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Buying Tickets for Live Events is Awful: While We’re Waiting…

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Greed and technology have conspired to make the ticket-buying experience for most desired live events an utterly miserable experience. It doesn’t need to be this way. But it is. In many ways, the debasement of the ticket-buying experience is a microcosm of many enduring societal risks: the misuse of technology, impersonalization of consumers, corporate conflicts of interest, industrial consolidation, a history of unscrupulous behavior in sports and entertainment, a general lack of empathy toward the everyday citizen, and bald avarice.

Many of the complaints about ticketing in the live event industry could also be made about the workplace, air travel, and healthcare: necessities where the stakes are much higher. But the ticket industry seems like low-lying fruit, and it is essential to readers who are fans of attending sporting events and (presumably) other fun things. If we as a society can’t solve this seemingly trivial problem facing the human race, what hope do we have against things like rogue AI, climate change, or giant space-tarantula invaders (should they exist). Making the purchase of tickets for events may seem like nothing, but it’s a proxy for everything.

(Note: Much of this critique may sound like humblebragging (“Look how hard it is to do all the cool things I get to do!”) and first-world problems along the lines of “Don’t you hate when the butler’s shoes scuff your marble floor???” but: a. I think it’s important to have context so my complaints are not entirely hypothetical and abstract; b. I never had money to go to many concerts and games when I was young, and now I prioritize going to live sporting and music events over nearly anything, even planning vacations and trips to visit friends and family throughout the year around games and concerts; c. I don’t have children or a spouse, so all of my income is “disposable,” up to and including my rent and basic needs which are “wasted” to the extent that they benefit me, a wholly expendable member of society furthering the species in no appreciable way; and d. I pay my taxes.)

This screed was prompted by a long history of miserable ticket purchasing experiences in my lifetime, in particular three within the past week.

  1. Last Friday, when I waited about 45 minutes to look at Rolling Stones tickets at the Rose Bowl, and the least expensive tickets were near the top of the 90,000-person stadium and over $300. Meanwhile, there were many cheaper tickets already available on the secondary market (algorithms?). This is clearly a sign of a dysfunctional market;
  2. On Tuesday, when pre-presale tickets to see My Morning Jacket at Red Rocks in Colorado sold out in the time it took me to enter the pre-presale code, click the “+” button twice to request two tickets, select the desired day, and click “Buy.” So like, 12 seconds.1
  3. On Tuesday (at the exact same time as situation 2.), when I tried to buy tickets to the Rose Bowl game on New Year’s Day via Ticketmaster. I waited in the virtual “waiting room” for about 30 minutes, then had a chance to select tickets. There were many great tickets still available, including the front row of some sections (or at least they APPEARED to be available). I tried to select seats and click “Buy Now” as fast as possible, only to be informed those seats were no longer available. This process repeated itself no less than 20 times until there were zero tickets remaining in the entire stadium.2 They were there and suddenly they weren’t, like shooting at the Predator in the jungle darkness but way less cool and ten times as maddening. It was then I realized, for roughly the thousandth time, “There needs to be a better way to do this,” and now I’m writing this.

Buying tickets to live events come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of outrage. Perhaps your experiences have been much better than mine — I hope they have been. But in my experience there are three main versions of the ticket-buying experience, all of which I’ve experienced many times.

