Ticket scalping has become a scourge on the music industry, both in Australia and overseas. But fighting the scalpers – and the bots – isn’t a simple thing to do, reports JOSEPH EARP.
Bots And Bastards: The Contemporary Scalping Scene
“We’re sick and tired of the public being what we believe to be deceived.”
– Mark Rowe of Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne
“You can’t legislate the internet.”
– Dean, a scalper, to the ABC
It was February 2016, and seminal post-punk band At The Drive-In had just announced a hugely anticipated reunion tour. Given that the announcement broke years of coordinated musical and media silence from the band, it was perhaps to be expected that the excitement online was at fever pitch, further stirred up by months of hints and a mysterious countdown that had appeared on the band’s website. The hype was real.
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But the long-awaited tour came with its own distinct set of problems, and before long, fans hit a wall. Or, perhaps more accurately, a paywall. “As ticket sales began last week, it quickly became evident that every show would be attended almost exclusively by ticket-scalping robots,” wrote the punk news site The Hard Times.
“‘I couldn’t be more excited to see At The Drive-In,’ said BXSYSS, a ticket-purchasing computer program going to the show. ‘I was initially going to throw these on [ticket resale site] StubHub with my 200 Brand New/Modest Mouse tickets to make a couple thousand extra dollars, but I think I may actually use all 900 of these!’”
It was a joke, of course – The Hard Times is a satirical site, punk rock’s answer to The Onion – but behind the barb lurked an eerie, problematic truth. Though At The Drive-In’s acclaimed run of shows was eventually attended by humans rather than the sentient bots The Hard Times promised, many of those punters had purchased their tickets from scalpers, sometimes paying four times the price for the privilege.
In Australia, the band was even encouraged to add extra shows to its tour, after desperate fans struggled to fork out $339 for tickets that were initially being sold for a mere $90. “There is a serious problem with ticket scalping for these shows,” wrote Kate Nichols, a fan, on At The Drive-In’s Facebook page. “I waited online for three hours and had no bloody chance.”
Some were less eloquent in their rage. “Why bother even advertising [the show]?” wrote Emily Minikem. “It was futile and heartbreaking.”
But before long, the impotent anger of the fans began to find a more suitable target: Ticketmaster, an American institution responsible for organising the ticketing behind most major shows in this country.
“Ticketmaster Australia is an absolute disgrace,” wrote Heather Currie on Facebook. “A business that has forgotten about the music and the fans … The band[s] don’t benefit: the money is going into the pockets of scalpers who turn a huge profit exploiting the passion of the real fans who can’t bear to miss out.”
After all, there was a reason Ticketmaster copped so much flack, and its transformation into a broad, garishly painted bullseye was as much a result of its perceived indifference towards scalping as it was a result of irate fans looking to vent. Many of the company’s past statements on the matter have seemed to imply that it regards scalping as a natural state of affairs, an expected byproduct of the market’s needs not much more complicated than demand simply filling itself, as demand is wont to do.
Certainly it’s true that Ticketmaster has never really addressed scalping in any concrete way, commenting on the matter only when forced to respond to an outcry or some kind of organised outrage. And even then, its rebuttals have always had the note of feigned curiosity, coming across thick with a kind of barely formulated boredom. “For high-demand events, it is inevitable that a resale market will exist,” a representative for Ticketmaster told the ABC last year. “Ticket holders … control the inventory and the price of the tickets, which can be listed above or below the original face value.”
That attempt to shift the blame seems a little less believable when one realises that Ticketmaster has its own resale site, a tool that scalpers frequently use to shift huge numbers of tickets at extraordinary prices. It is hard for the company to claim some kind of institutional bipartisanship when it is evidently supportive enough of resale to indulge in it itself, and Ticketmaster Resale has been seen by many as the company’s way of legitimising the practice, intentionally or not.
Such a move was even subtly criticised by Secret Sounds, the promoter behind the At The Drive-In tour of Australia. “We strongly suggest patrons do not purchase tickets via any unauthorised sellers,” Secret Sounds told triple j, tarring Ticketmaster Resale with the same brush as sites like Viagogo and Gumtree – outlets that have long been used by scalpers as a way of making a tidy sum of cash with no real expenditure of effort. “Doing so only feeds the demand for ticket price inflation, which is something we do not support.”
And yet even though Ticketmaster has done very little to alleviate the problem of scalping, it is not the villain of this piece. Indeed, there isn’t a grand antagonist here; no one brand or band that it would be possible to tar with this particular brush.
Many involved in the ticket selling industry – from promoters to consumers – feel a generalised kind of helplessness. Just as no one company can be saddled with the entirety of the blame, so too is it true that the actions of individuals to fight scalping – no matter how well-meaning – often have little practical impact. Everyone’s hands are tied, and there is a keen sense throughout the music industry of being forced up against a wall.
