"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll."
-- Bono, on playing chess
It's time for U2 to take over its own GA line
July 26, 2017
Here in the U.S., U2 fans have been self-organizing the GA entry process since 2001, when U2 made the then-controversial decision to take seats away and use general admission on the floor throughout the Elevation tour. Outside the U.S., where general admission has been commonplace, it goes back even further; our staffer Aaron Govern recalls organizing a GA line before U2's Birmingham show in May 1992, and joining a GA line before U2's December 31, 1989 show at the Point Depot in Dublin.
So we're talking a couple decades of U2 fans running our own GA lines. All things considered, it seems to have worked out well enough.
But times are changing. U2 fans are getting older. We have jobs and kids (and often, grandkids). For many, free time is a luxury. We've moved online, which should be a Good Thing for fans ... but we're spread across dozens of different platforms and online communities, so it's impossible for our self-organization to be seen and heard by everyone.
Of course, not every U2 fan wants to be up close; many are quite happy arriving at the venue an hour before the show starts and enjoying it from farther back. Many know you can usually still get a good spot on the floor without lining up in advance. But for those who want to get as close to the stage as possible, the current system isn't working as well as it should.
We've taken this informal self-organizing as far as we can take it. Below, I'll make the case for why I think it's time for the band to organize the GA line formally for every show around the world. I'll present some reasons why doing so would be better for both U2 fans and the band themselves. But first, let's talk more about how we got here and why the current system isn't working.
Organized chaos (AKA, how the fans' GA line works now)
Today, the GA line system is essentially organized chaos. Before every show, a random fan (or group of fans) starts the line, typically by doing several things:
This process often begins several days before each U2 show at a random location -- sometimes on the venue's grounds, sometimes not. This spot sometimes becomes the start of the actual GA line, too ... but not always. As new GA ticket-holding fans find out about the list, they meet up with the organizer, add their name to it and get a line number. That number is written on the fan's wrist and the fan is free to leave until the next check-in time. When it's time to check in, everyone on the list is supposed to return to the designated spot; when they do, a check mark is placed next to their name(s) and they get to retain their spot on the list. This continues until the day of the show, at which time -- if all goes well -- the written list becomes the actual GA line.
On many occasions, the process goes well. But not always.
Inherent flaws in the current system
The way we do the GA list and line now is filled with potential pitfalls and things that are generally unfair to U2 fans as a whole.
1) The current system requires cooperation from every venue.
Over the years, several venues have been willing to let U2 fans organize our own GA lines; some even cooperate by giving out official, venue-generated wristbands in the same order as the fan-organized list, eliminating the need to line up until a couple hours before gates open. I remember this happening at the San Jose shows in 2001 and it was wonderful; the same thing has happened at certain venues on every tour since, including Joshua Tree 2017, and it makes for a great experience.
But many venues aren't that cooperative. They see a random group of U2 fans lining up on their property days before the show as a security and insurance risk. (Given the heightened concern over terrorists targeting large public events, that risk is greater today than it's ever been.) Venues often have rules in place against lining up early on their property, and those rules tend to be enforced very strictly these days.
That's why our current system often involves organizing off-property and then -- fingers crossed -- a peaceful move/transition to the venue when we're allowed. But even then, some venues choose not to honor the unofficial list, which turns our organized chaos into unorganized chaos. At the recent Dublin show, Croke Park officials issued mixed messaging on the day of the show about how they'd let GA ticket holders into the stadium. At at least one show in North America, a venue announced it would not honor the fans' unofficial list and instead said it would honor fans who followed its rules -- i.e., fans who only showed up on the day of the concert at the announced time. That led to two lines being formed, and created immediate strife and division among U2 fans, not to mention potential safety and security concerns.
2) The vast majority of fans with GA tickets are totally unaware that there's a list.
Our current, grassroots system rewards U2 fans who are well-connected online and punishes those who aren't. Of the 10,000 or so fans who have GA tickets for the typical stadium show on the current tour, I'd bet that only 10-20 percent know that a list exists to determine the order of entry when gates open. (I'm coming up with that estimate based on the fact that the GA list before most shows numbers somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 -- i.e., about 10-20 percent of the total number of people on the floor.)
To know about the list, you have to know where to look online -- the right Twitter accounts, Facebook groups, forums, etc. Even if my numbers above are off, surely we can agree that most fans on the floor/pitch at these stadium shows had no idea there was a GA line list.
3) Anyone can start a GA list for any U2 show at any time.
A couple weeks ago, I posted a photo on our internal @U2 staff Slack board -- it was a big number "1" in black marker on my left wrist. I told our crew that I had just started the GA list for one of the third-leg concerts happening in September that I'm attending. I was joking, of course, but there's literally nothing to stop me from starting that list right now and spreading the news all over Facebook, Twitter, etc. And nothing to stop me from putting other @U2 staffers on the list right after me. That's not fair to U2 fandom, in general.
4a) The same group of fans tends to start the GA lists...
This is a matter of some controversy in online fan circles. It's no secret that some fans are fortunate enough to be able to travel from city to city, going to most (if not all) of U2's shows. There's nothing wrong with that; I'd do it if I could -- and I bet many of you reading this now would, too.
I've met some of these folks, and they're good people. They're big fans. They love the band. They love the music. They're dedicated. The vitriol that sometimes gets directed toward them isn't right, in my opinion. But I've also heard some stories that, if true, tell me the behavior of some line organizers isn't always right, either. No matter how you feel about who's right and who's wrong, perhaps we can agree on this: The current system benefits the line organizers above others, and that's not fair to U2 fandom, in general.
