Eric Church is not a man you want to fuck with. "If you're gonna bark at the big dog boy / Then you're gonna get to feel the bite," the country singer shouted, all whiskey breath and manic energy, on Chief's "Keep On." And while the chart-topping, Grammy-nominated singer has every reason to be feeling good about this career, there's one nemesis he can't seem to shake and has turned his full-throated aggression towards: scalpers. "It's really organized crime," Church says of the lucrative ticket resale market that sees large-scale scalping organizations, many armed with ticket bots, gobbling up and reselling some of the best tickets for his shows at enormous profit. "It becomes a very lucrative business for them," he says. "So what we tried to do is just eliminate them."
Church is just one of many artists taking a stab at making life difficult for those in the scalping industry: last month Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda teamed with Senator Chuck Schumer to announce legislation to fine bot users up to $16,000; Chance the Rapper took back several thousand tickets from scalpers for his Magnificent Coloring Day Festival. But Church feels action needed to be taken on a more grassroots level: for his forthcoming Holdin' My Own Tour the country singer required fans to join his Church Choir fan club to have access to pre-sale tickets and even began using new technology to scrub prospective buyers' information to make sure they had no history of scalping. "Hopefully by making [scalpers'] lives difficult, by canceling orders, by making it hard for them to even get a ticket they'll just move onto something else," Church explains. "That's what our goal has been: to make it so when I walk out onstage the people I'm looking at in that pit and on the floor are our fans and more importantly they paid face value for that ticket."
Next year promises to be a busy one for Church: After surprise releasing his Mr. Misunderstood album last November the North Carolina-based singer foreswore Stateside touring for most of 2016. Aside from a pair of shows at Red Rocks last month, most fans first chance to hear the new material played live will come next year when he kicks off a 60-plus-city, two-set tour on January 13 in Lincoln, Nebraska. "We're going to have to work our ass off. There's no other way to say it," Church says with a laugh. He'll be the sole act, there will be a mid-show intermission, and he'll play for nearly three hours a night. "I've waited forever to do this kind of show," Church says in a conversation with Noisey during which he outlines his attack-plan against scalpers, his over-the-top new tour and why he never could have predicted how well his career has panned out.
Noisey: When did you first decide to direct your attention towards taking on scalpers?
Eric Church: It wasn't as big of a problem for us early on in our career because of the places we played. But as the venue size grew it started to come to the forefront of my knowledge. You had fans starting to complain about paying two, three, four hundred dollars for tickets on sites like StubHub and all these secondary sites. It raised my awareness that that stuff was happening. But what I didn't know at the time was that the deck was stacked against the regular buyer. And that's really when we got involved. To say it's capitalism and to say it's free-market is one thing. But when you come in and you have the technology, all these bots out there that buy up large chunks of tickets, and you're an average fan that's trying to be in an on-sale and trying to get decent seats down front, with the way the system is set up you have a very low-percentage chance to get a good seat at the face value. You end up having to pay four or five times face value for that seat because all these bots and these scalpers scoop them up. We got to investigating who is doing this, and there's ties to Russian mafia! It's crazy. But it's because there's a bunch of money there. When you think about it from a margin standpoint it's crazy.
And with your fans perhaps getting a bit older and wanting to take their kids to a show it gets insanely pricey.
Especially when you're dealing with a situation with a family of four and five, their best chance to go now is by sitting in the nosebleeds, the upper level. They're not going to be able to afford the good seats because of the secondary market.
I don't want our fans who have been with us forever to be in the upper level and backed up against the wall because they didn't want to pay five times face value on the secondary market.
I think there should be states' attorney's generals, and even on the federal level, that make it illegal for there to be the things that go on in the secondary market. Because when you're using fake credit cards and fake identities in every definition I can see it's called fraud. That's what a lot of these people are doing. It's just not to the forefront yet. But it's starting to be.
Legislation is underway to penalize those using bots, but scalpers remain the main issue.
