Digital Nation: Download And Print — That's The Ticket!

New e-ticketing system will change the concert-going experience.

(This is another in a continuing series of reports about music on the Internet.)

Senior Writer Chris Nelson reports:

You're sitting at home on a Saturday morning.

You're all coffee'd up, anxious for Phish tickets to go on sale. The Ticketmaster.com Web site flickers onscreen.

When the clock hits 10 a.m., your index finger crashes down on the Enter key. Your order zips through cyberspace, rebounds with a confirmation number, and a moment later, your printer is churning out tickets.

Aahh, instant gratification. That's what 17-year-old Phish fan Jim McCabe of Fayetteville, N.C., likes about the plans of Ticketmaster and Admission.com to allow customers to print 8-1/2-by-11-inch tickets in their homes.

What he doesn't like is the potential crush of people itching to get in the door when arena security guards have to run the home-printed tickets through bar code scanners. And the bigger hold-up when the guards have to check for ID, if someone tries to pass off a photocopy of a ticket.

"If they had to stop every person one by one and check their credit card and ID, it's going to take a long time," McCabe said.

Aiming For Reliability

Downloadable tickets — which Admission.com is already using and which Ticketmaster said last month it would introduce in the spring — have the potential to transform concert-going rituals, from how we buy ducats to how we pass through the gate.

Supporters of the innovation say it will cut down on fraudulent tickets. But not everyone's sold on the idea. At least not yet.

Here's a run-down of the system: Every ticket spit out by your printer comes with a bar code (also known as a universal product code, or UPC).

When customers bring their letter-sized tickets to a venue, ticket takers at the gates run them under a laser-eye scanner, identical to scanners at grocery stores. Once scanned, the ticket is automatically logged on a computer register. Anyone who brings a photocopy of the same ticket will be asked to produce ID to establish whether he or she is the rightful owner.

It's a more reliable process than the current method of ticket taking, Admission.com General Manager Keith Kelly said.

"The usher — usually in half darkness, with a hundred people standing in front pushing and shoving to get in — has to be able to glance at a ticket and say, 'Yes, that one's real. Go.' ... That's not a very perfect process. A bar code changes that by taking out the human eyeball element."

Some Reluctance

On Monday, Admission.com wrapped up a 90-day trial period for its e-tickets. It will start selling downloadable tickets again Feb. 24 for San Francisco performances by Cirque du Soleil, a Montreal circus troupe. Venues in Houston and Las Vegas are also on track to begin using the service soon.

Jacobs Field, home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team, already scans bar codes on traditional tickets. Jon Zirin has studied the Jacobs Field operation, and though he's impressed, he's not ready to implement the system at Chicago's United Center.

"You have to hold it just right," said Zirin, director of event operations at the center. "If the ticket's crumpled, it doesn't read properly. Not everyone's coming into the game with the ticket perfectly straight. It's been in a wallet, or it's gotten wet. There's a lot of issues that need to be resolved."

The first time a particular ticket is scanned in, no ID is required. But that means if someone photocopies an e-ticket and arrives before the rightful ticket holder, the copier will be allowed in immediately, and the buyer will be required to produce ID. Then, Kelly said, security will attempt to find — and eject — the copy holder inside the venue.

"Good luck," McCabe said.

Phish fan Jacob Wolkowitz of Madison, N.J., already buys his tickets online for the "Birds of a Feather" (RealAudio excerpt) jam band, though those tickets arrive in the mail. He said there's not much reason to fret about counterfeiting.

"I'm assuming that as long as I'm careful, holding onto the UPC code, I'll be fine," he said.

Zirin is betting that Wolkowitz is right. He said the United Center likely will begin accepting home-printed tickets in the next year or two, after the technology is refined.

"We'd like to think we're on the cutting edge with stuff, but then again, we don't want to be the guinea pigs," he said.

* * *

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