Friday, February 13, 2009
Lib at Large: Reuniting Grateful Dead members, fans happy about tour - but not ticket prices
Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer for the Grateful Dead, is one happy man. He has a new band, a power trio called BK3 that's making its San Francisco debut tonight at the Independent, an intimate nightclub in the Western Addition.
It's one of a half dozen shows for Kreutzmann with BK3, a group he's formed with bassist Oteil Burbridge of the Allman Brothers Band and guitarist Scott Murawski of the band Max Creek.
After that short tour, Kreutzmann goes straight into rehearsals with his reunited Grateful Dead bandmates - Bob Weir, Mickey Hart and Phil Lesh - for a Dead tour that kicks off April 12 at the Greensboro Coliseum in North Carolina and ends May 10 with a homecoming show at Shoreline Amphitheater.
In addition to the new band and the new Dead tour, Kreutzmann has a new girlfriend and what sounds to me like a new lease on life.
"My personal life has changed immensely for the better," he told me from his home in Kauai, Hawaii. "I couldn't have dreamed of being this happy."
Too bad Deadheads aren't quite as joyful as he is these days. Many of them are furious over the nearly $100 ticket price the Dead is charging for the best reserved seats for its tour, the band's first in five years.
The outraged tone was set by a profane YouTube tirade by a female fan that has Deadhead chat sites and message boards buzzing over what is being seen in some quarters as price gouging by the ultimate egalitarian band.
As it turns out, $100 is sounding like a good deal.
"I've heard of tickets going for $1,200," Kreutzmann said. "They've been scalping tickets for horrendous amounts of money. And I really hate that, by the way. That's one of my pet peeves.
"There are people out there who just care about making money," he went on. "They don't care about the music or making the fans happy. Just because someone will pay $1,200 for a ticket, in this economic climate it's adding insult to injury. It's an uncool thing."
Plus it puts a lot of pressure on the Dead to live up to the elevated expectations that come with ticket prices that high.
"I don't know if I can play that good," Kreutzmann laughed. "That's like so much money. (Jerry) Garcia would be infuriated. He'd be like, 'No way, man. You can't charge that much.'"
In reality, ticket brokers are charging a lot more. After talking with Kreutzmann, I went online and found tickets for the Shoreline show going for more than $2,000 each. Tickets in the $500 to $900 range are commonplace.
"It's pretty awful," agreed Tim Jorstad, the Dead's San Rafael-based business manager. "Some artists are just fine with scalping tickets, charging a premium and keeping the money. We aren't. That money is not going to the band, and it's not good for the fans."
Jorstad explained to me the rather complicated process of pricing concert tickets while trying to maintain some control over the brokers and scalpers.
"We thought long and hard about ticket prices," he said. "The band was extremely sensitive about what they should be."
Jorstad had the band's booking agent survey ticket prices for some 50 bands touring last year, such as the Eagles, that are equal in star power to the Dead. Many ticket prices for those bands were in the $150 range.
"I went back to the band with my research and we sat back and said, 'OK, we don't want to be $150, which is what a lot of those tickets we surveyed were coming in at," he said. "We talked hours about this. We probably give this particular topic more time than anything else. In the end, our ticket pricing came in at 65 percent lower than that collective group."
What they agreed to charge, on average, was $95 for premium seats (plus $2.50 service charge), and $58 and $40 for second- and third-tier seats.
"We wanted to make sure we had something for everybody," Jorstad said, reminding Deadheads that "since our last tour in 2004, everything associated with touring has gone up in price - fuel, trucking, busing, personnel.
"This may be the Dead's last tour, and maybe not," he added. "And when you add into the mix the touring expenses and that this will be a good, four-hour show, we felt it was good value for the ticket price.
He acknowledged that it isn't what the fans are accustomed to paying. "They're used to $50 and $60 tickets," he said. "We don't like to make people unhappy, obviously, but what we're charging isn't an unreasonable price to pay. We've tried to be fair to the legacy of the Grateful Dead, but we are a business entity, and we're trying to give our band members a reasonable pay day as well."
According to Jorstad, the Dead had enough clout to get half the available tickets for the tour and sell them themselves at face value through Music Today's ticketing facility and the band's Dead.net.
In addition, the Dead set aside 1,500 of the best tickets for Grateful Dead-related charities to sell to support their work.
Despite the carping from Deadheads, Jorstad insists that the band still has its '60s bonafides.
"We didn't do what a lot of bands do. We didn't take corporate sponsorship money," he said. "And there were millions of dollars on the table for that."
The problem is that the Dead have no control over giant Ticketmaster and the ticket brokers that dominate what is called the secondary ticket market.
"Ticketmaster does what it wants. They have a secondary ticket Web site, and that's the auction. That's the secondary market, and that's where they scalp tickets for very high prices," Jorstad said.
"We shut that down as much as we could, but it was hard," Kreutzmann said. "It makes me feel the audience is getting exploited, having to come up with all this money."
It appears that the band is trying to give Deadheads their money's worth.
Augmented by lead guitarist Warren Haynes and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, the surviving members regrouped last March for an Obama fundraiser at the Warfield and followed that with a huge benefit concert at Penn State that raised $500,000 for the Obama campaign.
As a reward, they were invited to the Inauguration, playing at the Mid-Atlantic Ball. Afterward, they were among a select group of celebrities who shook hands with the president and first lady.
With those benefit concerts behind them, they have a head of steam heading into the tour. And they aren't taking it lightly. In two weeks, they're going into Bob Weir's San Rafael studio to begin a heavy rehearsal schedule, some 20 days, an unusually intense regimen for this band.
"We're going to rehearse like crazy before we go out," Kreutzmann said. "I want us to be really, really good."
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.