How Ticketmaster Made Online Ticket-Buying Terrible


Picture the scene: it’s a chilly night during the Australian winter of 1997. Your correspondent, aged 19, is huddled in a sleeping bag on a Melbourne doorstep with a couple of friends, a pack of playing cards and a crate of beer for company. The doorstep belongs to Ticketek, the Australian precursor to Ticketmaster, and we are queuing dutifully to buy tickets for Radiohead, whose OK Computer tour was announced that morning and is due to visit town for two dates in early 1998. We hang out all night playing poker for 50-cent coins and drinking beer that never gets any warmer because the night is so damn cold. When the Ticketek dude turns up at 8:45am, he seems slightly taken aback that four bedraggled teenagers have spent the night camping out, but he dutifully sells us tickets for both shows. We head home cold and hungover and happy.

I don’t want to get all misty-eyed here, but the thing about buying tickets used to be that the tickets you got were entirely dependent on the level of your fanaticism for the band and your tolerance for standing in line. This wasn’t an ideal system, but at least it meant you knew exactly what you needed to do to get tickets, and stood a decent chance of getting them if you were prepared to do so.

Fifteen years after I spent the night on that doorstep (completely unnecessarily, as it turned out — neither show sold out until that afternoon, making the whole camping out idea an exercise in romantic futility), however, whether you get decent tickets to a show has very little to do with how much you like the band involved. The advent of Internet ticketing was meant to make life easier for everyone, and in some respects, it has — while sitting and frantically refreshing a website is tedious, it’s objectively better than risking hypothermia every time a popular band comes to town.

In general though, online ticketing has actually made it pretty much impossible to be sure you’ll get tickets at all, and it also often means that the best seats are out of the reach of genuine fans. In the past your competition for tickets was, well, other fans. These days your competition is rich people with American Express cards, LiveNation members, ticket agents (who often get an exclusive presale to themselves), and god knows who else.

And just to add to the fun, when you actually do log onto the Ticketmaster site when the tickets you’re after go on sale, you’re also up against another, more pernicious problem: scalping bots. Scalping is a problem as old as tickets themselves — it doesn’t take a great deal of business acumen to realize that if demand for tickets to a certain event is going to outstrip supply, you can make a profit by buying a bunch of tickets and reselling them for a higher price once the show sells out.

But the advent of Internet ticketing has also opened up a whole lot of scalping possibilities — whereas in the past, scalpers might have had to queue for tickets themselves, these days it’s as simple as writing a script to buy up as many tickets as possible and reselling them at a ridiculous markup. The scale of the problem is pretty depressing — as The New York Times reported over the weekend, “according to Ticketmaster, bots have been used to buy more than 60 percent of the most desirable tickets for some shows.”

This all means that by the time tickets actually go on sale to the general public, the best seats are long gone. The NYT quotes Bowery Presents’ Jim Glancy, who says, “There are sold-out shows in reserved-seat houses in New York City where we will have 20% no-show, and that 20% will be down in the front of the house.” This is pretty terrible for fans — y’know, those people who actually like the band in question and might want to sit in such seats — and also for bands, venues, and pretty much everyone else who isn’t a faceless Russian scalper.

You might think, then, that Ticketmaster would want to do everything they can to keep bots off their site — especially as Ticketmaster themselves have a sideline in scalping reselling tickets via their StubHub equivalent TicketsNow. But, in fact, it appears they couldn’t really care less — instead of blocking bots, they just kick the bots they detect to the back of their online queue. There’s a rather revealing quote from Ticketmaster’s anti-bot czar John Carnhan in the NYT article: “We’re not trying to stop anybody from buying tickets,” he says. “We’re just trying to make sure that a fan can buy the tickets.”

These two statements aren’t as contradictory as they might appear — basically what Carnahan’s saying is that they don’t really care who buys tickets, so long as fans get at least a notional opportunity to do so. This is representative of everything that people have hated about Ticketmaster over the years — it’s a company that’s grown fat by inserting itself as a middleman between venues and fans, providing a “service” that’s of dubious merit, at best. Fans have long detested Ticketmaster for this: Pearl Jam’s famous ongoing war with the company was catalyzed by its refusal to waive service fees, and led to a Congressional antitrust investigation into whether Ticketmaster’s control of a large number of major venues constituted an anti-competitive monopoly.

The investigation was eventually dropped, due in part to increasing competition in the market. At the time, Attorney General Janet Reno said, “My understanding is that the division found that there were new enterprises coming into the arena, and that based on the evidence …. we do not have a basis for proceeding [with the investigation].” Since that time, Ticketmaster has continued to grow into the global behemoth it is today, acquiring a string of competitors in the US and overseas — and then, in 2010, it merged with LiveNation, a deal that gave the resultant entity some 80% of the concert market.

At the time, there were plenty of worries that the deal would only increase Ticketmaster’s stranglehold on the industry: “While we appreciate the efforts of the DOJ to extract meaningful concessions from the parties, we remain concerned that these two companies, with a history of anti-consumer behavior, will abide only by the letter and not the spirit of the settlement agreement,” said Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League at the time, echoing the sentiments of pretty much everyone not employed by Ticketmaster, Live Nation, or the DOJ.

The concessions she speaks of are the fact that the deal obligated Ticketmaster to license its software to its biggest competitor, AEG, in order to ensure competition in the ticketing field. The thing is, though, that this competition might be relevant to Ticketmaster’s bottom line, but as a consumer it’s really a case of same shit, different shovel. The end result is that it doesn’t matter if you’re going via Ticketmaster, AEG, Ticketfly or whoever else — it’s virtually impossible to bypass some sort of ticketing service if you want to purchase tickets in advance of an event, with all the headaches and extra fees that the such “services” bring.

In other words, whether or not you go through Ticketmaster, you can see its clammy hand in pretty much every aspect of the ticketing process — presales, service fees, “convenience” fees, the works. The company’s market share gives it little incentive to change, and as a consumer, the experience offered by its competitors isn’t exactly much better. There’s the occasional promising new start-up, but on the whole, in the 15 years since I camped out to see Radiohead, it’s gotten exponentially more difficult and more expensive to get hold of tickets to see — including, sadly enough, Radiohead themselves. And, sadly, it doesn’t appear that things are going to get better any time soon.