Alan Cross: Squinting to peek through that opaque box office window

Have you been excited to see a show, only to be crushed when the tickets sell out in seconds? Alan Cross explores the reasons why that happens. Jena Ardell/Getty

* This is Part 2 of a three-part column. Come back next Sunday for Part 3.

Your favourite band has just announced a concert date for your city in a venue that has a capacity of 20,000 people. You reasonably assume that when you go online to buy your tickets through Ticketmaster, 20,000 tickets will be available for sale.

Well, no. Far from it.

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The exact number of tickets available for any given show at any given venue is a mystery. And while the Ontario Government wanted to make this sort of transparency part of its new legislation covering the sale and resale of event tickets — some MPPs wanted to ensure that 75 per cent of all tickets for every show be available to the general public — pressure from the concert industry forced them to back away from that provision.

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For now, the concert ticket box office will remain a big black box. Here’s why.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation in which a major act has been booked to play a venue with a reported capacity of 15,000 fans. Where do all those tickets go?

The first thing music fans need to know is that not all concert tickets go on sale at the same time. Promoters routinely release blocks of tickets over time as they gauge demand for a particular show. Prices may also be accordingly adjusted upward.

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Pre-sales also need to be taken into consideration. Before the general public gets a crack at tickets, supplies have to be allocated for a variety of other uses.

For example, if the act has a fan club that offers early access to tickets for its members, they must be accommodated. Those tickets may come in a variety of flavours, from specially-priced general admission tickets to those that allow all manner of VIP access.

There are special corporate programs run by credit card and mobile phone companies that offer their clients special access. Just as with the fan club tickets, these may have different levels of access and engagement.

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Meanwhile, radio stations and other media outlets have tickets carved out for contests that help build hype for the show.

Then there are so-called “holdbacks,” a discretionary number of tickets reserved for use by the act (guest lists, for example), the promoter, sponsors, the venue and the record label. The number of tickets shunted in those directions is fluid and may increase and decrease in the months, weeks, days and even hours leading up to showtime.

Now back to our 15,000-person capacity venue: After all the special pre-sale and industry allocations are accounted for, how many tickets actually go on sale when Ticketmaster opens for business on the appointed day? It’s hard to say, but the New York State Attorney General found that on average, only 46 per cent — and often less — were available to regular folk.

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That means of the 15,000 seats in our hypothetical venue, only 6,900 — maybe! — are available to the general public. And after the bots swoop in buying up hundreds and even thousands of tickets at lightspeed, how many actual humans are able to successfully log in and buy some?

Now you begin to understand why a show — or even an entire tour — can be declared sold out in less than 60 seconds.

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(A hint: We sometimes see last-minute day-of releases after crews determine how much space an act’s gear occupies in the venue. That can free up more space, suddenly making tickets available for a show that’s been officially sold out for months.)

All of this explains why the industry pushed back on government demands for transparency. The truth is that Ticketmaster and a promoter don’t know how many tickets are available for any given show because of all the variables I’ve just mentioned. And if they were to try to comply with transparency requirements, they’d just open themselves to charges from the public that ticket inventory is being unfairly manipulated and that somehow someone’s being dishonest.

And while the transparency provision as good in theory — it would shed light on the true supply of a high-demand commodity — the machinations of the concert industry make it unworkable.

(Another hint: If you want a better chance at getting tickets to hot shows, sign up for the act’s fan club, radio stations’ listener clubs, and consider getting a credit card that has these sorts of privileges. None will guarantee you’ll get into the show, but at least you’ll have an advantage over members of the general public who don’t have any of these memberships. And most of those sign-ups are free to anyone.)

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Complicated, right? No wonder some people want to go back to the good old days when we all lined up in person at a box office to buy tickets. I’ve heard many people declare, “If you’re a true fan, you’ll do that.”

Really? You want to go back to that Soviet bread line method of buying something? Many will remember those bad old days when the rule was whoever survived the stampede when the box office finally opened got the tickets.

Besides, when was the last time you actually saw a physical Ticketmaster outlet? Yes, there are box office windows at venues, but no one in the industry wants to go back to the days fans of lining up overnight or even days in advance. Who can afford the time? And even if we did, that wouldn’t solve the supply-and-demand situation.

There is, of course, a solution to the sold-out show: the secondary ticket market. You want to know about a big black box? Just wait until next week.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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