed to do it...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SEABROOK: ...if the shows arenât sold out yet and yet that was what was
happening on the morning of February 2nd. And so it appeared to a lot of people
that Ticketmaster was purposely pushing people to TicketsNow, even though
tickets were still available because they can make much more money reselling
tickets and charging the commissions on TicketsNow than they were making
selling on a face value on the Ticketmaster, say.
DAVIES: But so the expression of hand was somebody sitting at their - poised
over their keyboard at 9 AM and the tickets go on sale. And they start, you
know, placing their order and theyâre just about to complete the order. And
then they get a message on the screen of a technical problem. They loose the
order and it says by the way, you can got to TicketsNow where tickets maybe
available, in which case your are going to pay two or three times what you
would have paid. So it looked to the fans like they were just dumping tickets
on to their electronic scalper partner, right?
Mr. SEABROOK: It looked exactly like that. And that combine with the history of
the fansâ relationship with Ticketmaster, which has been fraught to say the
least, it didnât take much for people to suspect Ticketmaster of, you know,
evil doings. And when Bruce Springsteen heard about it, he got outraged. And
then he posted a letter on his Web site two days later, basically accusing
Ticketmaster of running a bate and switch and saying he was furious and then
calling upon people to go to their local representatives and protest. And of
course in New Jersey, if you are a politician, it doesnât take a whole lot of
persuasion to get out there and fight for the fansâ right to achieve
So in fact, a number of politicians did get involved. And it became by the end
of the week, you know, the biggest political cause in New Jersey. And
Ticketmaster, like I say, came out and said actually this was just a technical
problem. It was a little piece of code in the verification of the credit card
holderâs identity that messed up. And, you know, it redirected people to
TicketsNow when tickets were still available. But regardless of whether thatâs
true or not, itâs the public relations disaster certainly was real. And I
should say that this happened within the context, and even on the very same
day, that Ticketmaster and LiveNationâs merger - the news of their merger broke
in the Wall Street Journal.
So, youâve got not only this outrage and all these angry fans, but youâve got
also the news of the two largest companies in the business merging together
into one unprecedentedly large company that could seemingly do this kind of
thing everyday if they wanted to. So, you know, that really created a giant,
perfect storm of hatred toward Ticketmaster.
DAVIES: Now the state attorney general of New Jersey got involved and as you
say, many, many other politicians. And Ticketmaster explained that it was
essentially a computer problem that there was really no hanky-panky. Did
anybody ever - could anybody ever check on that and decide whether that
explanation was credible?
Mr. SEABROOK: You really have to take Ticketmasterâs word for it. Thereâs no
way of kind of going in to Ticketmaster and looking at their, you know,
computer records. And although there was a class action suit filed against
Ticketmaster by the attorney general, the settlement terms did not require
Ticketmaster to prove that assertion. It did require Ticketmaster to: A. Pay a
fine of 250,000. B. Reimburse all the people who bought tickets on TicketsNow,
thinking they were buying primary market tickets, which cost Ticketmaster
350,000. And C. Promise to stop their practice of redirecting people to
TicketsNow when shows sell out. So, sort of putting up kind of a firewall
between Ticketmaster and TicketsNow.
DAVIES: And you said Bruce Springsteen weighed in with a public statement. What
effect did that have on this potential merger between Ticketmaster and the
concert promoter LiveNation?
Mr. SEABROOK: Yeah, well Springsteen specifically said in his statement, after
saying he was outraged and furious with Ticketmaster, he went on to say that
the only thing that could make the current situation worse for the fan would be
if Ticketmaster and LiveNation were allowed to merge. And he urged people to
get in contact with their local representatives and let their opinion of the
merger be known. And then later that month, when there was a one day hearing
held at Washington in front of the judiciary committee about the merger,
Springsteenâs remarks were quoted by virtually everyone. All of the senators,
the speakers, it was as though Bruce were right there in the room. And, you
know, itâs still I think now the merger and Springsteen are going to be
associated forever in peopleâs minds.
DAVIES: Now Ticketmaster still owns TicketsNow right?
Mr. SEABROOK: Ticketmaster still owns TicketsNow. The current CEO of
Ticketmaster is Irving Azoff, was not the CEO when Ticketmaster bought
TicketsNow. And he has made it clear that he would never have bought TicketsNow
had he been the CEO. And heâs also made it pretty clear that heâd like to sell
it. And I wouldnât be surprised if you see Ticketmaster selling TicketsNow in
the near future.