  1. The near-perfect ticket-buying experience: The event is in low- to high-demand, but there’s no possibility of it selling out instantaneously. It’s at a local venue, so you drive to the venue to buy tickets from the box office on your lunch break or during a day off. You pay $2-$4 per ticket for a printing fee or something dumb (still offensive, but tolerable). You go home more or less happy. (Perhaps this is the experience for season ticket holders who pay the expected amount and receive their tickets in the mail all in due course, with no reason to be upset other than the price. I can’t speak to that experience.)
  2. The lousy but successful ticket-buying experience: There’s a realistic possibility of the event selling out quickly, so you can’t risk even waiting in line at the box office because all the tickets may be gone in the time it takes one person in front of you to buy a ticket. You cut out of a meeting, book it to your computer. You forget your password because this is one of umpteen vendors you’ve bought tickets from, but they send you a password reset email. You log in, wait for five-to-ten minutes in the virtual waiting room, but you escape that hell with plenty of tickets remaining. You select seats that aren’t great, but aren’t terrible either. You shake your head with contempt as you pay for $25 in convenience fees for two tickets. You’re happy but annoyed, mildly stressed, and insulted. This suffices for a win, somehow.
  3. The reason-defying, pit of misery ticket-buying experience: You know the event is going to sell out — these are the hottest tickets of the season, and are going to be a prized item by scalpers looking to flip them for some quick cash. You already tried buying them on presale the day before — but even those sold out. You log in to your account and join the queue. You stare at the circular Ouroboros icon going in circles around the screen. The screen says it should be your turn soon. People are tweeting, posting, and texting about how they bought tickets or the website crashed just as they were about to buy tickets — your group chat is exploding with updates and general panic and who needs to buy what for whom and with what preferences if anyone gets a chance. The circle goes around and around on the screen. Afraid to miss your chance to buy tickets, you refuse to blink, tears welling in the corner of your eye as your ducts beg to moisten your desperate, thirsty eyes, as your corneas become encrusted with the detritus of your rapidly desiccating eyeballs. Round and round it goes. After fifty minutes of staring in vain at the screen, the screen indifferently informs you that there are no more tickets available. None of your friends made it through. You unleash a string of expletives, curse all the gods, wonder why you subject yourself to this experience, and posit the meaninglessness of existing in a world where we lack the desire and collective will to solve a problem as simple as buying tickets to see the things you love and cherish so deeply. Outrage level: Thanos. This has essentially been my experience waiting for Radiohead and Comic-Con tickets multiple times each.

Other ticketing problems include the following:

