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Phoning Out: The Future of Buying Concert Tickets May Be in Your Pocket 

Wednesday, Sep 12 2012

It's 1 p.m. when your phone buzzes. You check it, and find a cheeky message telling you that an indie pop band you've never heard of is playing tonight at the Regency Ballroom. You've got no plans, so you click through for more info: a breezy paragraph about who's in the band and what they sound like, a slick photo, and a button where you can buy a ticket to the show — plus a free drink — for $25. No fees, no taxes, just the flat price.

Maybe you buy it then. But maybe you wait, and an hour later your phone buzzes again, this time with news that two of your Facebook friends are going to the show. Now will you buy a ticket?

A couple of new music startups in San Francisco think so. And local concert promoters say that they might be on to something.

Willcall and Thrillcall are both small, venture capital-funded outfits based in San Francisco. (Good luck not getting them confused.) Willcall, the younger and more radical of the two companies, is an iPhone and Android app that works as described above. When there's a show to offer, users get a pop-up message, often on the same day. They can check it out and buy the ticket, sometimes with a drink or two thrown in, right through their phone. The value is twofold: The app tells you about something cool going on soon, while offering you a ticket for a flat price, often without a service fee. The only big thing it doesn't offer its more than 5,000 local users is a way to listen to the music within the app.

Thrillcall is the slightly older, larger of the two companies, and entered the realm of mobile ticketing earlier this year with the launch of its iPhone app. Thrillcall's app isn't as pretty or fun as Willcall's, but it's more substantial: There are four or five offers daily for something happening that night, and listings of every concert happening in town, including the tiny ones. Your phone sends you a message when there are new offers to be had, and you can buy tickets through the app.

Both companies base their work on two key beliefs: That there's something difficult about buying tickets the regular way, and that people increasingly decide plans at the last minute, making their mobile phones a key purchase point. But the last-minute mobile approach doesn't seem destined to work for hardcore fans, who are poised to buy tickets for their favorite artists as soon as they go on sale. And is there really something so hard about going online — or picking up your local alt-weekly — and perusing the exhaustive live listings and recommendations?

Willcall co-founder Donnie Dinch thinks so. "We're not necessarily just facilitating a transaction, we're convincing people to go do something," he says. The app gives only one or two options at a time, but its sexy interface and lively content make users feel like they're in on something under the radar. The company gets this, which is why it's been putting on so-called "secret shows" announced only through the Willcall app. The first one, S.F. electro-pop band Geographer performing in a small room above the Regency's main ballroom, sold out 400 tickets in just a few days — an impressive feat. And venues that have tried the Willcall app in the last few months say it works. "It's like a niche marketing tool, and it's last-minute, and it's mobile," says Shane King, who books Mezzanine. "Even if they end up selling 25 tickets the day of, that's 25 more people in the door, drinking at the bar, 25 more people that bought tickets to pay the artists. It's definitely helpful."

The company faces a number of hurdles, the main one being how to break into a market dominated by major ticket vendors like Ticketmaster and Ticketfly, which contract with venues to sell their tickets. Many local venues have exclusive deals with these companies, leaving no room for an upstart like Willcall. But early on, the company found a way around that: It offered tickets to a couple shows without going through the venue, ruffling the feathers of the club's management. "It isn't something that we currently do, or have done in months," Dinch says. "But starting out, brute force was the only way to move the fucking needle. It was only a handful of instances, and we never resold for more than face value."

Other local clubs have contracts to sell a percentage of tickets through different avenues, leaving an opening for Willcall. But the tightness of the space and the power of large firms like Ticketmaster mean that the startup's place in the market remains unclear. Willcall enjoys a good relationship with the local office of Goldenvoice, a subsidiary of concert giant AEG. But so far it hasn't found a way to work with the Live Nation/Ticketmaster empire. "I don't think they really know what to do with us," Dinch says.

One strategy both Willcall and Thrillcall flirted with was the idea of offering discounted tickets, only to abandon it quickly. Offers on these apps may or may not include service fees or drink tickets, but the base ticket price won't be cheaper than at the door. "Any way you cut a discount, it looks bad for everybody involved," says Thrillcall's Matthew Tomaszewicz. "If you're discounting a ticket then you came out at the wrong price." Regardless, reps for both companies say that chopping $5 off the price of a ticket doesn't make their target audience — young, upwardly mobile, aesthetic-minded people — more inclined to go.

In contrast with upstart Willcall, Thrillcall has carefully formed partnerships with venues and ticketers across the country, launching in S.F. at this year's Noise Pop festival in February. The company declined to say how many have installed its app. But the product feels more conservative than Willcall's, more like a mobile extension of the ticketing sites music fans already use, and that's partly by design. Contrary to the disruptive aims of some tech companies, Tomaszewicz says, "We want to be complementary. It's the only way that it works, given the price of a ticket and how many people participate in the value of that ticket." On any given day, many of Thrillcall's offers are contests to win tickets — essentially advertisements for a particular show or artist. The company does negotiate for exclusive ticket offers to highly desired shows, but doesn't offer that kind of deal on a daily basis. Neither app offers a way to listen to music yet.

The companies' similar monikers and approach has led to some sniping between their users — and in one case, from Tomaszewicz himself — in the comment sections of online news stories, with partisans claiming that each app is a rough copy of the other. Interestingly, none of the company representatives we spoke with would even describe the other as a direct rival. "They're a promoter with some technology, rather than a competitor of ours," says Tomaszewicz of Thrillcall. Dinch called Thrillcall "a good product from what I can tell," but added, "I don't think that they're going after the same type of deals and relationships that we're working on."

Whatever their approach, both firms are trying to do the same thing: sell you concert tickets through your smartphone. The idea seems of limited appeal to hardcore music fans, or those who plan more than a few days in advance — at least for now. But for casual procrastinators who just want to be told what to do on a given night (and how many of their friends are already doing it), Willcall and Thrillcall just might be the ticket.

About The Author

Ian S. Port


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