DAVIES: John Seabrook is a staff writer for The New Yorker more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Our guest is writer John Seabrook. He writes about the live of music
business and the current issue of The New Yorker and says many concert fans are
getting tickets at big markups in the secondary market from scalpers and
Internet sites. A lot of sports teams will have a marketing relationship with a
secondary ticket supplier, like StubHub. But, you also had situations where a
few seasons back, the Washington Redskins took to looking on eBay and
discovering that some of their season ticket holders were selling their tickets
on eBay and they - because they could tell which seat and section number they
were - they revoked the season ticketâholdersâ tickets. In effect saying, weâre
not going to let you scalp our tickets. Do sports teams and promoters have a
clear sense of what they want to do about this?
Mr. SEABROOK: Well, it does seem that sports teams are kind of leading the way.
They really have gone from, you know, if you canât beat him, join him. The
Yankees used to do the same thing. They used to confiscate peoples seasons
tickets if they found they have been resold. And now the Yankees actually have
a StubHub window at the new stadium. They, you know, assist you in reselling
tickets. But, you know, most of the sports teams have now, you know, realized
itâs, you know, itâs lets get a piece of this, lets become part of the
And in fact that has cut down a lot on scalping of sports tickets. You still
see super bowl tickets and stuff like that are getting scalped. But, you donât
really see it that much for, you know, big games, like you do it for big
concerts. But, thatâs partly because teams control their own ticketing and, so
they can set prices and change things without having to go to an artist, or in
fact, it would be like going to, you know, the players and saying, hey can we
charge more for our tickets. But thatâs what you have to do in the concert
world, you have to go to, you know, the players and say hey, would you mind,
you know, raising the prices. And the players usually say no. So, thatâs the
problem for the concert industry.
DAVIES: You know, there are one kind of ticket that you donât see resold at a
big mark up and those are cheap airline tickets. And thatâs because, when you
go to the airport, you got to show your ID and your ticket and they have to
match. Is there any thought in the concert or the sports world that, you go to
a similar system where you have paperless tickets and you have to show your ID,
so that you really canât resell them?
Mr. SEABROOK: In fact, that is the cutting edge where the concert industry is
right now, paperless ticketing. All of the Miley Cyrus concerts this fall are
going to be paperless tickets. And that means, that, you know, you call up
Tickermaster, use a credit card, you buy up to four tickets, but you donât get
the tickets until you show up at the venue on the day of the show. And in order
to get the tickets, you have to produce the credit card you bought them with
and a matching ID.
And if you buy four tickets on one credit card, all four of those people have
to be there outside the venue before you can be admitted. And obviously this is
an attempt to cut down on scalping. And in fact, it has radically reduced
scalping. But, itâs also unclear whether thereâs going to be logistical
problems at the shows. I mean, is there gonna be long lines? Those shows didnât
actually sell that well, and some people think that the reason they didnât sell
that well is because people were leery about the whole paperless ticket thing.
And, you know, once artist get that feeling, then theyâre going to say hey, I
donât want paperless tickets because itâs going to mean we canât sell as many
tickets. Our shows wonât sell out. So, it still kind of remains to be seen how
thatâs all going to work out. But certainly it has radically reduced the amount
of tickets on the secondary market for paperless shows.
DAVIES: You know, I confess, I bought a quite a few baseball tickets over the
years from scalpers and Iâve always been grateful that that institution was
there. Because sometimes, you know, you want to go and if the thing is sold out
and you didnât plan ahead. And if youâre willing to pay an extra 20 or 40
bucks, itâs great to find somebody out there, who can take of you. I have never
gotten sold a counterfeit ticket. Is there a constituency that says let it be?
Mr. SEABROOK: Oh yeah, sure, sure thereâs a big constituency. And I think even
the people that get angry about all this scalped tickets probably scalp a few
of themselves, when they really need to go. I mean, the fact is that for rock
concerts, the shows go on sale months before the actual date. And unless youâre
really good at kind of planning ahead and can predict where you going to be, a
lot of people donât even bother to buy on the day of the sale because they
donât know, if theyâre going to be around or be able to go. And then the show
gets near and they realize they do want to go and theyâre going to be around.
And so, yeah, they can turn to the secondary market and scalp a ticket. And
thatâs a great service for them. Otherwise they wouldnât be going to the show.
The other thing Iâll say about scalping is the price that youâre paying is not
always above the face value of the ticket. It can be below the face value of
the ticket too. If you wait till half an hour before the show and stand outside
the venue, or the theatre or wherever it is, or the stadium, you will find that
the value of the tickets sometime goes below, in fact sometimes way below the
face value. And you can get a real deal. So, you know, it can work that way
DAVIES: Well, John Seabrook, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. SEABROOK: Thanks Dave, nice to be here.
DAVIES: John Seabrook is the staff writer for The New Yorker. His piece in the
current issue about the live music business is called âThe Price of the
For Terry Gross, Iâm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of song, âYouâre My Lucky Dayâ)
Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Honey, youâre my lucky
day. Baby, youâre my lucky day. Well I lost all the other bets I made. Honey,
youâre my lucky day.
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