“There is a responsibility on us to try to [stop scalping] as the artist’s representative,” explains Dion Brant, chief operating officer at Frontier Touring, in an interview with the BRAG. And he would know. Brant was the engineer behind the comprehensive restrictions and structures recently put in place to stop the scalping of Midnight Oil tickets, and his work in ensuring that the band’s fans could still afford seats at those shows was important – if, as he readily admits, not wholly successful.
“We find that whatever we do, it’s such a complex space, and the laws are not really supporting us at the moment. For Midnight Oil, we put a range of measures in place, and we’d like to think perhaps that that has impacted scalping – but has it stopped it? Not even close. There’s only limited things we can try and we can do. I think the mechanisms available to us as promoters of shows to limit scalping are pretty limited, and in every case are inconvenient for the fans.”
That deep sense of outrage is even felt by the one party that finds itself most commonly overlooked: the artists themselves. Driven by a desire to make their shows as affordable as possible – to look out for all their fans, not only those with a bit of extra dosh lying around – it is often the musicians who dictate pricing, and in many ways, people like Brant argue that the market should be beholden to the performer. But it’s one thing to believe the gig economy should be driven by artists – it’s another thing entirely to make that happen.
“Our philosophy from the start is that the only person who should be able to decide how much you pay to come to a show is the artist,” Brant says. “They know where this show fits into the grander scheme of their career. They have a relationship with their fans. If an artist decides to price their tickets below what the market could maybe bear – Midnight Oil being a case in point, Ed Sheeran when he comes to an Australia being a case in point – because an artist wants that show to be accessible to their fans, the idea that a third party can rub their hands together about the possibility of making money off that is just abhorrent to us.”
Of course, there’s also the inherently complicated nature of the system itself. Ticket sales are a business, and like any business that makes real money, a range of interim agents and organisations are involved. It’s not always the case that every single player in the organisation is entirely aware of what the other is doing, and each individual cog in the greater machine often feels as though they are grinding away in the dark, aware only of their colleagues’ decisions when they have already become real world results.
“When it comes to the ticket transaction, we’re much further removed from that than we’d like to be,” says Brant. “The artist is much further removed from that than we’d like them to be too. But the primary ticketing market works through ticketing contracts held by the major ticketing companies and the venues, so we then deal with the venues. So we’re two steps removed from the customer. That makes it very difficult for us to analyse or understand how these scalpers are getting these tickets.”
Evidently, scalping is systemic, and fighting it requires total cooperation between the talent, the ticket sellers, the venues, and, perhaps most importantly, the audiences. No stopgap solution will ever fix it. What is needed is nothing less than a total overhaul of the existing system; a rethink to a problem so ingrained as to be almost subconscious.
Does Legislation Work? The Impact Of Illegality On Sales
“The important thing is consumer awareness. People need to know where they’re buying their ticket from, and if they’re buying from the secondary market that they’re aware of the risks associated.” – Evelyn Richardson of Live Performance Australia
As it has with everything else in our world, the internet has revolutionised ticket scalping. In the ’80s and ’90s, the practice of scalping required hard work and patience, and those attempting to resell sought-after tickets at inflated prices had to actively seek out potential buyers, hanging around the front of venues in the hope they might bump into someone willing to fork out the cash.
These days, no such effort is necessary. Much of the actual initial ticket buying is conducted by bots, simple programs that are less the futuristic AI cyborgs lampooned by The Hard Times and more basic bits of coding software. The only real hurdle such systems have to overcome is the captchas utilised by sites like Ticketmaster – but, as The Guardian explained last year, such obstacles are minor.
“Captcha is a way of testing whether someone trying to buy a ticket is a human or a bot, for example by showing the user a gallery of pictures and asking them to place a tick next to all of those that depict, say, trees,” read the article. “But an employee of [scalping bot site] ticketbots.net said its bots were able to defeat this security protocol by enlisting real people to tick the right boxes. ‘Our software already bypasses these picture captchas using 3rd party captcha bypassing companies, who type the captchas for you,’ ticketbots.net wrote in an email.”
The practice is so simple that ‘how-to’ ticket scalping guides are regularly posted on YouTube, with some of the more popular tutorials racking up thousands of views. Utilising bots to bulk buy tickets doesn’t require a huge amount of money, or any particular technological know-how, or really any kind of specific intelligence. The apparatus is just there, begging to be utilised, and its basic functions remain remarkably user-friendly.
