A couple of years ago, Ticketmaster embarked on a makeover. The company, long regarded as a faceless inhuman monolith with a death grip on the sales of concert tickets along with a large percentage of tickets to sporting events and theatre productions, decided it needed a new, gentler public image.
It wasn’t that Ticketmaster suddenly was interested in being all warm and fuzzy, of course. This was a business decision.
The public was getting angrier at the whole process of buying tickets, which has turned into one of the most unpleasant and dysfunctional consumer experiences in all of capitalism.
Instant sellouts. Frustration with bots — high-speed ticket-buying software programs — were robbing humans of a chance at getting tickets. Mysterious instant sellouts. Those who did manage to get through online encountered weird service charges. And how did so many tickets end up in the hands of scalpers and ticket brokers so quickly?
Then there was the fact that Ticketmaster is owned by Live Nation, the biggest event promotion entity in this part of the galaxy. Market share, profits and share price had to be protected.
Meanwhile, governments and consumer protection bodies were snooping around, asking awkward questions about certain business practices.
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Sensing danger, Ticketmaster decided to open up and educate (placate?) the public about how it did business. Step one: Show Ticketmaster as a company that truly cared about its customers.
A PR firm was hired. Executives made themselves available for interviews. The curtain was pulled back for journalists (including me) to see how the business of selling tickets worked.
It was all very enlightening. I learned that the ticket selling industry is far, far, more complicated and convoluted than I had ever realized. I was shown how Ticketmaster is working with complex machine-learning systems and AI programs to battle bots. The complicated process of setting the face value of tickets was explained. We went through all the service charges.
There were many candid conversations about Ticketmaster’s role in the concert ecosystem. I came away thinking the consumer-facing side of Ticketmaster was doing a pretty good job making sure that tickets got into the hands of fans. Sure, there were challenges, but it did seem the company was working to improve things for customers.
Still, suspicions lingered. Certain questions were deflected or went unanswered.
What, for example, is the full nature of Ticketmaster’s relationship with secondary sellers? Were the rumours of cozy deals with industrial-sized ticket buyers true? And how is it possible for tickets to show up on the secondary market at grossly inflated prices within seconds of them going on sale? Why wouldn’t Ticketmaster be transparent about how many tickets were available to the general public for any given show?
Something weird seemed to be going on behind the scenes. But absent of any proof, there were only allegations, speculation, and rumours.
The walls came crashing down on Ticketmaster with last week’s CBC/Toronto Star investigation. It confirmed what a lot of fans already believed: that Ticketmaster was actually aiding and abetting ticket brokers and sellers.
It turns out that there are two sides to the company: one that deals with regular consumers, involving rigid rules and regulations, and another separate division called TradeDesk that not only facilitates and incentivises the bulk buying of tickets but also helps these industrial-strength purchasers automatically post tickets on secondary sites at prices far, far beyond face value.
By doing so, Ticketmaster reaps revenue from two service charges by selling the same ticket twice: once with the original sale and a second, much larger charge from the resale. (Service charges are typically a percentage of the selling price.)
According to the investigation, the two divisions have church-and-state separation. One side claims to represent the best interests of consumers while the other is looking to exploit the consumer as much as possible.
Duplicitous? Hypocrisy? Unfair business practices? Is something illegal going on here? Or is this just crafty inventory management? I have a feeling some consumer protection agencies and governments around the world are going to be asking some very hard questions.
Meanwhile, Ticketmaster issued this statement on Thursday, denying collusion with scalpers (very Trumpian!) and saying it has launched an internal review. It has got to contain the damage. This will be hard.
Realistically, though, nothing will change. The concert game has always been a blood sport, from the acts, managers, and agents, to the venues, sellers, scalpers, and brokers. With touring revenues more important than ever before, there’s always going to be behind-the-scenes maneuvering to maximize profits for everyone involved, all driven by the laws of supply and demand.
Meanwhile, people have it in their heads that they have a right to get a front row ticket to a show by their favourite act at face value. That was never the case. And it’s certainly not going to be the case in the future.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.