On September 26th at 10:00 AM, thousands upon thousands of fans—how many we'll never know—hit refresh on their browsers and converged upon Ticketmaster's servers like a denial-of-service attack. They were desperate for the chance to see Radiohead play one of a pair of shows at the Roseland Ballroom—a rare club show. And just like that, basically instantaneously, tickets were all gone.
You may not have tried to buy Radiohead tickets, but you know this feeling. There's a concert you want to go to and you can't and you don't understand why. Should you hate Ticketmaster, ticket scalpers, or both? Is it all scam?
Buying concert tickets is a necessary evil, like going to a proctologist. You need them to go to popular shows. But whether or not you scored tickets before they sold out, the whole experience was probably unpleasant. Good news: It doesn't have to be.
Ticketmaster reportedly moves 120 million tickets worth $8 billion a year. It's the only game in town. Any competition is a pesky dog yapping at its feet. When tickets sell out in seconds, or people pay a lot of money for them, all they can do is look begrudgingly up at the monolith and blame it for their problems. Even if that's not fair, Ticketmaster's policies make it an easy target for attack.
Here's a rundown of what pisses you off about ticketing.
10:01 AM: You hit refresh at exactly the right moment and got a ticket! Huzzah! Then you realize the ticket is WAY more expensive than you thought because Ticketmaster tacked-on a hefty convenience fee. Funny how you always forget about that.
It feels arbitrary, in part because it is. Fees vary from venue to venue, so wildly that Ticketmaster COO Jared Smith couldn't tell me what constituted an average fee or even what a common schedule of fees might look like. It doesn't exist. That means that when you're buying a ticket you don't know why you're paying a certain fee or how it compares to others.
A seemingly modest proposal: The price of a ticket should be a package deal which includes everything a fan needs to get into the show. Reasonable, right? Ticketmaster provides a service, which commands payment, but I asked Smith why the service fee isn't just absorbed into the price of a ticket, as it is with other products. (It'd be real damn odd if you went to the grocery store and, on top of the price of whatever it is you're buying, you have to pay a fee for someone to ring you up.) Smith couldn't explain to me why Ticketmaster won't bundle the price, except to say that it has always charged fees. Though he admitted that incorporating the fee would obviously increase the ticket price, he declined to comment further on that point—implying that telling people what they're actually paying for tickets could be bad for sales.
The idea that fans should pay a fee for the right to buy a ticket isn't ancient, though. Before Ticketmaster owned the industry, venues actually paid companies to sell tickets. Then Ticketmaster came up with what insiders like to call the "kickback." Ticketmaster would charge fans a fee for tickets and pay a portion of that fee back to the venue and the performer. But it turned out fans—fanatics that they are—would just pay fees, and the system ballooned into a brilliant way to make people pay more and more. Good for venues, good for Ticketmaster, bad for your wallet.
All that said, Ticketmaster has made some headway on fees recently. All of the fees and the total ticket price are finally listed on an event's main Ticketmaster page, so you know before you search for available tickets how much they're going to cost. (Independent venues still don't have to post these fees on their websites.) In deference to fans, the company has also negotiated with 50 percent of venues to eliminate the annoying "print your tickets at home" fee.
By 10:01 AM there's no tickets available for the show. WTF? Scalpers got all of the tickets! DAMMIT I HAD TO GO TO THAT SHOW/PLAY/SLAM POETRY PERFORMANCE.
At the end of the day, Radiohead tickets sold out lickity-split because a lot of people like you and me were sitting at their computers anxiously watching the clock and all tried to buy tickets at the same time—not because scalpers grabbed them all. Tickets are limited in supply like oil and orange juice concentrate. Popular events will sell out. Even if you think you're getting ripped off for those Radiohead tickets, the truth is that they're way more valuable than their price tag, and thus a secondary market emerges for their exchange.
Ticketmaster actually does a fairly good job at weeding out the scalpers. To completely block out scalpers, policies would have to be so restrictive that they'd be an inconvenience to fans. Ticketmaster takes some steps to ensure that everyone has an equal shot at the product by preventing the use of ticket-buying bots. The most visible of these tactics is the Capchta you've got to enter to get your place in the virtual line for tickets. I can barely read the letters, so I don't know how a bot is supposed to. Do scalpers get around these measures with sneaky technology? Yes, but fans get tickets, too. With the help of the government, Ticketmaster has even busted some egregious offenders in the past.
Ticketmaster does leave one loophole in the form of presales for fan clubs and corporate partners, which offer some of the best seats at an event. It's no surprise that the scalpers are in on them. Presale passwords are often exchanged in the open on online forums. An investigation into a Taylor Swift concert last year revealed that after fan club presales and a special presale to American Express customers only 1600 of 13,000 tickets were available to the public at large. Eliminate these presales, and you've got a pretty solid system.
The tickets that end up in the hands of scalpers—"brokers" in industry parlance—are sold online through StubHub or Craigslist, or through Ticketmaster's TicketsNow. We all know how extra-special the Radiohead show was, and the band requested will-call only tickets, which had to be picked up at the door with photo ID. This makes the tickets really hard for scalpers to sell. StubHub won't list will-call only events, and about half the tickets listed on Craigslist looked more like people desperate for a date than ticket scalpers. I did find tickets listed on Vivid Seats for exorbitant prices—but the company didn't respond to my request for comment. As for TicketsNow, the Ticketmaster-owned entity allows venues and performers to set the terms of secondary exchange. The upside for consumers is that TicketsNow can curb abuse by brokers. The downside is that it creates a whole new opportunity to impose fees.
At 10:01 AM tickets are gone—the result of a conspiracy to enrich Ticketmaster, venues, artists, and scalpers.
Ticketmaster is losing a war of perception over fees, when in fact the company brings a lot to the table: Ticketmaster does a very good job with the logistics of ticketing. Ticketmaster is legitimately fighting to keep scalpers at bay. By and large, the reason people feel scammed by Ticketmaster is that the whole process has always been confusing. Customers have a sense that there's something underhanded going on.
For example consider the simple question "Why are my tickets so expensive?" Ticketmaster's stock response to this question is "We don't set the price of a show, the venue does." This ignores the fact that Ticketmaster's parent company, Live Nation, operates many venues, including the Roseland Ballroom where Radiohead played. That doesn't necessarily imply any foul play, but the flat denial breeds suspicion.
Before getting tickets to big shows was a function of hitting refresh on a browser in my kitchen, I used to scout out retail locations likely to be deserted when tickets went on sale. On Saturday mornings, the customer service desk at Macy's in downtown DC. I always got tickets. I paid hundreds of Ticketmaster fees before I ever bought a ticket on the internet. There was something personal about my interaction with a teller that made it alright. I didn't feel cheapened by the experience.
Things have changed. I don't always get tickets in the Ticketmaster click-lottery—I want to believe that I have a fair crack at them, but I can't really be sure. Besides the online payment system everything else about purchasing tickets from the company seems antithetical to the openness of the internet—from the exclusive presales to the confusing fees to Ticketmaster's corporate entanglements. I'll probably never stop paying fees. I love going to shows, and I've got no other choice.