Ultimately, the only reason someone would refuse the aid of such software to assist in ticket buying comes down to a sense of personal moral duty. Though it’s admirable to spurn bots and the unfair advantage they provide, who cares about being admirable when it means you miss out on seeing the band you’ve been committed to seeing live for your whole life? Who cares about some specific sense of moral honour when it does nothing except deny opportunities?
That, ultimately, is the defense most frequently given by scalpers. They are simply providing a service that people would be dumb not to use, they say; a service designed to give ordinary people an edge over an ungainly system. And anyway, if scalpers didn’t sell on tickets, someone else would. “7-Eleven aren’t known as milk scalpers; people who sell shares at profit, they’re not known as scalpers,” a scalper known only as Dean told triple j’s Hack program last year.
And that was the tone he struck throughout: as though he were a quietly accomplished, self-made hero, a man of the people driven by nothing less than a desire to get fellow music lovers the best possible seats. When pushed on the immorality of his line of work, Dean just pointed fingers at the system. “If tickets were really easy to come by then my industry wouldn’t exist,” he said.
And therein lies the real issue with scalping. In so many ways, the entire ticket resale system is like one giant Mexican standoff, a game in which the first to back down is the first to miss out. As a scalper, you only lose money when you stop playing. And no amount of stern words doled out by companies under pressure from fans is going to change that.
Needless to say, ticket scalping is not simply an Australian problem: the issue is so widespread in America that according to The New York Times an estimated 60 per cent of tickets are bought up by scalpers, with the resale business raking in US$8 billion a year. It’s not just a case of scammers huddling around in their basement either, or setting up dodgy sites – scalping is an institution, one with significant economic heft.
As a result, key public figures like Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the acclaimed Hamilton stage show, have publicly decried the practice. “Many would-be customers complain that tickets to their favorite shows, concerts and sporting events are sold out within minutes – if not seconds – after they are posted for sale,” Miranda wrote for The New York Times in 2016.
“The issue is the widespread use of special automated software called ‘ticket bots’ by third-party brokers … You and I do not have a chance. Tickets are taken out of circulation, punishing people who can’t afford to pay more than face value.”
Following this much publicised outcry, the reaction from American lawmakers has been understandably – and perhaps even impressively – harsh. In early December 2016, the US Congress passed a bill known as the Better Online Ticket Sales Act, making bypassing the security measures put in place by ticketing sites illegal, and therefore rendering much of what bots do against the law.
Sensibly, bots themselves are not strictly banned in the States – that would be a murky grey area indeed, and one that could easily have a knock-on effect down the line as automated systems become increasingly widespread. But nonetheless, the ability for scalpers to bulk buy tickets in the States has been greatly hampered.
This, argued many leading Democrats, was a real win. “With this soon-to-be-new law that will eliminate ‘bots’ and slap hackers with a hefty fine, we can now ensure those who want to attend shows in the future will not have to pay outrageous, unfair prices,” said Democratic congressman Chuck Schumer in a statement to The New York Times.
Schumer wasn’t alone either, and the sense of jubilation was widespread. “There is only one way to stop the scalping industry, and that’s to make it illegal,” a club owner named Seth Hurwitz also told the Times. “Anything else is just Whac-A-Mole, and grandstanding by politicians.”
That approval from both lawmakers and those on the ground level of ticket sales might explain why so many Australian politicians have attempted to follow suit, with independent Senator Nick Xenophon in particular pushing hard for legislation to combat ticket bots. “I want to replicate the US laws to protect people from ticket scalpers,” Xenophon told News Corp late last year.
And there are many who support Xenophon’s position. Brant, for example, believes that such a ground-level obstruction designed to hamper the work of scalpers would be hugely effective. “If we can stop the scalpers buying tickets, there’s a whole lot more tickets in the primary market, and then that problem of, ‘The only way I can get a ticket is buying off a scalper,’ becomes lessened.”
And yet, it is too early in the day to properly assess whether the move made by American lawmakers has had any real impact. Again, illegality doesn’t mean that a practice will be stomped out, or that genuine change will be achieved, and there are some who feel as though banning bots will merely force hackers to search for other means of purchase – or to push on regardless, uncaring in regards to the law. There is enough money motivating them, that’s for sure.
Brant himself agrees that any legislation would ultimately need to be measured in practical effects; in their outcomes, rather than what is said or promised.
“I think [legal action] would raise the profile of the issue – it would increase the risks for those sophisticated organisations that are scooping up tickets. Would it be enforceable? I think that would be the great test of any legislation. If the bot’s based in Sweden in a bunker somewhere, how do you detect it? Then, how do you force shutting it down? It’s a very, very difficult thing to enforce.”
