Sell Out : The Complicated Crossroads of Concert Ticketing

I had one recurring thought as I tried unsuccessfully for hours to score a decent pair of tickets to an upcoming Radiohead concert.

There has got to be a better way.

The reality is that the number of profitable avenues for the music and entertainment industry has decreased substantially, even within just the last 5 years. It starts with the well documented decline of the CD and purchasing music in general which has had a trickle down effect on merchandising and other money-making streams. A typical album cycle used to entail a heavy 1-2 years of touring before going back into the studio to record again. The current market has completely de-valued albums (robbing us of more music, a separate eulogy for another day) and now the typical cycle runs no quicker than 3 years. Sometimes this even includes a victory lap tour like Bruno Mars is doing this fall – coming back with the same show a second time to US markets he’s mostly already played in.

This means many more eggs are being placed in the touring basket. For all of our technological advances, there’s still no replacement for seeing someone live in the flesh. (Yet. Will virtual reality concerts become a thing? I’m half kidding.) From the outside looking in this industry shift should be very beneficial for fans. Artists are playing more dates in more places worldwide to maximize profits. So there’s more access now than ever before. Yet in some cases acquiring tickets has never been more difficult. Why?

It doesn’t end with scalpers and bots but it’s a damn good place to start. For way too long money hungry brokers monopolized internet based ticket purchasing by flooding sites with bots that snatched up the best seats and re-sold them at a ridiculous mark up. Finally within the last few years lawmakers and artists themselves have taken measures to cut down on this practice. But I remain very skeptical that the problem has been remedied at all, even slightly. For this same Radiohead concert I was simultaneously operating the Ticketmaster app on my computer, phone, and iPad. If that’s what I’m capable of I can’t imagine what people known to always be one step ahead and who’s livelihoods literally depend on this can do.


Then there is the double edged sword that is the commercial secondary market. I still tend to believe that sites like StubHub are more good than bad. It’s gotten me into events like the Stanley Cup Finals that I would’ve never dreamed of having reasonable access to otherwise. But it’s also mercilessly abused by scalpers and fans alike. Sometimes an artist will do an exclusive fan club pre-sale, clearly an effort to reward honest supporters, only for these “fans” to buy more tickets than they need and turn them around on StubHub so they can make their own profit. Are these same people doing that if they know they have to peddle the extra tickets outside the venue rather than only being a click or two away from posting them online? I seriously doubt it.

One of the ways artists have tried to squeeze more money out of concerts has been to offer a VIP ticket experience. Sometimes these packages have really worthwhile incentives – a meet and greet, memorabilia, etc. And sometimes, like for most A list artists, it feels like nothing more than a mailed in money grab where the best they offer for the absurd asking price is a pre-show buffet. My favorite fake perk that shows up all the time is “crowd-free merchandise shopping.” Pretty sure that already exists and it’s called the internet. Either way, the days of just scoring a front row seat to a show are pretty much over thanks to these VIP tickets.

Another highly maligned practice has been the credit card pre-sales where advanced ticketing opportunities are provided to card carrying members of (usually) American Express or Citi. Having used this a few times myself, I can speak first hand when I say it has gone from a borderline secret that guaranteed access to providing barely higher odds than a general on-sale. And that’s saying something because general on-sales remain the absolute worst of all. More times than not it’s complete helter skelter that involves ping ponging between seats that may or may not be available or constantly refreshing until there’s an opportunity for tickets, if at all. Ticketmaster also has a devious habit of not releasing most of the best seats right at the onsale time, banking on desperate fans buying up the nosebleeds.

There has got to be a better way!!

The white knight might be here in the form of Verified Fan, a new system started by Ticketmaster. A hopeful ticket buyer submits information to a particular show’s portal in hopes of being approved and given a code along with a window of time to purchase tickets. It is bot-proof and in my experience the purchasing part has been smooth but the system most definitely has its warts – approval and being given a code are far from guaranteed. At least in a general onsale there’s an ability to keep trying. If you are not approved for a code due to demand or whatever reason, you’re pretty much SOL by design. The shows using Verified Fan are highly coveted events for one and the actual tickets aren’t typically made available until 48 hours or less in advance of the event in an effort to cut down on scalpers and the secondary market.

Then there are the customizable variations of Verified Fan like what Taylor Swift has done. Swift’s  system is divided into tiers based on earnable boosts – some monetary, some not. I was appalled when I heard there was a pay-to-play element but by most accounts her setup has been fair and worked well. Still, I wonder how many more unhappy campers with her Verified Fan there would be if Swift was playing, say, an 18,000 seat arena instead of a 60,000 seat football stadium.

There has yet to be anything close to a one size fits all solution and it’s sometimes hard to believe there will ever be one short of going back to waiting in line outside of a box office. Even tours like Radiohead that are deliberately skewed in the fans’ favor – low ticket prices, general admission floor seating, one very limited fan club pre-sale and a no re-sale rule on tickets – end up being corrupted. To me the solution begins with more transparency on all levels. A visible online queue, a more exact determination of how codes are distributed and who gets them. Authenticity should be able to be verified through credit card history at large, not just use of Ticketmaster.

Music lovers stopped buying physical media because there emerged a faster, easier way but they are still consuming the music. The live entertainment industry is flirting with a far worse fate – complete apathy and abstention.

 

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