  • Too many different accounts, logins, codes, confirmations, emails, and fan clubs.
  • Some places still don’t do electronic tickets. I understand physical tickets are harder to resell and probably steal/duplicate, but I’d rather just have a barcode on my phone I receive immediately instead of relying on the people who have been routinely giving me some guy named Garrett Gilbert’s mail for the past five years to delivery my tickets timely. (Will call for small venues are fine, like for when I saw J Mascis at a bar a few weeks ago.)
  • The online “waiting room.” Online vendors have also referred to this as a “virtual line” or something similar. The whole point of technology is to rid of things like waiting rooms and lines altogether. We could already wait in line before the advent of the internet. It’s a good thing Amazon doesn’t “virtualize” the experience of shopping at Wal-Mart and subject us to it while we’re shopping online. That would defeat the purpose. With appointments and automated booking systems, there are whole spheres of life where people just show up for stuff at the designated time and don’t have to wait at all. It’s great.
  • Scalpers in general, and bot-scalpers in particular. They exist. We know they do. I read Flash Boys, Michael Lewis’ book about high-frequency traders on the stock market who ran fiber optic cable all across the country and moved into buildings a few blocks closer to the New York Stock Exchange in Manhattan so they could gain a few microseconds advantage on the competition. I suspect these techno-grifters have cracked the code to buy and sell tickets to see Queens of the Stone Age. My fat fingers, concussed brain, and slacker reflexes are not able to compete with microprocessors in a free-for-all seat-selection scenario where milliseconds make all the difference. I wonder if the bots who hacked the presidential election are friends with the ones who stole my front row seats at the Rose Bowl.
  • “Convenience fees.” Yes, the cursed convenience fees or “service charges” or whatever vendors cynically call them. They can be anywhere from $6 to $15 per ticket, depending on the ticket price and the vendor. Isn’t the point of technology was to make things more convenient at a reduced cost? When bread became cheaper because of mechanized agriculture, farmers didn’t pass on “threshing fees” to the customer, or “tractor charges,” or a “modernization tax.” A $12.50 service fee for an automated website with fairly slim overhead automatically sending me an auto-generated .pdf of something I print at home is unconscionable — I contend it’s the biggest scam perpetrated on mankind. It’s not like the additional money is going to R&D to improve the experience and technology associated with it — it’s just going padding the vendors’ margins and bankrolling more of the following behaviors. I once drove to the amphitheater in Chula Vista (basically the same as driving out to Blossom Music Center from Cleveland) on an off day to save $33 in convenience charges on three Dave Matthews tickets.
  • Secondary ticket markets. There are some great things about the secondary ticket market. There is liquidity — you can buy and sell tickets to almost anything relatively easily. I have used StubHub and SeatGeek both frequently. If I have the spare cash and am desperate enough, I can get a ticket to almost anything. But the availability of secondary markets has exacerbated the aforementioned bot problem, and these exchanges also take an exorbitant amount of money off the top of every transaction. As of this writing, the cheapest Rose Bowl game ticket on SeatGeek was $254 without fees — and $324 with fees. That is $70 in fees. For a “great deal” at $1018, there is a $272 fee raising the price to $1290. That’s over 20 percent of the asking price in fees. After all the upcharges, a $50 ticket can become $62.50 after a service fee, $80 for a modest profit from the original buyer, and $100 after fees for the resale marketplace, and date night just went from $100 to $200 for the tickets alone. That’s outrageous.
  • The structure of the market. The vendors have used their profits not to invest in fixing (as in “repairing”) the market, but fixing (as in “rigging”) the market in their favor with anti-competitive behavior — by way of consolidation and exclusivity with artists and venues. Exclusivity deals prevent artists from using competitive, fairer vendors. The proximity of secondary markets (one of which Ticketmaster operates on its own website with its “Official Fan Ticket Marketplace”) to the bigger vendors encourages the market to remain wholly busted — the secondary sellers are the biggest beneficiaries of the broken market, the original vendors are their most important partners, and the secondary market gives the original vendors an opportunity to skim more money off the top, according to a pending lawsuit that Ticketmaster is attempting to have dismissed. “[U]ndercover reporters from Canada’s CBC and the Toronto Star detailed how Ticketmaster facilitates scalpers in order to gain a second cut on sales. The lawsuit claims violations of the Cartwright Act, California Penal Code and unfair and fraudulent business practices.”
  • Corporate responsibilities. Live Nation Entertainment is a publicly traded company that formed from the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation in 2010. Corporate officers have a fiduciary duty to shareholders of a corporation to act in the best interest in the corporation. Even though law professors may argue in New York Times op-eds that this doesn’t mean corporate officers need to maximize profits, it usually means that they do. In the U.S. most corporate officers seek to maximize profits to the exclusion and detriment to anything else. The business is incentivized to screw the customer as ferociously as possible. Until there is a change in either American mentality or law that emphasizes acting ethically or with a modicum of a conscious, things like buying tickets (and many more important things) will continue to objectively suck.

I don’t know the perfect fix to problems with purchasing tickets to live events, but here are some possible solutions and alternatives:

