Ticket shortage not the fault of the bots, say insiders
Wondering why getting face-value tickets for big shows seems impossible? You should look past the technology, insiders say.
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The people of Ontario have had their say. Wednesday, March 15 was the deadline for citizens to submit their thoughts on buying concert tickets to the attorney general, which will help form the basis of legislation to be introduced this spring.
Before the results are even tallied, it’s very easy to guess what the overall sentiment about the ticket-buying experience is: It stinks.
From the panicked rush to get online and buy when ducats are first released on Ticketmaster, to the scourge of scalper-bots and then the inflated prices on the reseller market on sites like StubHub (and additional fears of potential fake or counterfeit tickets), there is likely no one in the chain from artist to venue to consumer that is actually a fan of the process.
This oncoming legislation is in part spurred by the frustration of fans unable to get tickets to the final Tragically Hip tour last year, but seasoned concertgoers know that in Toronto any touring act with buzz is a hot ticket, and you have to act fast to get into a show at list price or pay more aftermarket.
Scalper bots have become the easy boogeyman in this process, a Terminator that vacuums up tickets and keeps them away from the public. They are the trendy villain, with several jurisdictions signing legislation to ban their use — New York state did so last year, while then-president Barack Obama signed a bill for the entire U.S. before he left office — but they’re just the latest big bad.
As with spam or piracy, laws against them have so far produced little effect on the industry. The issues that plague ticketing are far more than just the bots. There are also no easy answers as to how to fix them, although we did ask a number of experts for some suggestions.
“There are a lot of undecided issues there. Starting with just who actually owns a ticket,” says Gary Bongiovanni, president and publisher of Pollstar, a ticket industry site. “There is an argument that says the fan buys it, they own it. The artists say their name is on it, so there would be no show without them, so they own the ticket. A company like Ticketmaster says, ‘We own the ticket because we’re the one that issued it.’
“And then there’s the venue, that says, ‘We’re the one standing behind all of this stuff and if something goes wrong people are going to be coming after us, and we’re going to have to refund the money, so we control the ticket.’”
It’s an important matter, because a lot of the issues with ticketing lead back to who can resell it. The distinction is between the primary market — tickets from the source, most likely Ticketmaster — or the secondary market, intermediaries, brokers or marketplaces like StubHub.
Before the bots, the secondary market itself was demonized although, according to Pascal Courty, a University of Victoria economics professor who studies ticketing, it also serves some worthwhile goals.
“The secondary market is good because many people change their plans. This provides flexibility and availability,” says Courty. “And according to one study, half the tickets on the secondary market are genuine resale” — that is, sold by people who had planned to use the tickets themselves.
Bongiovanni notes that one benefit to scalpers is that no show is truly ever sold out if you are willing to pay enough. But the markup doesn’t benefit artists or promoters, and that bothers both groups. In some cases, artists and venues have started holding back tickets to put directly on the secondary market themselves, just to get a piece of the exorbitant profits.
Of course, that profit is exactly why brokers started using bots to buy up as many tickets as possible, becoming the ticket biz’s No. 1 enemy along the way. For solutions, though, we might need to look elsewhere.
To Ken Lowson of Tixfan, bots are a “distractive scapegoat method to put out disinformation so that the rest of the business wasn’t looked at.”
Lowson was a ticket broker for decades, having gotten in on an early wave dominating with bots.
His previous company, Wiseguy Tickets, was charged with 42 counts of racketeering after allegedly buying over 1 million tickets from 2002 to 2009 and making more than $25 million in profits from their resale. Lowson and his partners got probation, but now he is using his expertise to fight for fans and artists. Tixfan is not a broker, he says, but rather a consultant looking to help fix this issue.
“Fans are so frustrated that they have given up, they don’t even try anymore,” says Lowson. “It’s either a belittling, humiliating, frustrating experience battling on a computer to get nothing, or it’s pay a scalper. So we aim to fix that, but there’s not a panacea.”
He says that the laws already on the books ought to be sufficient, but no one — not authorities, not the various industry players — puts much effort into enforcing them. The fight, from here on out, will require more work from artists.
“The bots are easy,” says Lowson. “It’s not hard. Just to give you one example, look at the purchasing pattern across the board (to all events). Any credit card that bought tickets to more than three events in three different cities is a scalper or a bot. A fan doesn’t buy a New York show for Adele and then the Boston Red Sox ticket or Bruce Springsteen in California.”