That's right. Because of scalpers the intent is still there. Until you prosecute those people and you make it a little riskier, you're still allowing it to happen. For us with this new system, we're using a new technology, and we did it for this tour with our pre-sale. So basically we do none of these credit card pre-sales, radio pre-sales, venue pre-sales because that's a lot of avenues for scalpers to get in where we don't know who they are. Basically if you're going to buy a pre-sale ticket you're going to have to be a member of the Church Choir, and not only that but you're going to have to pay for a membership so that we can vet you. It's proprietary technology—we're the first to use it—and it goes through and finds out if these people have a history of scalping and what their intent is. We're able to really make sure the fans get the tickets.
Obviously you'll have unhappy fans having to pay for a membership in addition to the ticket price.
The way I look at it is you're going to end up paying so much more on the secondary market. By paying $20 for the membership you're able to make sure you can buy those tickets at face value on the floor or on the lower level. It's going to be a great seat that the secondary market would have valued a lot higher.
And you're also making it so fans won't receive their tickets until the days leading up to the concert.
Basically you're just trying to deter scalpers. We want the scalpers to leave us alone. Move on to somebody else. If another artist doesn't want to take those precautions—a lot of artists out there all they care about is putting people in the seats. They don't care who is in the seat. I do care who is in the seats. I do care that it's not just some person and that it's our fans. I don't want our fans who have been with us forever to be in the upper level and backed up against the wall because they didn't want to pay five times face value on the secondary market. I think that's unfair, and I think as an artist it's our product, it's our show; it's our music. I should be able to control that.
Some music industry folks have suggested artists raise the ticket prices so there isn't as much room for scalper markup.
It would be like me going to any major company and saying "Your product is good, so you need to raise the price." You have the right to set the ticket price where you think it should be and where it works. I'm not one of those guys who agrees with the StubHub argument, which is you should make your ticket prices higher. Well, it's my ticket price. I can put it where I want to put it. Then it's on me to figure out how we make sure it gets paid. I understand that market's there. I get the capitalist part of it. However I'm going to do everything I can to make it so cumbersome for them to scalp our tickets that they'll just move on.
I'd love to talk to you a bit about your upcoming tour. I know you played a few acoustic shows at Red Rocks last month.
It was two of the more magical nights I can remember just top to bottom. I did some things I haven't done before. Not all of it was planned: I went into a cover part of "Mistress Named Music" and I did two different ones each night. Some of that was kind of just fun to see where I'm heading next [laughs]. It was just two special nights.
On every tour we do it always feels weird to get to the end of the night and go "God, I wish we could have played this or that." And you can't because of time.
This tour will feature two sets with an intermission.
I've waited my whole life to do this tour. Where you go out with nobody, play two sets, you have an intermission, which I like because it gives everybody a break. And it gives you two chances at an opener and two chances at a closing number. It adds elements to the show and depth to it. In a world where people are doing 75 or 80 minutes and out, I like being able to go and just have the freedom to play whatever we want to play.
I've had a few people ask me why we're doing this, and it's because if you look at our career we shouldn't be able to play three hours at this stage. We shouldn't have a song like "Carolina" that's so well-known or "These Boots" or "Sinners Like Me." Those songs shouldn't be signature songs because they never were on the radio, they never had life. Because we have a career like this it just makes you want to do it more. The songs have found their own path. On every tour we do it always feels weird to get to the end of the night and go "God, I wish we could have played this or that." And you can't because of time.
Likewise many of the songs on Mr. Misunderstood—like "Record Year" and "Kill A Word"—found their way to the top of the charts with little to no real promotion.
To me that's when it's right. To put out a record in a situation like that and bet on the music and then have it find its way is something you want if you're an artist. Even over the last couple months it's growing; it feels like it's just starting to catch some wind. Backstage at Red Rocks before night one I was getting ready to go out, and I said to John Peets, my manger: "If I had told you ten years ago that we would be in a place in our career where we could go out and tour by ourselves, we can play two sets and have five number ones, and we could also go to Red Rocks and play two nights acoustic and have the freedom; we could set our own path, we could do releases the way we want, you would never believe we'd be here" [laughs]. And he said "No. I wouldn't."
You can't plan for that sort of thing.
It's so much better than what I would have ever wanted to be. That's the exciting part.
Tickets go on sale here September 30 for Eric Church's Holdin' My Own Tour.
Photo by John Peets, courtesy of Eric Church
Dan Hyman is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.