Pearl Jam's crusade to reform the concert industry is resurfacing on Capitol Hill where U.S. Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) is expected this week to reintroduce legislation to require ticket vendors to disclose the fees they add to the price of each ticket.
The bill, which is certain to meet serious opposition from the new Republican-controlled Congress, comes on the heels of a similar Dingell proposal that died in committee during the last session.
However, in an effort to attract bipartisan support, representatives for Pearl Jam recently met with staff members of two powerful Senate Republicans. And, perhaps to thwart those efforts, the nation's largest ticket distribution agency has hired prominent Washington-based lobbyists to argue its case.
"I believe an in-depth examination of ticketing practices by the Federal Trade Commission is clearly warranted," said Dingell, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee who called a hearing in September to investigate complaints about escalating concert prices.
"I have real concerns about the impact on ticket consumers of exclusive contracts between building owners and others that limit options of potential competing services."
A spokesman for the new Republican chairman of the House Commerce Committee, Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.), said Bliley intends to take a "very close look" at the measure, which will be co-sponsored by Rep. Carlos Moorhead (R-Calif.) and Rep. Gary A. Condit (D-Calif.).
Dingell's new bill would also require the FTC to conduct a study of current ticketing practices, including the exclusive arrangements between promoters, venue operators and vendors--such as Los Angeles-based Ticketmaster-- that underlie pricing decisions.
Those arrangements are already being scrutinized by the U.S. Justice Department as part of a federal investigation into alleged anti-competitive practices in the ticket distribution business.
That probe began after the Seattle rock group filed a complaint last May accusing Ticketmaster of exercising a national monopoly over ticket distribution and of using its influence with concert promoters to thwart the group's plan for a low-priced tour last summer. Ticketmaster has denied the allegations.
Ticketmaster's practices were reviewed in 1991 when the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division allowed the firm to buy certain assets from Ticketron, its primary competitor.
Ticketmaster spokesman Larry Solters said that the firm has "always and consistently supported ticket price disclosure and will continue to do so."
As to why Ticketmaster has recently hired the two high-powered Washington lobbyists, Solters said: "Every major U.S. company--including the Los Angeles Times--has lobbyists on retainer." (The Times Mirror Co., not the Los Angeles Times, has representation in Washington.)
The ticket debate became a hot topic last June after members of Pearl Jam testified in a House Government Operations subcommittee inquiry into the $1-billion U.S. concert industry. But most observers believed that Pearl Jam's campaign would lose momentum after the Republicans won a majority in Congress on the strength of their "Contract With America," which calls for a rollback of costly bureaucratic government regulations.
Despite the current anti-regulatory political climate, consumer complaints have caught the ear of key Republicans in the U.S. Senate Antitrust Subcommittee.
Staff attorneys for Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) met briefly with representatives for Pearl Jam in early January and said they are currently reviewing allegations presented in the band's complaint to the Justice Department.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.), ranking Democrats on the Senate Antitrust Subcommittee, have also been following the debate.
"We will not tolerate monopolistic practices that artificially inflate ticket prices or restrict the availability of concert seating," said Leahy, whose chief of staff also met with the band in January. "The antitrust division at the U.S. Department of Justice is actively investigating the situation. I have every confidence that (the antitrust division's assistant attorney general) Anne Bingaman will aggressively ferret out any illegal anti-competitive conduct."
According to sources, the pace of the Justice Department probe intensified significantly two months ago after being transferred to a civil task force.
Officials from the Justice Department--who have spent months conducting extensive interviews with talent managers, promoters and venue operators--are believed to be building a case that could challenge the current practice of exclusive contracts between promoters, venues and vendors.
Sources said that the Justice Department is expected to finish its probe before May. Representatives for the Justice Department declined comment, but acknowledged that the investigation is proceeding.
Ticketmaster's chairman, Fredrick D. Rosen, flew to Washington last month to meet with Dingell's staff. Ticketmaster recently retained the services of two high-powered Washington lobbying firms to represent its position to Congress: Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly and Bergner, Bockorny, Clough & Brain.
Meanwhile, a number of consumer groups are preparing to launch a national campaign to change ticket practices.
Last week, representatives from the Consumer Federation of America and the Public Interest Research Group--both Washington-based--gathered with several student organizations to form a coalition to lobby for reforms in the concert business. The nonprofit organization is expected to include a number of superstar entertainers and sports figures and will consist of 240 consumer groups that represent 50 million citizens.
"The service fee situation is completely out of control," said Bradley Stillman, the legislative counsel for the Consumer Federation of America.
"A few years back, we testified before the Justice Department to protest Ticketmaster's acquisition of Ticketron because we were afraid that it would almost certainly make matters worse for consumers. We just didn't think it would get this bad this fast."
* Times staff writer Melissa Healy of the Washington bureau contributed to this article.