In Part One of this two-part series, I gave a brief overview of the primary and secondary markets involved in ticket sales and why concerts and other events are often sold out before fans get a chance to buy tickets (bots, scalpers, and held tickets, oh my!).
Artists, ticket sales and distribution businesses, and politicians have long been trying to find ways to improve the ticket buying experience and to help ensure tickets get into the hands of fans rather than scalpers (though, as mentioned in Part One, Ticketmaster and some artists have entered the secondary market themselves).
Some of the leading theories and practices for doing so include changing/creating legislation, raising face value prices in the primary market to better match secondary market prices, cancelling secondary market tickets, flooding the primary market, and fighting the bots with data and algorithms, such as Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan.
This post, Part Two of the series, offers a look at these theories and practices, with a focus on the new and problematic Verified Fan process and it’s friends, Boosting and FanScore.
I should begin with the same caveats from Part One:
- I am just a fan – I do not and have never worked in the ticket sales world, I’ve only ever bought tickets for myself and friends. Meaning, I have no inside scoop on this subject matter – the below is based solely on news articles, information I’ve found on industry sites, Terms and Conditions for artists’ ticket sales, etc., my own experience, and my interpretation thereof. If you are from the industry and can verify or counter what I’ve said, please do so.
- I am using concert tickets as the example, but I suspect much of this holds true for sporting events, theatre, and other entertainment events where the public buys tickets through a ticketing processor such as Ticketmaster.
For a more detailed look at the primary and secondary ticket markets, you can check out Part One. However, as a quick overview to situate this current article, just know that there is a battle between fans and scalpers in the primary market. Scalpers are pretty much winning, thanks in large part to their super-villain ticket-buying bots that can snatch up thousands of tickets in mere minutes. These tickets are then placed in the secondary market at often astronomically higher prices for the defeated fans from the primary market to buy.
Ok here we go – the theories and practices for defeating the evil bots and scalpers and getting tickets into the hands of fans at non-scalper prices:
Raising the Roof! Err… Prices…
There’s an argument held by many in the industry, including Live Nation’s CEO Michael Rapino and A Journal Of Musical Things’ Alan Cross, that if we really want to get rid of scalpers, the industry needs to stop under-pricing tickets and raise the primary market price.
Whenever I hear this theory I get an instant image in my head of John Lennon saying to the Beatles’ audience at a Royal Variety performance: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry…”
The theory is that raising prices will eliminate the need for scalpers. Scalpers are there because there is a demand for certain tickets and these tickets are severely under-priced. So scalpers buy them at face value in the primary market and then sell for whatever the market will allow for. If you raise the price closer to the market demand price in the primary market, there is no economic incentive for scalping in the secondary market.
And the added benefit of doing so would be the artists, their teams, the venues, etc. get the money rather than the scalpers (and it’s a significant wad of cash… apparently scalping is an $8 billion industry…).
Logical, right? Except to get rid of the economic incentive for scalpers, tickets would have to be priced in the primary market very close to the market demand value or scalpers will still exist as there will still be a profit to make.
But artists are well aware that pricing the tickets too high will alienate a significant number of their fans by breaking the unspoken principle of fairness – we all want the chance to go see our favorite bands live, we all want a chance at the best seats or rail space on the floor. Being pushed out of the market by prices strips this chance away right from the get go.
And while I am all for artists and venues etc getting the money over scalpers, I personally wonder if raising prices to market demand prices would in fact get rid of scalping – I feel like it would just raise the prices further in both the primary and secondary markets, as there would still be more demand then supply.
Right now the inflation of the price stops somewhere due to moral outrage – society cannot accept $80 tickets being sold for $8000. It makes our jaws drop, heads shake in disbelief and horror.
If prices are raised in the primary market, eventually society will get used to those prices and somewhere there will still be people willing to pay even more for those tickets… and the scalpers will find them.
Besides, if the point of getting rid of scalpers is to get tickets into the hands of fans at reasonable prices, then this argument is just completely against the goal – as mentioned above, it would just price the vast majority of the population out of any possibility of going.
There are just so many negative consequences for artists, fans, and that could result from raising those prices to match the secondary market:
- We would be creating a world where only the rich can go to concerts (increasing an already sensitive divide between the so-called 1% and the rest of the population).
- Fans may perceive the artist as greedy and selling out.
- And it could result in shows that don’t sell out when they otherwise would have, because only that 1% or whoever can afford to go.
I wonder if U2 isn’t facing a bit of this right now with their upcoming tour. Tickets went on sale a couple of weeks ago and only one of the original 15 dates announced has sold out. Normally they sell out in minutes. It’s a bit complicated with all the troubles fans have had with the sales, and there might be some U2 tour over-saturation (if that’s even possible) in some US locations as U2 have had numerous dates across the US since 2015, but there are a large number of fans in social media who are not happy with the rise in prices and are not buying tickets because of it. Some even stated that pricing the tickets so high clearly indicated to them that the band were now only in it for money.
