Not every path to success is a smooth road. Some bands rise slowly, others shoot across the sky like a meteor only to burn up after a few years. For Pearl Jam, they rose from the ashes of Mother Love Bone and in a matter of three years they grew so big they almost imploded from their fame. At the center of it all was control – How much control would Pearl Jam have over their career and how much would corporations have. In this case, the corporation would be Ticketmaster.
In 1990, Pearl Jam was started after the overdose of Mother Love Bone singer Andy Wood. Guitarist Stone Gossard recruited friend Mike McCready to play on some demos. Soon Gossard contacted fellow Mother Love Bone and Green River bassist Jeff Ament to join in, and Soundgarden Drummer Matt Cameron lended his talents for the demo. In search of a drummer and a singer, Gossard contacted former Chili Peppers skins man Jack Irons. While Irons did decline, he gave the tape to his surfing and basketball friend, Eddie Vedder. Vedder sent the tape back with lyrics and vocals for three songs – Alive, Footsteps, and Once. Within weeks, a new band was born: Mookie Blaylock. That’s right…Mookie Blaylock. The band named themselves after the NBA player. When the band went into the studio, they realized there could be possible litigation and they would soon change their name. In 1991, Mookie Blaylock became Pearl Jam and released their first album, Ten. The album sold slowly at first, but as of today, it has sold over 13 million copies in the US alone.
Word about the band’s live shows spread. They played anywhere with a mix of high energy and their songs connected with audiences. Their first video “Alive” was shot and recorded live. The second single “Evenflow” helped sales. Two events coincided to turn Pearl Jam into a household name. The first was their performance on MTV’s Unplugged. The show featured the band playing a six song acoustic set. The energy of the band in the acoustic setting highlighted their interplay along with Vedder’s voice. This was a band to be seen live.
Then came Jeremy. Of all the songs, Jeremy visually struck a chord with fans the most. The video would win three MTV Video awards. Based upon a true story, the lyrics tell the story behind the story of a school shooting. Eddie did not like the attention given to the song. He has always resented the record company and corporate media for killing the song through overexposure. As a result, Jeremy was the last video the band made for over 9 years. It was the first in a series of battles the band fought and won. After Jeremy, the record company wanted to release “Black” as the next single. Vedder and the band fought back to stop its distribution.
In 1992, the band felt overexposed. To go from being nobodies on the streets of Seattle to being part of the Grunge music scene was quite a shock. Along with Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden, the band did not want to be seen as poster boys of a generation. The band retreated to San Francisco to record their second album Vs. With the line “Five Against One” from the song “Animal”, Eddie summed up their attitude towards the music industry, the media, and the world in general. They would meet with success and failure. The failure tore apart the band, its fans, and Vedder.
The band redid things for Vs. Musical acts in the early 90s mainly released videos for singles. Because of the backlash against Jeremy within the band, they did make any videos for Vs. The first week of its release, Vs. sold an astounding 900,000 copies. The band felt validated to let their music do the talking. The tour was very successful and Pearl Jam was doing things on their own terms. However, they also stopped doing interviews with Rolling Stone and preferred independent magazines.
It was during the Vs. tour that the band noticed their fans were being charged surcharges by Ticketmaster. The band did not like this and vowed to change things. 1994 was not a good year. The band tried to tour as best it could but it was a giant mess without Ticketmaster. When Vitalogy was released in 1994, sales were brisk. The band refused to book any shows with Ticketmaster. The resulting tour or lack thereof was a disaster. Security, sound, and seating were terrible. The band wound up canceling the tour and alienating many fans. The Justice Department contacted the band and asked for details. Stone and Jeff wound up testifying before Congress.
Here are some excerpts of their testimony. The full portion can be found here:
A series of run-ins with Ticketmaster during our last tour illustrates quite clearly the power that Ticketmaster wields and the risk that any band undertakes in attempting to utilize an alternative to Ticketmaster’s distribution system. Last December, we had made arrangements with a local promoter in Seattle to perform at the Seattle Center Arena. A portion of the proceeds from this concert were to go to charity. We originally had an agreement with Ticketmaster under which they would distribute tickets for the concert and impose a service charge of $3.25, of which $1 would be donated by them to the charity, plus they would make an additional contribution from their revenues so that their total contribution would be $20,000 if the concert sold out. Pearl Jam also agreed to contribute $20,000 to the charity. At the last minute, just as the tickets were about to go on sale, Ticketmaster reneged, and threatened not to sell tickets if it could not raise the service charge by $1 per ticket to cover the amount of their contribution. After a tense impasse, Ticketmaster finally relented and agreed to charge only $3.25, but it limited its contribution to the $1 per ticket portion of its undertaking and did not make the full contribution it had originally agreed to make.
