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The Fine Art of ‘Papering the House’ : Free Tickets Sometimes Offered When Performer Can’t Fill the Venue

As a longtime Julie Andrews fan, Los Angeles accountant Nina Stein headed straight for the box office when tickets went on sale to the veteran performer’s recent two-night stand at the Greek Theatre. Stein, 42, paid $156 for four choice seats.

After the concert, she and her three friends went to Canter’s Deli in the Fairfax District for a late-night nosh. To her surprise--and dismay--she saw a stack of vouchers by the cash register, each one good for four free tickets to either of Andrews’ shows.

Stein’s first thought: Why had she just paid $156 for what others could see for free?

“If Julie Andrews can’t sell (enough) tickets to her comeback concert, maybe she shouldn’t play such a large venue,” Stein said in a letter to The Times. “She certainly shouldn’t insult the fans she has left by making them feel like suckers.”

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In a subsequent phone interview, Stein was still steamed: “Here I am the stupid one who gets stuck spending over $100 and everyone else was walking in free.”

Well, not everyone else, but a significant number. Susan Rosenbluth, general manager of the 6,200-seat Greek Theatre, said that about 700 tickets were given away each night.

And this was hardly an isolated incident.

A Calendar survey of booking agents and personal managers suggests that the practice of distributing free concert tickets in an effort to fill empty seats--"papering the house,” as it’s called in the industry--is common. Industry insiders estimated that at least some papering goes on at 10% to 40% of all shows across the country.

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Papering is especially prevalent in the media centers of Los Angeles and New York, where a high premium is placed on maintaining the image of success.

Phil Casey, vice president at the ICM talent agency in Beverly Hills, said: “If you’re playing Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and you’ve got three-quarters of a house filled, you’re not going to worry about it, but if you’re playing the Forum (in Inglewood), you want to fill it up. You want to give the impression that you’re successful in the major media markets. There’s nothing worse than a review coming out saying so-and-so played to half a house, so you try and find a way of putting more people in there and filling it up a little bit.”

But Casey said it’s usually done more “tactfully” than it was in the Andrews episode: “You try to do it as discreetly as possible so that it doesn’t look like you’re flooding the city with tickets.”

An Andrews associate, who requested anonymity, said that “those who did get in for free were sitting in the back of the theater to make it look nicer so Julie would feel comfortable when she walked out on stage.”

The associate added that whoever put the vouchers on the counter at Canter’s “wasn’t the person who was authorized to paper a limited amount of seats for the Greek Theatre. The theater may have given them to somebody who’s involved in a charity or an organization, who decided like a jerk to leave them at Canter’s.”

Papering the house--which does not include the routine practices of giving away a limited number of promotional tickets for radio station giveaways and a limited number of complimentary tickets to members of the media and the industry--is a sensitive subject in the concert business. Everybody does it from time to time, but nobody likes to talk about it.

“It’s very embarrassing for both the artist and the venue,” said Dick Alen, head of the music department at the William Morris Agency.

One reason for their reticence is that papering is one of the tricks of the trade to give the illusion of success. Many in the concert industry would prefer that audiences didn’t realize that there’s sometimes a difference between appearance and reality, that one can’t simply look at the size of the audience as an accurate gauge of a performer’s drawing power.

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But no one denies that papering is a common practice.

“It’s done all the time,” said Ron DeBlasio, a manager who has worked with such artists as Donna Summer and the rock group X. “There usually are seats remaining that aren’t particularly good that nobody wants.”

DeBlasio, a former William Morris agent, added that this is especially true with performers such as Andrews, whose appeal is to an upper-demographic, middle-of-the-road audience.

“That audience tends to buy high-scale tickets,” he said. “They probably wouldn’t buy cheap tickets way up on top or way over on the side. So those tickets are available.”

Papering the house is usually carried out during the 48 hours before a show.

Rob Kahane, who co-manages George Michael and was formerly a booking agent, said, “It’s always just the last couple of days when you know it’s going to look like a disaster and you want to save face.”

The key to successful papering is distributing the tickets to people who will use them. “You can get tickets out easily enough,” said ICM’s Casey. “You can rent an airplane and drop them out over the city, but that’s not the purpose. You want to get them to people who you know are going to want to go to the show and who are going to be grateful for getting the tickets.”

The best way to do that, sources agree, is to give tickets to people who don’t normally have the opportunity--or the money--to attend concerts.

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“It’s normally done on an organizational basis, usually through charity,” said Rosenbluth of the Greek Theatre. “There are a whole bunch of them we deal with: B’Nai Brith Women, Youth for Christ, halfway houses, abused-women’s shelters, county facilities for teen-agers. We just have somebody in the office pull the charity list and start making phone calls.”

The theater owners like to give tickets to charities for another reason: The people those organizations service aren’t the theaters’ regular customers.

“You’re not taking tickets out of the marketplace that way,” DeBlasio said. “If you give them to the patrons at a restaurant or a shop, they may have bought tickets anyway.”

DeBlasio said that he considers papering a good business practice. In most cases, no one has to pay for the papered tickets, the face value of which is not included in the box-office grosses reported to trade publications.

“It’s a form of promotion,” he said. “The venue is sitting there anyway, so if they give out free tickets, they’re going to get some money back on parking and on refreshments. They may be giving them to charitable organizations, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that everybody in the organization is penniless. And by papering you may drum up word-of-mouth on the act and expose a patron who may be become a repeat customer.”

So why don’t promoters paper every show that fails to sell out?

Alen of the Morris Agency said that promoters don’t want audiences to become conditioned to getting free tickets.

“The promoter wants the house to be full, but he doesn’t want the audience to think that they can get in for nothing,” he said. “If an audience learns that, then they’ll keep on waiting next time.”

Rosenbluth, who said that the Greek papers just three or four shows a year out of 80 concerts, added: “The ticket is your only product. It’s the only thing you can assign value to.”

Rosenbluth said that she prefers discounting as an alternative to papering. She noted that many theaters offer twofers, coupons that allow a customer to buy two tickets for the price of one on shows that aren’t sell-outs.

But she acknowledged that there would be tremendous resistance to enacting a similar system for selling concert tickets.

“Most managers wouldn’t want you to take an ad discounting their artist’s tickets because of the importance of image in this city and the nature of our business,” she said. “With the record and movie industries based here, image is more important here than in any city except New York.”

ONE THEY DIDN’T PAPER

Leonard Feather reviews the Blue Note Records celebration at Ford Theatre. Page 5.


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