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Suspicious Deadheads up in arms as Grateful Dead promoter tries to fit more fans into farewell concerts

From left, the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart perform during a reunion concert on Aug. 3, 2002, in East Troy, Wis. (Morry Gash/AP)

Can’t we just throw a flatbed up on Haight Street, dose the Corona and play “Dark Star” ‘til the sun goes down?

Yes, another day, another Grateful Dead ticket outrage spreads over the ‘net. The latest hate-swell erupted over the weekend as fans started getting their pre-ordered tickets for the group’s three farewell gigs at Chicago’s Soldier Field — the hottest shows of the summer — and others struggled to score the thousands of tickets newly released by Ticketmaster.

“Grateful” Dean Sottile hit hard with a pointed blog entry. Armed with a series of seating charts and his credentials as a “Dead Head first,” Sottile slapped around promoter Pete Shapiro. Shapiro put together the five “Fare Thee Well” shows —  two in Santa Clara, Calif., on June 27 and 28 before the Chicago gigs in July — to mark the last time the four original Grateful Dead members will play together. Sottile made it clear he doesn’t blame Phil Lesh, Mickey Hart, Bob Weir or Bill Kreutzmann — only the promoter.

I could try to break down Sottile’s charges, but you’re better off scrolling through them here. They generally boil down to accusing Shapiro of the most offensive crime in Headville: Greed at the expense of fans.

That sentiment also raged in the “Grateful Dead 50th – Face Value Tickets” group on Facebook, formed earlier this year to help desperate Heads searching for seats. The group has more than 18,000 members and a few of them were calling for a class action lawsuit or, perhaps worse in this community, a nasty Shapiro T-shirt.

I called Shapiro to try to figure out what happened and realized, as he offered details, why promoters usually don’t try to explain these things. Concert ticketing today is extremely complicated. And Shapiro certainly didn’t make things easier by deciding to use Grateful Dead Ticket Sales to distribute many tickets for the shows.

What’s GDTS? It’s a homegrown office in Stinson Beach, Calif., created in the 1980s by the band. Deadheads decorate their envelopes elaborately, stuff them with mail orders for concert tickets and figure a nice, cheery Head on the other end will fulfill their request. How quaint!

Now try and meld that with the little mom-and-pop operation known as Ticketmaster and the fact that more than 600,000 requests came in this winter for the then-150,000 Soldier Field seats available. That forced changes. And that’s where the opinions of what went down differ.

The critics say that Shapiro acted like any other money-grubbing opportunist, trying to squeeze a desperate audience shielded by a complicit, Deadhead network — satellite radio hosts, journalists needing access, extremely tall celebrities and the like. The other side views Shapiro as the anti-Ticketmaster, a Deadhead who answers his cell phone, reaches out to critics and has been trying to get as many fans as he can into just five concerts. He’s also managed to bring together four guys who, in recent years, have been acting more like Oasis than patriarchs of the Summer of Love.

My view? I think Shapiro is trying to do the right thing. But he could have done a better job explaining the process so that when ticket prices shifted and re-releases were announced — standard practice in the modern concert market — the Heads could understand. Remember: StubHub wasn’t founded until 2000, or five years after the Garcia-led Grateful Dead played its last show. Throw in such charming but antiquated concepts as the GDTS and everything seems like Shakedown Street.

“This was always going to be an awkward situation with a lot of broken hearts,” says Casey Rae, the chief economic officer of the nonprofit Future of Music Coalition, which has studied ticketing policies. “If they wanted to make a lot more money off this in the primary market, they certainly could have. I think they may have had mismanagement of information, PR and rollout, but I don’t know if there’s anything sinister going on.”

Tell that to Sean Russomanno, a 28-year-old Phish fanatic who has been blasting Shapiro online. I called him to talk through his criticisms, starting with his belief that the Chicago gigs could have been sold completely through the Dead’s ticket office instead of going wide. A nice notion, except for the fact that several thousand Chicago Bears season ticket holders get dibs on seats and that a little old company called Ticketmaster doesn’t generally like to cede control of a market.

Russomanno felt the price scale, with top prices in the lower $200s, was too high.

“It’s bad form,” says Russomanno. “Let’s take Phish, for example. I don’t think they would do as well charging 150 or 200 dollars, but I think they could and still get away with it. But they don’t. It just doesn’t seem right.”

Shapiro says the changes made since the time tickets went on sale earlier this year were not a ploy for more money. He added seats behind the Soldier Field stage. He also stripped the seats out of the floor, making the sections general admission for people to stand. That meant seating charts shifted, as did prices. Hence, Grateful Dean’s charge of a “switcheroo.”

Reading Grateful Dean’s passionate post, it’s easy to forget an important reality. The highest ticket price for the “Fare Three Well shows” hovers around $199.50 before fees. And over the weekend, fans started posting pictures of $99 tickets for the pit in front of the stage. Those were only sold through GDTS. The Santa Clara shows were announced weeks after Chicago, by which point Shapiro knew he could have jacked up those prices. But the $99 pit price remained for those buying through the older Deadhead system.

[Basketball legend Bill Walton vows, with love, to stop Grateful Dead’s farewell.]

There are varying opinions of how much money Shapiro may have left on the table. I wish I understood this chart, for example. But it’s safe to say that $99 won’t score you a spot just in front of Billy Joel, the Rolling Stones or Taylor Swift.

“What I’m disappointed about is folks willing to jump on a negative bandwagon without doing their own research,” says Sharon Weber, a Vermont fan who saw the Dead more than 100 times before Garcia’s death and is going to all five farewell shows. “Deadheads have traditionally been ones who will think through an issue, look at things logically. They’re thinkers. But I’m seeing people using the sheep mentality and following along because other people are angry. These were folks clamoring for any tickets just months ago and now that they have tickets, they’re not quite good enough.”

Shapiro said the criticism is a downer. He wishes people understood how complicated it has been to organize these shows. He conceded that including the GDTS didn’t make things easier. One of the early, now-moot seating charts floating around the Web shows ticket levels of $149.50. The problem is that GDTS, which asked for money orders when ticket requests were sent in, never had seats for that price so the chart was immediately obsolete. If a fan sent in $199, GDTS had a problem. They couldn’t send people $50 refund checks — try that with tens of thousands of people — so they had to find them a better seat than originally in the chart, or shift prices throughout the stadium. (I know, it’s confusing.)

And one additional wrinkle? Some Deadheads I talked to thought the better seats were on the floor. These tended to be members of the post-Garcia set who didn’t mind jostling for space near the stage and had no issues standing up through a lengthy show. Other Heads thought the better tickets were the seats one level up. They could see over everybody and not worry about getting cramps during a 27-space jam.

Shapiro suggested I wait a few days before writing anything about the ticket ruckus. Tempers flared over the original Chicago sale, he reminded me, and only a few weeks later, all was well. He also added that if anybody wants a refund, they could just call the Grateful Dead ticket office.

“I’ve been through this before when everybody was nuts and then we added California and I became a hero from whatever,” says Shapiro. “Right now, I know I need these shows to be great. I know that if I can keep my head down and try to do the right thing, when they come to the show and when people experience the music venue, I think in the end that’s what they’re going to talk about.”