Bands like Underoath have taken to social media to complain about Ticketmaster's new fan club ticket rules.

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to reboot a part of your business only to find that the solution you’ve come up with has created more headaches than before. 

That was the unfortunate spot Ticketmaster found itself in last month when, in the midst of relaunching its Artist Services Group as OnTour, it began to get some serious blowback from the managers and agents of a few mid-level club acts. The bands (and their reps) took to social media to complain about new rules that threatened to cut into the 8-10 percent of tickets typically set aside for acts to distribute to their fan clubs.

One of the first to speak up was recently reunited metal group Underoath, whose manager, Randy Nichols, went public with his gripes about what he said were TM’s difficult-to-decipher rules for what qualifies as a fan club. 

“Everyone’s story is different, but for a decade their policy has been that artists can get up to 8 percent of the tickets from a Ticketmaster show, nobody complains and there aren’t really any set rules around it,” said Nichols. “Then Ticketmaster set rules and everyone tried to live within them, but the rules kept changing.”

Nichols said he asked TM for a copy of the current rules (as did Venues Today), so Underoath could re-launch its fan club based on the updated guidelines and include TM shows in their presale. The band did everything they thought was required, but when they brought the results to TM they began to get what Nichols called a “series of little things.”

They included a complaint that Underoath didn’t have an active message board for fans, which Nichols said was not in the rules and, besides, felt like a request for outdated technology.

“So we said we’d add a message board and we’d be good to launch,” he said. “Then they responded that we didn’t have a valid fan club because it was new and new fan clubs violate their terms and conditions.”

The problem was that TM typically represents around a quarter of dates for most of Nichols’ acts, so he was just trying to keep them happy, while making sure Underoath didn’t lose out on lucrative fan club package sales. Plus, he’d sold all of the fan club tickets in $60 bundles for the mostly sold-out tour, so dumping the TM dates would mean leaving a lot of money on the table.
Nichols eventually struck a deal — the terms of which he declined to detail — with TM where he was able to hold on to that fan club ticket revenue. In doing so he also realized that OnTour has some interesting new wrinkles alongside shortcomings that might not make it work for all his peers.

This wasn’t what TM had in mind when it decided to do a three-city (Nashville, New York, Los Angeles) roll-out of the rebranded OnTour, according to the division’s Senior VP/GM Zeeshan Zaidi. He said the decade-old group’s mission has been to “leverage the Ticketmaster platform and data and help our partners identify and connect with fans.”

What’s new is that over the past year TM decided to double down and invest in this area and build out new offerings in addition to marketing and ticketing, handling commerce, bundle upsells and running premium ticketing and VIP fan club packages for clients such as U2 and Madonna.

“What I’m most excited about, and why I wanted to do an OnTour launch is that we are going to start providing reporting and analytics to the artists and industry, which is historically an area where Ticketmaster could have done more,” Zaidi said of the mobile reporting app Ticker.

The biggest headline is that TM will start offering something bands and managers have been asking for for years: real-time sales reporting and demo information on ticket buyers that will be fed directly to the artists and their teams.

“We’re open to being more transparent and flexible by providing this reporting and tools, but also we’ve been investing in the platforms and technology that deliver all these other solutions — upsales, bundling, tools for premium ticketing and fan club website platforms — as well as growing our client relations team,” he said.

So, what went wrong with the roll-out, then?

Zaidi said a lot of artists partner with third party VIP packaging companies when they want to offer VIP bundles. Those companies then partner with TM and the ticketing giant does the marketing and merchandising on the packages.

While there are no rules for VIP packages, Zaidi said the majority of artists playing TM rooms do their own marketing and pre-sale of fan club tickets, which does have specific rules. “There are some managers and agents who’ve pointed out recently that there are gaps in our offerings that don’t work for them, especially on the fan club front,” he said, declining to get specific about what shortcomings were creating the problems.

While Zaidi didn’t go into detail, he said TM is working with the acts to “see how we can best serve them.” And, as they learn about hiccups such as the one experienced by Underoath, who “want to connect with fans in a different way than we offer,” he said TM will try to “engage with them and see exactly what they’re looking to do, and how do we offer that or help you achieve your goals.”

Zaidi said there was “not one particular hang up” that OnTour has run into in its rollout, but that each situation was unique.

One of the artists that ran into a significant hurdle in working within OnTour’s new guidelines was alt-country singer Jason Isbell. His manager, Traci Thomas at Thirty Tigers Management, said the trouble started when they put up a crucial four-night run at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for presale back in April.

“Jason hasn’t done a lot of presales yet, but he’s just getting to the size where we were trying to better serve our audience by offering that to the more hardcore fans,” she said. “But because we didn’t have a formal fan club by their standards [it was an issue].”

She described the “archaic” list of rules she was sent specifying that the act had to have a chatboard on its website, a dated technology Thomas wasn’t willing to spend money on. “The fans sign up for a newsletter and they think they’re in a fan club; we’re not going to charge people to be in a fan club,” she said.

“We’re trying to convey that we’re a much more authentic artist than what Ticketmaster artists typically look like and I don’t like a major company telling me who I can and can’t sell tickets to,” Thomas said, adding she wasn’t looking to pick a fight with TM. But after suggesting Jason could tweet to his fans and have them re-tweet to TM confirming they were in the fan club, she eventually decided to just skip the pre-sale for fan club tickets that Isbell wanted to offer on CrowdSurge.

Considering that Isbell doesn’t really need that much help selling tickets on a likely-to-sell-out tour that’s hitting rooms ranging from 1,500-3,400 capacity — and which is booked into 70 percent TM venues — Thomas opted instead to just lean toward non-TM rooms when possible and move on. “It’s not like we won’t play the Ryman or we won’t work with the Bowery” she said of TM venues she frequently works with. “But I’ll make an effort as we move forward to see who has non-Ticketmaster deals.”

Among the TM rules for fan club sales (according to a doc posted by Thomas): the club “has a separate and devoted ongoing community with its own identity and virtual home where members interact with one another in a members-only section” and “mentions access to presales as only one of many significant benefits to Fan Club membership.”

In addition, “Ticketmaster is unlikely to consider a Fan Club that is formed immediately prior to presale as eligible to conduct an off-platform presale” and “at no time during the presale process should any third-party ticketing vendor branding be visible during the purchase process.”

Thomas has chatted with Zaidi and Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino and said they told her they knew some changes needed to be made. “I just want the ability to sell those 8 percent to my fanbase and not be told that I have to have fan club by their standards to do it,” she said, noting that TM is now “bending over backwards” to give the Isbell tour some extra marketing push after the flap.

Another route she’s considering is going really old school and asking fans to go directly to the box office at the venues to buy tickets. “We do all of the marketing for Jason’s records that lead up to what actually sells tickets – they don’t do that and the fact that they want to restrict me from having that 8 percent when we do the bulk of that work is really frustrating,” she said. “That’s Jason’s money and they want to argue about 8 percent.”

Interviewed for this story: Randy Nichols, (516) 806-6500; Zeeshan Zaidi, (310) 867-7009; Traci Thomas, (615) 664-1167