Monday, October 27, 2003

Beat the System

Given my previous reference to Ticketmaster as “The Beast,” I thought it fitting to continue the saga with further religious references – hence “Beat the System.” Yes, I did beat the system just as the legendary Christian rock band Petra urged me to do in my youth: “You can dare to win by losing all, you can face the heat - dare to Beat the System.”

For me, beating the system amounted to my attendance at a recent Radiohead concert without paying any Ticketmaster fees. However, I think Petra had something else in mind with that song and would have disapproved of my seeing a dangerous band like Radiohead. Nonetheless, I did beat the system – with a little help from Craig and his list.

More than just a dark enemy of Ticketmaster’s subversive plan to control the live music universe, Craiglist is a remarkable resource for just about anything you could possible want: garage sale listings, community events, activity partners, job lists, free moving boxes and, yes, concert tickets. It’s essentially a community bulletin board on steroids, and that’s pretty much how it started about eight years ago in San Francisco.

Now Craigslist is nationwide, with ‘lists’ serving most major metropolitan cities – including my fair hamlet of San Diego. The successful spread of Craiglist across the U.S. and even Canada gives me hope that people are once again realizing the importance and benefits of being part of a community. The Craiglist concept feeds off the same part of the brain that has enabled eBay to be so successful. It gives us an easy and convenient way to sidestep the limited, self-serving options offered by corporate America.

After completing the financial transaction for my Radiohead tickets, I felt like I had won. There was a certain euphoria that arose from my belief that I had beat the system. Even though I had to go through a fairly laborious process of exchanging several emails and arranging a meeting place and time to complete the transaction, I felt it was all worth it. Perhaps there is also a thrill in meeting a complete stranger for an exchange of goods. I almost expect to hear the individual ask for unmarked bills and to make sure that I am not followed.

This feeling of furtive excitement was heightened by my most recent experience securing tickets to see The Strokes perform at the Bill Graham civic auditorium in San Francisco. I had contacted “Kenneth” earlier in the day, and he said he had two tickets – below face value. Excellent. However, when I called at the prearranged time to come pick up the tickets, he said he couldn’t meet me as he was going out with a friend. This concerned me, as it was 5 p.m., and the concert was the next day. If he didn’t pull through, I wouldn’t have much time to come up with alternate plan. A failed attempt to arrange a successful exchange might force me into momentary Tickemaster servitude.

Thinking quickly, I suggested that we meet first thing in the morning, as I couldn’t meet him later in the evening due to my own plans to have dinner with friends. “Kenneth” seemed hesitant to meet in the morning, and would rather do it that night – he would be up late. At 11:30 p.m., I slowed my car to a stop outside the Mervyn’s in a particularly urban and gritty part of San Francisco’s Richmond district. As I turned off the engine and the lights, I could hear the howling of the wind as it coaxed the dense fog eastward from the ocean. The eerie setting and empty streets made me feel a little vulnerable. Who was this Kenneth? Why was he selling these tickets for $10 less than anyone else on Craiglist? Why did he want to meet in the middle of the night in a sketchy part of town?

Within five minutes, however, Kenneth appeared out of the fog with an envelope in hand. Not hidden in a folded-up newspaper or enclosed in an ominous briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, the white #8 business envelope was brandished clearly for all to see. As he handed it to me, I quickly inspected its contents. It looked official, had the right date and exhibited the nefarious Ticketmaster markings. I handed over the $50 in unmarked bills and shook his hand. On a whim (and to reassure my lingering doubts) I asked him why he was selling them. He replied that he had seen them twice already and decided a third time wasn’t necessary.

I would have liked a more plausible response, as I thought it unrealistic that he would have attended the prior tour dates in LA and New York. However, I accepted the explanation and completed the transaction with an awkward handshake. Either he was as ill at ease as I was, or he was a consummate trickster and it was all part of the act. Whichever it was, the truth would be had the next evening.

As I handed over the tickets to the ticket-taker, I was surprised that I did so with a little apprehension. Apparently, I wasn’t totally convinced that the prior evening’s exchange had been successful. Of course, the tickets were valid, and I proceeded to enjoy a great live performance that was subconsciously enhanced by the confirmed knowledge that I had beat the system.