(I do not feel this way in case you are wondering – I do think the prices are higher, and too high for me for certain areas, but I don’t think U2 sells out their fans or are in it solely or even mostly for money.)
Some artists and events are working around the idea of raising prices to market value by offering Platinum Tickets or VIP packages for some, but not all, of the best seats. These tickets are priced closer to market value and can come with additional benefits such as gifts, access to merchandise booths, backstage passes, etc. Others are marking up most seats, but then offer a few at crazy low prices available through a lottery (e.g. the Broadway play, Hamilton, offers $10 seats).
Mess The Market
Other ways artists and others are trying to defeat the scalpers and get those tickets into the hands of fans involve somehow messing with the market: taking action to swipe the rug right out from under their feet or just changing the rules of the game.
Ontario, Canada, for example, is days away from passing legislation that will change the markets by outlawing the use or sale of bot software, allowing civil claims against bot companies, and capping resale prices at 50% above the original price (I assume not including any fees). Last year, Obama signed a nation-wide law banning the use of bots in the US.
Of course the trouble is that scalpers can just take their bots to countries that do not have these laws… But it’s a start.
Just Cancel The Tickets
Flood The Market
Others still are flooding the market with tickets (e.g. Garth Brooks). By offering more shows in an area than will sell out, there’s very little market for scalping at ridiculous prices.
This, to me is the most logical solution – if there is such a demand for tickets, meet the demand – play 8 shows in one city. Everybody wins, except the scalpers – fans get a selection of dates and plenty of opportunity to get tickets without much hassle or competition at reasonable prices, venues and artist and their teams rake in the money.
It does mean that artists and venues may not be able to promote the hype of selling out in seconds. And they might need to play less than sold out crowds, but it seems that over-pricing tickets has that same effect anyways – so do artists want to play to the masses or just to those that can rattle their diamonds in lieu of applause…
It’s A Data World
The other option for fighting scalpers is to use a combination of technology, data, and software to prevent scalpers and their bots from buying vast amounts of tickets in the primary market in the first place. Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan system is meant to do just that.
As mentioned in my previous blog on tips for buying tickets, Verified Fan is described by Ticketmaster as a “really big robot (that protects) fans from the thousands of little scalper bots trying to scoop up tickets.”
Anyone that wants to go to a Ticketmaster Verified Fan event must register online in advance for ticket access. Registering involves going to the specific tour webpage and signing in with a Ticketmaster account (those that do not yet have a Ticketmaster account must create one) and other personal information including a mobile number and/or email so Ticketmaster can notify the person whether or not they are verified and what the next steps are.
You can also sign in with your Facebook account, which makes for easier access later, but it also connects your Facebook data to Ticketmaster and vice versa.
In some cases, if fans want to go to more than one concert in the same tour, they will have to register for each date separately.
Ticketmaster’s software then runs through its algorithms to determine whether the registered person is a real human or a bot. Unlike the Captcha technology of previous events (you know, the ‘I am not a robot,’ ‘click all the boxes that contain pictures of road signs,’ stuff we had to do back in the day, like a year ago?), which tried to sort countless people and bots as they were accessing the online sale (often all at the same time), Verified Fan processes this information well before tickets go on sale.
The Verified Fan algorithms can also predict if the humans are likely scalpers or people who will actually use the ticket themselves. It is unclear exactly what the algorithms look for, but an email I received confirming registration warned against registering for the same show with the same information or creating multiple accounts (with Ticketmaster, email, the Fan Club etc.) to sign up with. Apparently, such behaviour could make the algorithms think you are a bot/scalper.
Once identified, (most) bots and scalpers are denied further access in the process and everyone else is verified as a fan by the system. Depending on supply and demand, the verified fans get a unique code via text or email that lets them access the ticket sale. If demand outweighs the supply, not all verified fans will get a code, to be determined through random selection.
In addition to sorting bots from humans, the process is also meant to slow down the mass onslaught of buyers at the opening of the sale. Verified Fan reduces the number of ticket buyers entering the system at the same time by removing the bots and by providing limited numbers of codes. This means the mad rush to get tickets should be less intense and chances of Ticketmaster’s system crashing reduced. Or, as Forbes Magazine states: “It can transform ticket shopping from a race against technology into a much more “human” ticket buying experience.”
The flourish of changes and hoops to jump through for Verified fan have added complications, risks, and outright frustration and anger for a large number of fans that have encountered the new ticket buying system.
