Ticket buying in the modern era is pretty brutal. You find out your favorite artist is coming to town, and with any luck, you discover this before the tickets go on sale. Then you start planning to get tickets. Set up a calendar reminder with a link to the site, then you get ready. If there are presales, you ask friends or you check emails — if you’re a dedicated concertgoer, you probably get emails from the promoters, venues, and maybe even your favorite artists’ fan clubs — tracking down the codes.
Then you get ready, mouse pointer cued up at 9:59, waiting until tickets go on sale. The time flips, it’s 10:00 AM and you click! Prepared to quickly select 2, best available (or GA floor, because who wants a balcony seat), and add to cart. But wait! You see the dreaded message. You’re in a queue. Now all you can do is desperately stare at the webpage, hoping nothing changes. What if a browser extension interferes? What if your browser freezes up? Finally, you’re out of the queue. You go to select your tickets, but wait. GA is all gone. All that’s left is the seated Loge. For a band that you dance to. Or worse, it’s already sold out. All that time, all that anxiety, all that preparation, only to get shut down.
And that’s just the presale. You’ll do the whole thing over again at the next presale, or during the general onsale, hoping that the artist and the venue were strategic enough to set some tickets aside for each sale. If it comes down to it, you might have to show up to the venue an hour early (or more) before the show starts to get one of the limited tickets available at the door.
That’s everything a dedicated concertgoer goes through to get concert tickets. Thing is, according to Kaitlyn Tiffany in The Atlantic, that’s also what modern ticket scalpers do.
This week was a brutal one for ticket sales for me and my friends. A show at a 2000+ capacity venue sold out within a few minutes during the presale, and a second show added later also sold out within minutes. The Format announced their first live dates in years, playing 2 shows in NYC and Chicago both, and 1 show in Phoenix. The presale tickets for all the shows sold out within a minute, or in the case of Phoenix, was plagued by ticket website issues but still managed to sell out by the end of the day. By the time the general ticket sales happened, they’d announced an additional show in each city. The general ticket sales also sold out within minutes, and Phoenix ended up with a third show before the day was up.
How does it happen? And why do we put ourselves through this?!
It’s important to note that buying concert tickets at all is a privilege. Some people (like me) make it a lifestyle to go to concerts and DJ sets. Others save their money and spend big to get great seats to see favorite artists in arena shows. But it takes money, time, and a bit of luck (or planning) to get tickets and get to a show.
Whether or not you manage to get tickets to a show depends on several factors:
- Did you hear about the show before the tickets went on sale?
- Did you have enough money at the time tickets went on sale (and in general) to afford the tickets?
- Is your work schedule stable enough to know that you can go to the show if you buy tickets immediately when they go on sale?
If any one of these factors doesn’t work out, then you don’t have tickets to the show. Whether or not you get the opportunity to see an artist perform in concert at all is up to a whole other set of factors, subject to the careful strategies of the music industry combined with the artistic whims of the performers.
If an artist doesn’t have a big enough fanbase in your city, and if it isn’t geographically convenient with available music venues, the artist probably won’t stop in your city. Even if they stop, the venue size can play a crucial role in whether or not you’ll get tickets to the show—will they be available, and will you even want them?
Artists, especially after they’ve “gotten big”, can crave smaller, more intimate shows. But those are the shows that tend to sell out in a minute—especially if the fanbase in a certain city is larger than anticipated or if the artist is only playing a limited number of shows and end up drawing people from out of the ordinary reach of a venue.
Other times, artists can analyze the size of their fanbase in a city and then choose a venue—without considering if the venue size is appropriate for their type of music. Bon Iver toured 20,000+ seat arenas on their last tour, while they’re famous for their intimate music and have videos on YouTube with hundreds of thousands of views of Justin Vernon playing to just 1 fan. Even if an artist’s fanbase is large enough to fill an arena, the fans still might not want to buy tickets to see them in an arena.
Beyond those considerations, artists can’t always play the venues they want to play due to promoter restrictions or other industry partnerships, sometimes leading to uncharacteristic bookings at oddly-sized or oddly-shaped venues: DJs playing a concert hall, rock bands in a semi-seated venue, or possibly even skipping a city entirely.
The venue an artist chooses (or is forced to choose) can be a key factor when you’re deciding if you want to get tickets. But the artist (and their tour manager, and others) have still more to do before this concert happens.