  1. Full-blown devolution. If the technocracy failed us, let us revert to jungle law. Just go all-out analog, low-fidelity. Customers wait in line at the venue, and they buy a ticket when the box office opens. Limit to two-to-four tickets per a customer. That’s it. Is the event in high demand? Then wait in line longest. Do you live far away from the venue? Too bad. At least this is something resembling a meritocracy — scalpers have to actually do some work. Maybe add an obstacle course if you want to be exotic. Bob Dylan was better before he went electric. Sgt. Pepper sounds better on vinyl. The world was better when no one could contact me. Down with the machines.
  2. Random drawings and a confirmation email. This is the same concept as waiting in line, but without, you know, the waiting. This would take place in an orderly, civilized, truly randomized fashion. You sign up in advance (say, over a one-week window or anytime before the “sale” date), the vendor will send you an email or text message if you’ve been selected, and you have an hour or so to buy tickets or you lose your spot. Put the simultaneous purchases at a reasonable volume so seats are not disappearing instantaneously. If they can do parts of this for multi-factor verification (which even my credit union has), why not for buying tickets? After all tickets are sold, send an email or text saying, “All tickets have been sold.” This could even be kind of fun as it unfolds throughout a day. Pros: People with jobs or lives could continue doing so until they receive their notification; it completely eliminates the haphazard dash and stupid online waiting room (and hence staring pathetically at a browser window for hours ). Cons: Not great for people without phones or computers (a problem you would already have under the current system); anyone could sign up in advance, allowing people who are too lazy to suffer under the current regime to have a chance to get tickets.
  3. Pre-authorize the ticket purchase, and then have automatic purchases. This is basically a variation of the preceding suggestion. You could go on a website days or weeks in advance, input the number of tickets you would like, provide your credit card number, the maximum price you’re willing to pay for a ticket, and even preferences like row number or proximity to an aisle. They draw for selections (using computers!), and if any seats or tickets matching your preferences are available after your number is selected, the system purchases tickets and charges you. Throw the word “blockchain” in this suggestion a few times, turn it into a startup, and you can raise $10 million in VC funding tomorrow. This has most of the same pros and cons of the preceding suggestion.
  4. Maybe just employ some effective bot counter-measures? But vendors wouldn’t do this for the reasons discussed above. There are no cons.
  5. Tie the buying and selling of tickets with individual identities, with a “fan passport” of sorts verified with a government-issued ID. Pros: Prevents scalping in large quantities; acts as a hindrance to reselling tickets; makes it more likely that actual fans of a band or team are attending an event; probably positive for venue safety. Cons: Privacy concerns; seems exclusionary; kind of creepy.
  6. Bury all available tickets at random in the Mojave Desert. Leave a wheelbarrow full of shovels and one dune buggy with the keys in the ignition along the side of I-15. Send a covert email to subscribers of your team/band’s newsletter. Watch the mayhem ensue! Don’t like your seats? Find tickets to a show in the wrong city? Die of heat stroke? Bummer! Maybe next season/tour! Feel the madness setting in as the sun cooks your brain inside its own skull? See the vultures slowly circling overhead? Don’t stop now! Keep digging! There has to be a Quicken Loans Arena ticket under one of these rocks. Anything for you, Bruce! Pros: Entertaining, diabolical, hilarious, successfully cuts out the ticket vendors. Cons: Danger, scorpions, slightly more cruel than current system, serious liability issues.
  7. You slowly begin to regain consciousness after … what was it you were doing? Yes, your memory begins to filter to you across time — hours, days, weeks maybe? You can’t tell. You were … trying to buy tickets for a concert. The last thing you did — this much you’re sure of — was click “Buy Now” on the ticket website. But then what happened? You hazily reach for the back of your neck where there’s a shooting pain and— what’s this? A puncture wound, from a needle perhaps? Alarmed now, you start to open your eyes and stand up, but you’re pulled back down toward the table you were slumped over. Your left hand is handcuffed to the table! It’s a dimly lit, cell-like room, with a door at one end. Is this a prison? A sanitarium? Where are you? On the table lies a hacksaw, a section of lead pipe, a coil of piano wire, and your credit card. To your right a man with his back to you is hunched over a computer screen. The screen reads “In Virtual Waiting Room…” He watches a circle spin around on the screen. He appears to be completely unaware you are in the room. “Excuse me? Sir?” you say meekly. No reaction. “Yes yes!” the man exclaims. The screen is no longer the waiting room, but showing the available seats in the arena to— Yes, it’s for the show you were trying to buy tickets for. He picks two seats — exquisite seats, the same you would have picked! He’s going to take your seats! The mouse scrolls across the screen, clicks “Buy Now” and proceeds to the checkout screen. You peek at the hunk of lead pipe sitting on the desk in front of you. Is that … blood? The piece of pipe small but looks … weighty. Substantial. Formidable. If you just grabbed it, you could just swing your right arm and easily— No! You couldn’t! But again … who would know? You’ve been waiting years to see this band! But no! Absolutely not. It’s not worth it. How could you? The man finishes checking out. “A confirmation has been sent to your email address,” it says on the computer monitor. You sigh in resignation. You want to cry. Suddenly more fluorescent lights turn on in the room. The door at the entrance to the room swings open. In walks a man holding a clipboard and a manilla envelope. He’s wearing a black suit. “Congratulations, Mr. Welch. You passed the test. This man,” he gestures to the still, unmoving man in front of the computer screen, “is not a man at all, but a robot to test your moral integrity.” He flips a switch on the wall, and the man, well, robot, slowly collapses onto the keyboard with a booting-down sound. “Don’t look so confused, Mr. Welch. Everything will be fine. We gave you a mild sedative and transported you here like we do for all prospective buyers. You’d be amazed at how many fail the test! Our … friend here has been maimed, bludgeoned, strangulated, you name it!” He gently, almost affectionately pats the robot on the back of his now-obviously prosthetic head. He playfully tousles the robot’s hair. “This,” he wipes the blood from the lead pipe, and licks his finger, “is strawberry jam.” You stare at the man in bewildered horror. “Anyway, Mr. Welch,” he says, handing the manila envelope to you. “Here are two tickets to Fleetwood Mac. Floor seats!”