After this, our run-ins with Ticketmaster became increasingly threatening. In Chicago last March, Ticketmaster insisted on imposing a $3.75 service charge on top of the $18 price of a ticket to our concerts. We negotiated with Ticketmaster’s general manager in Chicago and obtained an agreement to identify that service charge separately from the actual price of the ticket. Then, just as tickets were to go on sale, Ticketmaster again reneged. It was necessary for us to threaten to perform at another venue before Ticketmaster backed down and agreed to sell tickets that separately disclosed its service charge. Even then, Ticketmaster told us that its concession only extended to our Chicago shows and we should not expect them to be willing to do it elsewhere.
Chicago was followed soon after by Detroit. In Detroit, we decided to try to bypass Ticketmaster by distributing tickets through our fan club and by a lottery system. We were informed that Ticketmaster threatened the promoter of this concert with a lawsuit for violating its exclusive Ticketmaster agreement by allowing this method of distribution to occur, and also temporarily disabled the promoter’s ticket machine to that it could not print tickets for the concert for that time.
In New York, where we played a show at the Paramount Theatre in April of this year, we tried to distribute some tickets over the radio. Using a city-wide promotion, tickets were sold through the Paramount Box office. Here again, we were informed that Ticketmaster threatened the Paramount’s management with legal action for supposedly allowing us to evade Ticketmaster’s exclusive rights.
While we were experimenting with these alternative distribution arrangements, Ticketmaster attempted to threaten and intimidate us. For example, at one point the person in charge of handling concert arrangements for us was told by Ticketmaster in essence that he had better watch himself and that if we didn’t back off he would be run out of the business.
After the conclusion of our winter tour, we began to plan for a tour this summer. In attempting to arrange that tour, we made it clear that we would only perform if the service charge imposed on our tickets was limited to 10 percent and was separately disclosed. Ticketmaster responded by spreading the word to promoters that it viewed our efforts as a threat to its business and urged promoters to refuse to deal with Pearl Jam. For example, as we disclosed to the Justice Department, in March of this year, Ben Liss of the North American Concert Promoters Association — a group of all major promoters in North America — sent a memorandum to the Association’s members in which he referred to them as “brother raccoons” and warned that:
“Ticketmaster has indicated to me that they will aggressively enforce their contracts with promoters and facilities. Ticketmaster’s stance is that they have been loyal to their partners in this business and they hope and expect their partners will reciprocate.”
As our memorandum to the Justice Department explains, Ticketmaster’s exclusive arrangements with promoters and venues are unreasonable restraints of trade, and its use of those arrangements to prevent promoters and venues from dealing with Pearl Jam amounts to a group boycott, in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. Ticketmaster is also a monopolist, having acquired and perpetuated that position through its acquisition of Ticketron and various other regional ticket services and the use of long term exclusive contracts. In acting to preclude Pearl Jam and other bands from distributing tickets to their own concerts other than through Ticketmaster, Ticketmaster is unlawfully exercising that monopoly power in violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act.
Since we brought Ticketmaster’s conduct to the attention of the Department of Justice almost two months ago, public support for us and more generally for efforts to reduce ticket prices has been overwhelming. Although our success as a band gives us a degree of power to try to stand up to Ticketmaster that newer and less established bands do not have, we do not consider ourselves to be crusaders. And while we recognize that the issues we have raised have implications that go beyond Pearl Jam, our interest is really quite narrow. We simply have a different philosophy than Ticketmaster does about how and at what price tickets to our concerts should be sold. We do not want to force Ticketmaster to do business on our terms, but we believe we should have the freedom to go elsewhere if Ticketmaster is not prepared to negotiate terms that are acceptable to us. That is the essence of competition. As we learned in attempting to arrange a tour this summer, given the current state of Ticketmaster’s dominance of the industry, that may well mean that we must play non-traditional venues and use non-established promoters or promote our own shows.