For example, Taylor Swift has faced intense backlash against her ‘Taylor Swift Tix’ and the boosting process (see below), and countless Bruce Springsteen, Harry Potter, and Hamilton theatre fans were left out in the proverbial cold without even a chance to try to buy tickets thanks to the Verified Fan process.
U2 is the latest band to jump aboard the Verified Fan process, rumours of which had been circling the U2 fandom for months well before any official announcement was made, creating waves of fear and outrage uncommon in this group. That fear recently became actualized into a Titanic-sized ticket sales disaster for numerous fans.
Though Verified Fan has been used by many artists before U2, it was only used for their pre-sales; general sales went the normal route. U2’s upcoming Experience and Innocence Tour is the first tour to use Verified Fan for ALL tickets, which in this case included three sales: fan club pre-sale, credit card pre-sale, and the general sale.
The fan-club pre-sale was run by Verified Fan, but through U2’s paid membership fan club, members of which are used to a certain way of running the pre-sale. Historically (and we are talking decades here), all members receive codes to pre-sales (codes did not guarantee tickets) and most, if not all, receiving excellent tickets, with a solid number of general floor admission (GA) tickets.
While I love that U2 are always using cutting edge technology and processes… sometimes it sucks being the guinea pigs (think Vancouver’s Credit Card entry fiasco last tour…). New processes always mean kinks to work out…
This time, numerous U2 fan-club members were not verified, did not receive codes for any of the three sales, or received codes that did not work. For some of the fan-club fans, they received emails stating they were verified and could expect a code, only to receive another email the next day saying they would NOT, in fact, be getting a code. For those lucky enough to receive working codes, the selection for the fan club sale was extremely poor, with few GA tickets available.
Basically, the idea of Ticketmaster telling someone whether they are a fan or not never sat well with many in the U2 fandom, and this, mixed with all of these other issues, broke the hearts of many long-time devoted fans.
By the way, Verified Fan does appear to be preventing most scalpers from getting the tickets. While some tickets will always find their way to resellers, the percentage for shows that have used Verified Fan has dropped substantially from the average. Ticketmaster’s Executive Vice President and Head of Music, David Marcus, states in the above article and this one that only 1 – 5% of the Verified Fan distributed tickets are showing up on secondary market sites. This is in comparison to between 30-50% of tickets for high demand events that did not use Verified Fan.
However, the creation of Verified Fan and the need for a code to enter the ticket-buying game has also established a new market in town: the selling of the codes themselves:
“…professional resellers are offering hundreds of dollars for the codes that grant access to the hottest tickets. Private message boards used by ticket brokers and seen by The Wall Street Journal have been lighting up with offers ranging as high as $1,000 for a single code to access tickets for Bruce Springsteen’s solo run residency at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre.”
Artists using the Verified Fan process can also work with Ticketmaster to add “optional Fan Engagement actions,” known as Boosts, to the registration/code process. Essentially, fans still register for the Verified Fan event, but they can take actions (such as buying the album and merchandise through select stores and re-tweeting or sharing official posts about the tour/artist on social media) to ‘boost’ their position in the virtual line to purchase tickets.
Though a number of artists, including Depeche Mode and Imagine Dragons, have done this before her, Taylor Swift has faced a targeted onslaught of criticism against her ‘TaylorSwiftTix.’
Much like raising the prices of tickets in the primary market, this process almost exclusively benefits the wealthier fans who can afford to play the game and raise their place in line (for Taylor Swift, the biggest boosts come from buying the album – which you can do up to 13 times – and other merchandise) and the artists, who get to rake in the dollars and climb the album sales charts.
In addition, this game essentially makes fans do the dirty work of promoting the artist and their tour: “You wanna come to my show? First tell your world about it!”
Taylor’s and Ticketmaster’s argument is that her fans are going to buy the stuff anyways, might as well use it to help fight the bots (bots apparently don’t buy cd’s… Scalpers can though, and can then just either toss the cd or add it as a gift with purchase of the overpriced ticket…)
The appearance of the term ‘FanScore’ in U2’s official fan club’s Terms and Conditions may have been the catalyst for much of the beginning fear experienced by fans. The term appeared unannounced and unexplained, the T&C merely stating “You will be subject to Ticketmaster’s FanScore® verification system.”
This led fans to wonder, worry and, well, get downright pissed off that U2 might implement the Boosting process. As with the raised ticket prices, some U2 fans questioned whether the band was selling out their fans by making them prove their fan-ness by buying things.
While there is no official website, FAQ, or other information from Ticketmaster on what FanScore is, I have come to the conclusion that FanScore is just the name of the analysis program or algorithm Ticketmaster uses to determine whether the entity that registered with Verified Fan is a fan, scalper, or bot.