Gimmicks, Guesses And Gadgets: The Way Forward
“The music industry brings in millions, even billions, in overseas and local earnings. The live music industry employs thousands of people. We need to be more respected.” – Michael Chugg of Chugg Entertainment
As with any widespread issue thrust into the public eye, an army of armchair speculators have begun to mull over their own solutions to the problem of scalping. One need take only the briefest of dips into just about any Facebook comment section linked to an article about ticket sales to encounter a whole range of apparent solutions, ranging from the ludicrous to the carefully considered.
One of the most commonly suggested anti-scalping defences is that artists should simply play more shows. After all, if demand is properly exhausted simply through a staggering number of gigs, surely that will be enough to quash the fluctuations in resale price?
It’s certainly an interesting ethos, one that some bands have taken to heart. Melbourne’s King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard, for example, recently announced they would play as many shows as they need to in order to dry up demand. The result is a planned eight consecutive hometown shows, a marathon run of gigs that will see the group play its new album in full to its adoring, committed fan base.
But there is a difference in scale between a band like King Gizzard and say, Justin Bieber, or even a group situated somewhere between the two – Australian legends Midnight Oil, for example. One can imagine that if Peter Garrett and his crew promised to completely deplete the market, they would be playing a lot more than eight shows in each city, and before long, any kind of full-scale touring assault would become practically untenable. Most musicians already tour for the overwhelming majority of the year – anything in addition to what they already do would become nearly impossible.
The other solution frequently suggested would require tickets to be branded with the holder’s name and date of birth, again ruling out unauthorised reselling. Certainly, that’s a move that has already been adopted by a number of mainstream festivals – particularly Australia’s own Splendour In The Grass and Glastonbury in the United Kingdom. But again, this kind of one-size-fits-all approach to a nuanced and difficult issue is far from comprehensive, and those in the know argue that it’s simply not a feasible way of cracking down on scalping.
Splendour In The Grass
“We can take it to an extreme, but the extremes are unpractical anyway,” says Brant. “The example bandied around a lot in Australia is Splendour In The Grass, where what you do is you put the name and date of birth on the ticket.
“And that’s incredibly effective and I’d love to be able to do that for, say, Justin Bieber, but Splendour In The Grass is 30,000 people who are going to show up over 36 hours. For Justin Bieber, 55,000 people are going to turn up over 35 minutes. So the practicalities of putting names on every ticket and then checking that at the gate, it’s not nigh on impossible – it’s genuinely impossible to do.”
Brant, for his part, has another solution altogether – one that is fast emerging as a sensible way forward. Rather than trying to force scalping into the realm of illegality, Brant instead believes it can be capped and reshaped, particularly with the help of a new range of resale companies that aim to ensure prices never become too extreme or unwieldy.
“We’re partnering with a new company called Twickets that are coming to Australia,” Brant says. “The reason we’re partnering with them is they are very well-regarded in the UK, and as part of their solution to deal with scalping, they limit the price at which people are able to lift tickets at their site. With that in mind, we’re happy to authorise and promote them.”
And then there are other answers too – as many answers as there are people to formulate them. Dodie Clark, a YouTuber and musician based in the UK, has come up with the idea of creating meet-and-greet competitions that can only be won by those who buy tickets directly from her site, adding an extra imperative for fans to beat the early wave of bot-buying.
But of course, in many cases, it’s not that fans miss out on tickets due to laziness or being slow off the mark – it’s that they simply cannot buy up seats as quickly as robots can. Scalping is an inherently superior, faster system.
And again, these are all temporary solutions. As enticing and as compelling as gimmicks and gadgets might seem, they will never take hold in any comprehensive way when scalping is so easy, and so widespread.
Not to mention the fact many of the very best tickets aren’t even available to the punters who hang on the telephone for hours, or wake up early to sit on their laptops hitting the ‘refresh’ button. A range of front row seats often go to the venue’s brand partners, or those who have won competitions, or people who have signed up for premium services. The system is already angled in opposition to real fans looking to get the most for their buck; it’s already unfair and ill-advised without the additional issue of scalping.
There is no loyalty, then; no honesty and no commitment offered in any real way by large-scale companies that act with generalised indifference to their consumers. And honesty is exactly the key. This is what the problem of scalping requires: not pleasantly worded sentiments distributed to the press, nor attention-grabbing gimmicks that in no way deal with the real issues that drive the practice. What the industry needs is transparency and truth.
Real solutions will come from real action; from mechanisms spearheaded by companies and individuals truly committed to altering an unfair and unproductive system in which the scalper always wins.
[Photo credits: At The Drive-In live in Sydney 2016 by Ashley Mar, Nick Xenophon courtesy Zhent/Flickr, Midnight Oil by Oliver Eclipse, Splendour In The Grass 2016 by Katrina Clarke]
This story originally appeared in The Brag, for more long-form deep dives like this subscribe to The Brag newsletter here.