Which brings us to Eric Church, a country singer currently touring Canada who’s become the latest artist to take up the fair-ticketing crusade, in a way similar to what Pearl Jam tried in the ’90s. In February, Church cancelled 25,000 tickets on his Holdin’ My Own Tour, putting them back on sale through his own site and through venues. Since then, he’s cancelled over 600 more tickets at his recent Alberta shows.
“We’re getting better at identifying who the scalpers are,” Church told The Associated Press. “Every artist can do this, but some of them don’t. Some of them don’t feel the way I feel or are as passionate.”
Church has been passionate about this for years, using all kinds of methods to thwart scalpers, including reportedly a proprietary program to audit the tickets sold to his concerts. That said, he may also potentially face lawsuits: while he forcibly refunded the scalpers, some people found their tickets cancelled when they got to the venue and had to go to the scalpers for refunds.
This kind of ticket audit is something that Courty and Lowson think all artists need to start doing, but it would need a concerted effort from the entire industry.
The bigger issue is the complete lack of transparency in the industry. In 2012 a Nashville TV station got hold of the ticket manifest — how the ducats are to be divvied up — for a Justin Bieber arena show. It showed that of the 13,783 seats allocated, after those reserved for American Express customers, paid-up members of Bieber’s fan club, VIPs, Bieber’s record label and other insiders, only 1,001 actually went to the general public. Tickets in areas handed over to Bieber’s management were being sold for more than $200 U.S. on a resale site.
That’s not to single out Ontario’s own pop superstar. In general, New York’s attorney-general found last year, 54 per cent of tickets for big concerts are held back for insiders.
As Courty points out, these tickets are often nabbed by legitimate fans, albeit those with the right privileges (an Amex card, a fan-club membership, a friend at a radio station). But for every hot show, there are droves of fans simply going to Ticketmaster’s website hoping for the best and going away disappointed.
Experts think the best way to start fixing the industry is to be honest about where the tickets really go; in other words, make the manifest . . . manifest.
“The public and the fans are misinformed, and neither the artists nor the promoter want to disclose how many tickets they release at the given price,” says Courty.
Knowing how many ducats are actually available is a good place to start.
“I’m very mindful that what we need are tactical solutions that actually will work,” says Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s attorney-general. “In terms of transparency, we have the mechanisms by way of legislation to require certain information to be made available to consumers. That’s one of the essences of consumer protection legislation, like how many tickets are available at a venue or for a concert, and information about seats, so the customer has as much information as possible so they can make a smart decision.”
Radical ways to fix ticketing
1. No physical tickets
Do you really want to solve the bot problems? Pollstar’s Gary Bongiovanni has the answer: “Get rid of all physical tickets and require people to present ID to buy them and then show (the same ID) at the venue to get in.” That would solve some of the problems but present others, like how resale works if you can’t make it to the show. It would also potentially lengthen the wait to get into venues on the night of the show.
2. Regional restrictions on sales of tickets
One idea is to restrict the sale of tickets to specific geographic regions, so only people in Ontario could buy tickets here. This would cut out people who travel for shows. Another potential idea is forcing resellers to be located in the province, which might allow more regulatory control and limit markup. But these ideas have their own anti-consumer problems and, with proxy servers and other technology, enforcement could be difficult.
3. A fan marketplace
Tixfan’s Ken Lowson proposes selling an artist’s tickets directly to fan communities and then creating a mechanism to allow them to handle resale. How this would work needs to be ironed out, but it would likely reward superfans and could leave more casual fans out in the cold.
4. A randomized lottery system
Bots beat people to the tickets by flooding the system with requests and getting to the tickets faster, shutting average consumers out of the first-come, first-served process. So what about a system that lets potential buyers start queuing 10 minutes before sale and then lets the system randomly select who buys? This solves some problems but potentially adds another level of frustration and uncertainty. Tickets would likely need to be tied to personal identification to really beat the bots.
5. More audits and enforcement
Maybe every artist needs to be like Eric Church: do audits on ticket sales, watch what makes it onto the secondary market and take action, such as cancelling the tickets. Lowson says you need to also keep on the primary ticket sellers to make sure they live up to an artist’s terms, like a four-ticket limit per customer, for example. University of Victoria economics professor Pascal Courty says the true goal should be to get to the point where things like audits are par for the course and become a part of industry self-regulation as opposed to new legislation.