The ticket prices have to be set. Surely venues and promoters have set costs and prices that end up as effective ticket minimums for many shows, but artists certainly have a level of influence as well. Especially high-profile artists like Taylor Swift have chosen on past tours to make affordable tickets available to their fans.
And therein lies the rub: artists can price competitively, or highly, knowing they can charge a certain price and still sell out their show (or nearly sell it out). But they can also price affordably, hoping that legitimate fans will be able to snap up tickets when they go on sale, rather than delaying their purchase and being forced to buy from scalpers.
OK so we’re still trying to buy these concert tickets. You’ve heard about the show, the artist has booked the venue and priced their tickets, you’ve got the money, you’ve got the time, you are ready at 10am on a Friday (or a Wednesday or a Thursday for those sweet sweet presale tickets). Where are you buying your tickets?
Ticket sites range from the homegrown (see: Bottom of the Hill), new kids on the block (Big Neon, Tixr), the budding behemoths (Eventbrite, AXS, Etix) and the (despised) old guard (TicketWeb/Ticketmaster/LiveNation). If you’re rushing to buy online tickets, you also need to prepare for the site experience.
If it isn’t a site you’ve used before, you might want to consider if it requires an account to buy tickets. If it does, you have to make one and make sure you’re signed in before you try to buy the tickets. You also want to consider if the show big enough that you’ll end up in a queue to buy the tickets, and if the site is reliable enough to handle the load of a lot of people trying to buy tickets without crashing or throwing an error.
Beyond site reliability, you have to consider your personal threshold for every ticket-buyer’s worst nightmare: fees. Almost every ticket purchase includes fees. How high do the fees need to be before you abandon your ticket purchase entirely? You also have to consider if there will be fees added to the face value of the ticket, and how high are too high of fees before you abandon the ticket purchase entirely. Of course, the irony of paying ticket fees is that most fans (myself included) dislike paying them because for so long the fees are hidden—last minute additions to your total, spiking the cost of $35 tickets to $60 at times. But it can be argued that transparently-disclosed fees are acceptable, and even necessary to provide a resilient, secure, reliable ticketing site—as well as to pay the promoters working hard to make sure your favorite band actually stops in your city.
Artists, promoters, venues, and ticketing sites do a lot to try to prevent ticket scalpers from bombing the market and selling out a show in minutes only to relist the tickets minutes later at unbelievable prices. Innovations in ticket technology, new marketplaces, and just plain making it harder to get tickets:
- Dave Chappelle announced on a Friday that he was playing 1 Saturday and 2 Sunday shows in San Francisco, with the tickets going on sale on the Saturday of the first show.
- Ticketmaster added the ability for artists or venues to require a rotating barcode for mobile tickets, preventing screenshots of tickets from being sold. Unfortunately, this was enforced with disastrous effect at a Black Keys show in LA. Anti-reselling measures only work if they punish the resellers, instead of the buyers, which is what happened in this case.
- Nine Inch Nails required fans purchase tickets in person to go to their San Francisco show in 2018. Which is great, for all the people that can afford to take time off and stand in a line.
- Pearl Jam worked with Ticketmaster to set up a fan-to-fan face value ticket exchange to control the reselling market for their tour.
- Artists also commonly say that they’re working with venues and ticket sites to identify legitimate ticket purchasers compared to scalpers.
What makes a ticket purchaser legitimate? Probably some degree of purchasing tickets in a specific geographic region and in clusters of genres, likely combined with some fraud analysis. Then I wonder how suspicious my own ticket purchasing habits must look to the algorithms at times. As long as we’re attempting to define what a legitimate ticket purchaser looks like, we can consider who deserves the presale codes for shows.
There’s a notion that only “real fans” deserve first access to presale codes and tickets. But how do you verify and validate true fans? You could use specific digital consumption patterns, such as those that are probably used to give out Spotify presale codes, but those are limited to only those listening habits that are directly observable in digital data. Artists want people to buy tickets to their shows—that’s why often, presale codes are straightforward to track down.
Most often, getting tickets to a show is a matter of knowing the right people at the right time that might have information you don’t have. Songkick is there to fill in the gaps, alongside emails and texts from promoters and venues. But ultimately, nothing beats having a community of fans. And that was the thing that fascinated me about the article in The Atlantic about the modern ticket scalpers. Me and my friends, we use many of the same tactics to buy tickets. It’s a privilege and a challenge to get the tickets we want, but we love going to concerts. And often, it feels like it’s the only way these days we can help artists make money.