4b) ... so the band sees the same fans up front show after show after show.
This became such an issue on the Elevation tour that, when it came time to record the shows in Boston for a home video release, security hand-picked fans from the GA line and put them at the beginning of the line so that new fans would be up front. Bono talked about this in U2 By U2:
"The heart was fantastic. The only problem was some of our most ardent fans were following from gig to gig. So whatever city we'd turn up in there would be the same people in front of us, which was a little disorientating. And when we tried to make sure that locals got into the heart, there was a mutiny. They all sat down in Boston, in the middle of the heart, because they knew we were filming the show. They thought they weren't telegenic enough and that's why we were trying to keep them out. It was just that we wanted to play in front of a fresh audience."
Paul McGuinness talked about this same issue in Diana Scrimgeour's book, U2 Show:
"We had some difficulties even with the Elevation tour, though, where the heart was the most kind of desirable place for a member of the audience to stand. We found that some of the audience traveled with the tour and would queue up for tickets at each venue. The same people would end up in the front row every day. That was a problem because they would sometimes sit there and watch the band and when something happened that was unexpected or different they would shake their heads and be almost put out. That's offputting for the band too."
5) Not everyone is able to check in as often as required.
If one of our unofficial GA lines starts three days before a show, fans may have to check in six or more times to get and save a spot on the list. That's not easy for fans who have demanding jobs, or kids at home, or whatever other real-life commitments may force them to miss a check-in.
To sum up, even in the best-case scenario when our current self-organized GA system goes exactly as planned, it's still only fair to a limited number of U2 fans and it leads to a situation that the band has described as "disorientating" and "offputting."
A better system
Each of the flaws in our current fan-led system can be fixed, but it has to come from the top: U2 itself has to take over the organization and execution of the GA line process.
So how should the GA system work?
Numerous artists have added their own takes on the general admission experience. Arcade Fire is selling "VIP GA Early Entry" packages for its current tour, which charges fans extra to go inside the venue first. Imagine Dragons offers a similar early entry GA package, and many others probably do, too. But that just lets some fans inside before others; it doesn't solve the overall issue of lining up in advance and fans self-organizing the entry order. Pearl Jam has reportedly told its fans to stop creating their own GA lineup lists, though I can't find anything online explaining how their system works.
The method that's gaining a lot of favorable reviews and momentum is a system that Bruce Springsteen put in place almost a decade ago. Our very own staffer, John Cropp, experienced it first-hand when he had GA tickets to see Springsteen in 2008 at Philips Arena in Atlanta. He remembers it like this:
"I got in line mid-afternoon. They wristbanded everyone sometime after, called a number, and that number was the start of the line. Everyone after that number was let in first, followed by numbers 1 through that number, and then the line that showed up after wristbands were distributed. I went from a wristband in the hundreds to 13th in line. Totally random, no favorites, no reason to get there any more than an hour or so before the number was called. No hurt feelings."
Backstreets.com, the long-running fan site/magazine for Springsteen fans, has a PDF that details the official process. In a nutshell, there's a 3-hour window on show days where numbered wristbands are given out. After that window, one number is randomly drawn, and that number becomes the start of the line. It eliminates the need to get in line days in advance -- i.e., the person with wristband #783 has as much chance of being first in line as the person with wristband #1.
There's obviously some cattle-herding that needs to happen to make sure fans line up correctly after the number is drawn, and that's why the very last line on that PDF is so important: "The above procedures will be implemented and supervised by touring personnel." This has to come from U2. The band needs at least one person, maybe two, to oversee this. Arrangements need to be made with each venue in advance -- where on the property they'll give out wristbands, where the drawing will happen, where the line will form, etc. -- and fans need to be informed with clear and frequent communication. Maybe they need one person to do the advance work and another to handle things at the venue on concert day. (U2's manager, Guy Oseary, and Live Nation tour director Craig Evans shouldn't have to be the ones policing the GA lineup as both have done at several shows this year; surely they have other things to do.)
Critics might point out that using the Springsteen system, or any similar kind of lottery, doesn't reward fans who are willing to camp out for a day or three. Perhaps that's true. But that begs a bigger question: Why do some fans feel they should be rewarded simply because they're fortunate enough to a) know that a list is being kept, b) know how and where to get on the list, and c) have the time and means to make sure they get on the list and stay there?
I'd argue instead for a system that treats all fans equally and removes as much of the unfairness of the current system as possible. A system where information is easily accessed, not scattered across dozens of different Facebook groups, Twitter accounts or forum threads. A system where everyone who wants to be up close to the stage has an equal shot at getting there, whether they work 2-3 jobs, have 5-6 kids or have enough vacation time and savings to travel from show to show. A system where fan safety is paramount, and venue rules and policies are followed for the benefit of all. A system where the band gets to see new faces up front from show to show -- the faces of fans who are having a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
There'll probably never be a perfect GA line system. And no matter what changes are made, if any, some fans may still try to bend the rules to their own benefit. Perhaps that's inevitable. But that doesn't mean there's no reason to try. Improvements are possible, and they're not difficult to put in place.
It's time for U2 to take over its own GA line and make it happen.
The opinions expressed above are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.
(c) @U2/McGee, 2017.