As with the initial use of ‘FanScore’ in the fan club’s T&C, U2’s Verified Fan program refers to FanScore in their Official Terms (under the section “Program Notification and Code Distribution”) only to say: “You will be subject to Ticketmaster’s FanScore® verification system.” It then goes on to describe the email and text process for those fans who are eligible. Pink’s Verified Fan program T&C uses the same wording.
Neither of these tours are using the ‘boost your score’ process. On the other hand, Taylor Swift (who is using boosts) has Terms that do not mention FanScore but do discuss the optional fan activities available to boost one’s position in line.
In addition, Ticketmaster’s Chief Digital Officer and EVP of Data Science and Engineering John Carnahan refers to fan scoring as: “…a combination of machine learning, engineering, working with artists.” Ticketmaster takes the data they receive from the Verified Fan registration and “run our machine learning which scores those users. It tells us the likelihood that the person is going to attend that show. We’re taking all the data that we have of which (concerts) this person attended and which ones they didn’t.”
In other words, it seems probable that FanScore is the software/algorithm used to look at our ticket buying habits and other data to determine who is likely to actually use the tickets, and who is likely to resell.
Enhancing The Process Further
According to Carnahan, Ticketmaster also uses fan scoring for other ways to improve the ticket buying process, including notifying verified fans when more tickets become available to the event they couldn’t get in to:
“We will make a reserve for you before that ticket even shows up on the site and based on the constraints you had, these tickets look good for you and we will purchase them for you with your credit card on file if you respond with a yes.”
I wonder if that means the system will look for tickets in zones similar to ones a person usually purchases. In other words, if I usually buy GA tickets to U2, and a GA and nosebleed tickets both become available, will this software reserve the GA for me over the other? That would be cool 😀
Data and Privacy
- directly: from what we enter into our account information and how we use their site (tickets we buy, etc.);
- passively: through browser cookies and web beacons; and
- from third party sites.
The policy also states that they will share this information with third parties and lists the many ways they ‘might’ use the data: the usual ‘to improve’ product/services, to answer our questions, to analyse trends, and for marketing.
None of this is new, all the loyalty cards and apps have been doing this for years. Retail stores frequently ask for email, etc. at checkout; however, it can be a little creepy how much retailers, and who knows who else, know about us and what they may do with that knowledge…
The Wave of the Future
Since I started looking into Verified Fan and the ticket market, a number of articles have been published that describe upcoming technology and partnerships that will effect the ticket-buying experience.
Presence is a new venue access control and fan engagement platform already in use at several venues. It “replaces traditional paper tickets with digital passes” via proximity-based digital technology (think Apple Pay). It enables an easy to use ‘tap and go’ venue entry system.
With Presence, every ticket must be in the attendee’s name, which means if one person buys a number of tickets for their family/group of friends, they must transfer the tickets to each attendee’s Ticketmaster account. This is meant to increase security and protect against fraud by tracking the path of identity associated with the ticket.
It also means each person that goes to the event gets credit (for lack of a better word) for going. This is important for the fan scoring mentioned earlier. Ticketmaster’s algorithms look at your ticket buying and attendance history – if you buy frequently, but rarely go, the algorithm might think you are a scalper. With Presence, your attendance benefits your fan score.
Google Assistant and Ticketmaster have developed an ‘Action’ (my tech vocabulary has exploded since I started looking into this stuff!) for people to be able to locate Ticketmaster events and purchase tickets through Google’s virtual personal assistant. All you need to do is say “Talk to Ticketmaster.” The assistant then runs you through the conversation to find what you are looking for.
YouTube and Ticketmaster
Ticketmaster has also partnered with YouTube (a Google company) to provide tour information and links to purchase concert tickets on YouTube. As of November 16, 2017, and beginning with North American tours only, tour dates are available under the participating artists’ official videos. Fans can scroll down to see all the dates listed. Next to each date is a ‘Tickets’ button that will take the viewer to Ticketmaster for further information, or, the end goal, to purchase tickets.
Whew! I feel like I’ve written a thesis on Ticketmaster and ticket sales over these past two posts! I like to joke that I’m a Ticket Master when it comes to buying tickets, now I think I can also say that I have a Ticket Master’s Degree 😀
Seriously though, I’ve learned a lot from the initial curiousity sparked by the U2 Verified Fan scare, things I slightly knew (that not all tickets are made available in the general sales), to things I had no idea about (e.g. how actually small that percentage of tickets in the general sale is, and pretty much everything else…).
Anything that struck you? Suggestions on what should be done to prevent scalping (or should it even be prevented)? Are you a fan of setting tickets at market demand prices right off the bat or of flooding the market, or other tactics?
And as always, please share these posts. Thanks!