The level of the service charge is not the only problem that Pearl Jam faces in connection with the sale of tickets to its concerts. Beyond the excessive service charges there are the problems of ticket scalping, counterfeiting, and commercial advertising on tickets. For example, at some of our recent concerts, an informal poll of fans in the audience revealed that more than 40 percent of them bought their tickets from ticket brokers. At many of our concerts, we are experiencing a counterfeit ticket rate of about 2.5 to 3%. And at one recent concert in Boston, we learned that some of these counterfeit tickets had been sold to fans for $250.
Ticketmaster CEO Fred Rosen says he “intends on taking a very strong stand on this issue to protect Ticketmaster’s existing contracts with promoters and facilities, and further, TM will use all available remedies to protect itself from outside third parties that attempt to interfere with those existing contracts.”
On May 6, 1994, unable to find suitable venues to perform in that do not have exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster, Pearl Jam cancels its summer tour. Representatives from the U.S. Justice Department approach the band about filing a memo with them under their anti-trust division. Pearl Jam agrees. In the memo Pearl Jam claims that Ticketmaster, through its extensive exclusive contracts with major concert venues, controls a monopoly over the marketplace, and that Ticketmaster has pressured promoters not to handle Pearl Jam shows.
Despite the testimony of Stone and Jeff along with members of R.E.M., Ticketmaster never had charges brought up against it by the Justice Department or by Congress. On July 5, 1995, the Justice Department drops its Ticketmaster investigation with the following statement: “The Department of Justice announced today that it has informed Ticketmaster Holdings Group, Inc. that it is closing its antitrust investigation into that firm’s contracting practices. The Department will continue to monitor competitive developments in the ticketing industry.”
Attorney General Janet Reno, commenting on the Department’s dropping of the case, says,
“[i]t did not seem an appropriate time to continue to pursue the investigation…My understanding is that the division found that there were new enterprises coming into the arena and based on that evidence…we do not have a basis for proceeding.”
Pearl Jam responded that they were “disappointed” with the decision stating that “those who will be most hurt by the Justice Department’s cave-in are the consumers of live entertainment.” The band added that it “will continue to work on behalf of our fans to keep our tickets affordable and accessible to everyone.”
Vedder was devastated. He retreated back to Seattle. The band would come to a compromise with Ticketmaster for their next tour – if there was one. Members of the Pearl Jam Fan Club, Ten Club, would be given preferential seating and they would also be allowed to buy tickets ahead of the general public. The effects of this compromise would not be truly seen until the late 90s when Ten Club went online.
In 1995, the band hooked up with one of Eddie’s heroes, Neil Young. They recorded with Neil as his backing band for the CD Mirror Ball. They toured with Neil and the relationship transformed not only the sound of the band, but their songwriting and how they got along as a band. Pearl Jam would release an EP called Merkin Ball with some of the songs co-written by Neil Young. Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones said that being in a band was a young man’s game. Pearl Jam were now adults in their early thirties. In 1996, the album No Code was released to rave reviews but poor sales. Gone were the anthems of angst, alienation, and long guitar solos. The songs reflected a more mature band seeking to craft songs like their idols.
Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune stated in 1995,
“Pearl Jam’s revolt is informed by generosity and almost naive idealism; the band is staking its future on a battle to reform the entertainment ticketing industry that, it is hoped, would make concerts more affordable and accessible. It may sound quaint, and it’s certainly a gesture out of step with these cynical times. But, above all, it’s brave. Other bands have paid lip service to this goal, but none has followed Pearl Jam’s lead.”
However, the sale of their CDs has never reached the zenith of their early CDs. No Code, released shortly after the conflict, is the lowest selling CD in the Pearl Jam catalog. On the other hand, the band would rebound with Yield in 1998 and again in 2000 with Binaural.
The conflict marked several key turning points in the history of the band. They would no longer be the giant band of the early 1990s. The conflict changed them personally and it also changed their music. However, they did become legends by doing things on their own terms. Vedder’s role in the conflict reshaped what was of value to him as an artist, a human being, and as a member of a band. Today, the band still takes on the giant issues of the day. They may have lost some control but in the end, they ended up gaining more control of themselves.