When an email arrived in our inbox back in early October announcing that AXS, an online ticketing service operated by AEG, had formed an exclusive ticketing partnership with The Arlington Theatre, it automatically went into the ever-expanding file of news from the ongoing ticket wars. Ever since the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger was approved back in 2010, entertainment writers and live music fans have been more or less willing participants in a rapidly evolving situation driven by two main forces: the massive, sudden profits available on the secondary market; and the battle of the twin titans, AEG/Goldenvoice and Live Nation/Ticketmaster, for control of the primary ticket market.
It’s been a wild ride, featuring litigation, legislation (the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, or BOTS Act, signed by President Obama in December 2016), and consolidation, such as recent collaborations between Ticketmaster and YouTube, and AXS and Spotify. Whether you are a casual concertgoer interested in seeing top artists at your area venue or a diehard fanatic determined to catch as many shows as you possibly can by your main musical squeeze, what’s happening with ticket sales online matters. When secondary market prices for high-demand shows routinely soar into four figures just minutes after primary market tickets go on sale, surely fans are entitled to ask what promoters, venues, and ticketing companies are doing to keep them from being shut out. The short answer is “a lot,” but the long answer is a better one that seems to grow longer by the day. What follows is a necessarily incomplete account of some of the latest moves that may have an impact not only on what you pay for the next show you see but also on whether you get a chance to buy tickets at all.
There are certain things that virtually everyone agrees on, and one of them is that “bots,” computer programs written specifically to purchase as many tickets as possible for the purpose of reselling — or scalping — them on the secondary market, are not cool. For certain high-demand events such as the Broadway show Hamilton, it’s estimated that as much as 40 percent of the available tickets were scored by bots, allowing professional scalpers to resell tickets that cost them a couple of hundred dollars for upward of a thousand. The fact that this happened, and continues to happen, is part of the business model for a company like StubHub, which does not necessarily guarantee (or know) where the tickets it brokers are coming from. It was this huge, open digital door that Ticketmaster claims a company called Prestige Entertainment drove through when they acquired 30,000 Hamilton tickets in a period of just two years, and when they nabbed more than 50 percent of the seats available through Ticketmaster to the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight. According to Ticketmaster’s suit, Prestige and its associates used a bewildering array of bots, email and IP addresses, credit cards, and physical addresses to place 313,528 orders using 9,047 different accounts between January 2015 and September 2016, all in a (successful!) attempt to realize tens of millions of dollars in profit.
Litigation is not the only or even the chief way that the ticket giants and the artists who rely on them are fighting back against scalpers. Two relatively new approaches were designed to ensure that the most desired tickets end up going to the people who desire them the most, rather than to those willing to pay the highest prices. At AXS, the program goes by the rather unappetizing name of the Waiting Room and involves offering fans an opportunity to register in advance for on-sale events. This process, which involves setting up a payment method and opting in to an email list, means that when tickets go on sale online, AXS can usually tell who is a bot and who is a flesh-and-blood buyer. AXS even went to the trouble of making an animated video to explain the process, and it is viewable on the Santa Barbara Bowl website (see tinyurl.com/axsvid). The Waiting Room, like any “slow ticketing” technique created to forestall massive bot buys, has its advocates and detractors, including those who believe that the tactics employed by the scalpers — e.g., opening multiple windows simultaneously to increase your chances of moving to the buying stage — remain the most effective ways to maneuver through the system.
Over at Ticketmaster, the latest approach involves working with artists to create special opportunities for so-called “verified fans.” For example, U2 just partnered with Ticketmaster on the first major arena/stadium tour to be sold entirely on the basis of customers having first registered as verified fans. Taylor Swift, ever the leader in driving the hardest possible bargain with the music industry — and some would say with her fans as well — has developed a system with Ticketmaster that’s even got its own name, Swift Tix. To get a feeling for what may be one version of the future, I registered as a Ticketmaster verified fan of Taylor Swift and even gave them my mobile phone number in exchange for access to a surreal site that appears to have been created specifically for the purpose of driving Swift’s fans crazy.
On the participation page of the upcoming Taylor Swift Reputation tour site, registered fans take their places in a digitally controlled and imaged waiting line. The site offers multiple opportunities to move up on this line, meaning that you will have a better chance at buying tickets to your preferred Swift show. These “boosts,” as they are called in Swiftian marketing-speak, come in three sizes: high, medium, and low. For a high boost, you can order the Reputation CD online or purchase something from her online merch store, such as a $125 snake logo hoodie or a $60 pair of Rep branded sweatpants. Medium boosts include watching the “Look What You Made Me Do” video up to 10 times a day. When I tried this, I thought I saw the little digital bar indicating my place in the TS line move, but it might have been my imagination. There are even low-level boosts — don’t those sound appealing? — available to those willing to endure the humiliation of tweeting or otherwise sharing their intent to attend a Taylor Swift concert. There’s no mention of what to do when all those friends you Snapchatted about the tour get their “high boost” tickets and you are left at home thinking that maybe you should have bought at least one of the five colors of $60 snake rings.
Silly as this makes it sound, it does make things considerably more difficult for the scalpers. No self-respecting bot buys sweatpants. And so what if the Swift squad, or more likely, their parents, end up gambling at her online merch table in the hopes of winning a better chance to buy a ticket? Remember when people had to sleep on the sidewalk for tickets to popular concerts? Now that primitive practice is reserved for more serious pursuits — like getting the new iPhone.