At the end of Dazed and Confused, as Mitch Kramer lays down in bed with Foghat’s “Slow Ride” in his headphones, a few of the high school seniors (and Wooderson) are on their to buy Aerosmith tickets. (“Top priority of the summer!”) Pink looks wistfully out the window at the passing Texas roadside. There are some uhh enhanced inhalations and exhalations of a sort. Jokes we never hear are told. Laughs are had. Smiles, chuckles, and high-fives abound. They’re not frantically clicking their computer screens, cursing the purgatory of the dreaded online waiting room, or trying to wrap their head around what a convenience charge is (a concept that I’m sure would have appalled them). For our friends in Dazed and Confused, there’s no anxiety about them getting their concert tickets. As the credits roll, the highway ahead fades — nothing but the open road, joy, and the most kickass concert of the summer lie ahead.

Sometimes I think of a Ticketmaster executive watching this scene, and vomiting all over himself in disgust that he was unable to insert himself into this pure experience, this idealized transaction, this unblemished example of commerce — and exploit these poor, naive kids for a few bucks — and then shuddering in horror like Lionel Hutz imagining a world without a lawyers.

It’s not lost on me that making the ticket-purchasing experience is in part intentionally unpleasant — to artificially inflate demand, reward patience, and create a false sense of gratitude at “achieved” success. Like high school, the degradation and humiliation are the whole point.3

But ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t need to be this way, which is why this is all so frustrating. I’m even more fortunate than most because I have an office job and a comfortable amount of discretionary income. For the reasons discussed above, buying tickets for sporting events and concerts is unlikely to change. But when I use something like Uber —4 through which I can order a driver to my house in less than five minutes, be driven me across town, be dropped off within inches of my desired destination, and have my credit card charged automatically, all without saying a single word beyond banal chitchat — it makes the current situation with buying tickets more inexcusable.

We often compare obviously ascertainable tasks to going to the moon to demonstrate our failure to achieve them. But that’s not giving the current service providers in the live-event ticket market the denigration and disrepute they deserve: We don’t need the imagination and wherewithal it took to transport a man to the moon to solve this problem — we need less than the imagination and wherewithal it takes to transport a man down the street. We just need the motivation and collective will to solve these problems.

  1. My friend eventually bought them through the American Express-exclusive presale on Wednesday. []
  2. I subsequently found an Ohio State alumni portal and bought tickets through a relatively painless process. []
  3. This felt especially true of buying Comic-Con tickets. Once you’re “in” the club, then it’s significantly less painless. []
  4. Problematic for a different set of reasons. []