Image: Kevin Mazur/WireImage
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Ticketmaster/Live Nation megamerger—approved in 2010 by a seemingly asleep-at-the-wheel Obama administration—has led to a disastrous outcome for music fans. In that case, I was writing about Blink-182 fans who were mad that “dynamic pricing” determined by algorithms led to astronomical prices for its reunion tour.
Ticketmaster—one of the most hated companies in America—regularly is the target of outrage from fans, artists, and politicians. Anyone who has tried to buy tickets to a hot event has likely been frustrated with Ticketmaster, and yet, the process of buying tickets has not gotten better in the 12 years since it merged with Live Nation to create the country’s largest live events business. In fact, to the extent it has changed at all, the experience has simply gotten worse.
This week, as expected, Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour tickets went on presale, and a similar, but worse, clusterfuck has occurred, highlighting, yet again, the disastrous effects of the Ticketmaster/Live Nation live events monopoly.
In this case, Ticketmaster’s website crashed as the tickets went on sale, which was a common occurrence for big events during the late 2000s. ticketmaster blamed “historically unprecedented demand” for the crash. The company also announced in a tweet that various future onsales have been postponed.
This is, of course, one of the effects of having a centralized service that sells the vast majority of all tickets in the United States. When that service goes down, millions of people are screwed all at once. Republic of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “Daily reminder that Ticketmaster is a monopoly, it’s [sic] merger with LiveNation should never have been approved, and they need to be reigned in. Break them up.”
There are many problems with the way Taylor Swift’s tickets are being sold, almost all of them structural and almost all of which stack the deck against fans. I know this because, in college, I was a ticket broker and learned tricks of the trade. I’ve long since stopped selling tickets, but, since then, I’ve spent more than a decade reporting on Ticketmaster, ticket brokers, and the ticket resale market. I’ve also published a months-long investigation about Wiseguy Tickets, a company that “broke” Ticketmaster with bots and was ultimately raided by the FBI after buying thousands upon thousands of tickets for America’s most popular shows.
Taylor Swift’s management did not respond to a request for comment.
Why Tickets Sell Out
The biggest reason why Taylor Swift tickets are hard to get is because Taylor Swift is arguably the most popular artist in the United States, has incredibly loyal fans, and hasn’t toured in several years. There are, simply, more people who want to see Taylor Swift than there are tickets that exist.
Swift, for her part, has helped to mitigate this (slightly) by playing in football stadiums, which are the largest venues that exist in the United States. She is mitigating this by playing multiple shows in each city, and she is mitigating this by adding shows. All of this increases the supply of tickets, therefore (in theory) lowering prices and making it easier for everyone to see her. But, again, Swift is one of the few megastars left and has fans who are willing to pay to see her multiple times. She would have to play a lot of shows to meet demand.
With that out of the way, there are other, more infuriating reasons why getting Taylor Swift tickets can feel impossible and why the cards are stacked against normal fans.
Not All the Tickets Are On Sale
One of the biggest reasons it is hard to buy Taylor Swift tickets is because not all of the tickets are on sale at any given time. Let’s say you want to buy Taylor Swift tickets at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. When do the tickets go on sale? Well, depends who you are:
During each of these presales, a certain percentage of tickets go onsale. The number of allotted tickets for any given presale is a closely guarded industry secret, but, back in 2009, documents leaked that showed for Taylor Swift’s show at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, 11,720 of the 13,330 tickets were sold during presales. This means that during the “public sale,” only 15 percent of all tickets were actually available.
Presales nominally give fans extra chances to buy tickets if they are busy during any of the onsales. In practice, however, there’s not really any reason to think this is actually the case. Ticket brokers (also known as scalpers) are better at buying tickets than the general public, because they do it as a job, and have all sorts of advantages. I know this, because as I’ve mentioned before, I was a ticket broker for a short period in college.
Ticket brokers have an informational, technological, and manpower advantage over the average fan. At the very least, ticket brokers know how to navigate Ticketmaster onsale pages faster than the average person, giving them a better chance of scoring tickets.
Serious ticket brokers, though, have far more advantages. There is rarely a presale that ticket brokers don’t have access to. There are a variety of pay forums (Shows on Sale, which costs $150 per month, is one of the largest) where brokers share strategy, sell software, and share presale passwords. Ticket brokers join artist fan clubs, because they can make up the joining fee in profit on the tickets.
The Eras Tour is sponsored by Capital One, and anyone with a Capital One credit card has access to specific presales. It is common for ticket brokers to have and open specific credit cards just to get access to presales.
It’s also worth noting that having a “Capital One” presale is a benefit to Capital One and to Capital One cardholders and does not actually benefit fans in any discernible way.
Having multiple presales, then, doesn’t actually help fans. Because while fans have multiple chances to buy tickets, so do ticket brokers. And with just a small percentage of tickets onsale during any presale, the brokers are the ones who are most likely to get the tickets.
It’s not just presales, though. The 2009 Taylor Swift Bridgestone Arena documents show that many tickets are held back for radio stations, advertisers, VIPs, sponsors, etc.
Waiting Rooms Don’t Help
For about a decade, Ticketmaster has implemented something it calls a “virtual waiting room,” which is essentially a lottery system that (seemingly randomly) puts you into a line in order to buy tickets. When you make it to the “front” of the waiting room, you are then able to buy tickets.
Nominally, virtual waiting rooms are supposed to make things fairer for people who can’t operate Ticketmaster’s website almost enough, and is supposed to make it so you only have one “spot” in line at a time. If you open multiple tabs to the same onsale page, you will still have only one spot in line. If you open multiple browsers (Safari and Chrome, for example), you can get two spots in line.
In practice, again, brokers have the advantage. Brokers have software that allows them to grab not one or two spots in line, but hundreds or thousands of spots in line. The Insomniac Browser was developed specifically for ticket brokers; each “tab” of this browser is treated as a separate browser instance, which allows brokers to grab as many spots in line as tabs they can open. Insomniac Browser was once marketed specifically for ticket brokers, but now has a few different uses; it costs a mere $500 per month for a license. Members of the aforementioned Shows on Sale forum get a $100 discount, and can get it for $400 per month. There are other competitors to Insomniac Browser.
Ticket Pullers, Multiple Addresses, Multiple Accounts (AKA: Ticket Limits Don’t Work)
For popular shows, Ticketmaster has a ticket limit. For Taylor Swift shows, the limit is six tickets. Ticketmaster says it will cancel tickets (ie put them back into the onsale pool) bought by people who go beyond that limit. In practice, ticket brokers have various ways around this limit. Many ticket brokers simply use multiple names or addresses to hide the fact that they are going beyond limits. Ticket broker companies do this by buying tickets under the names of their employees. Individual brokers might do it by using a relative’s credit card, opening a prepaid debit card, or hiring someone to let them use their credit card and repaying them immediately after they buy the tickets.
Professional ticket brokers also employ or contract “ticket pullers,” who are basically people who are paid an hourly fee or commission to try to buy tickets the second they go on sale on behalf of the broker.
Wiseguy, for example, had dozens of people working out of their Las Vegas office who were all trying to pull tickets the second they went on sale. A good ticket puller will work on computers with fast internet connections and will have computers that can handle hundreds or thousands of browsers at a time.
It’s very difficult to say what role, if any, bots still play in making shows sell out quickly. Even among ticket brokers, the use of bots is a closely guarded secret, and using bots—which are automated programs that automatically pull tickets—is one area of the ticket selling experience that Ticketmaster and politicians have actually cracked down on.
Since 2016, using ticket bots was made a federal crime. It’s not clear whether bots are still widely used by ticket brokers. But ticket bots were a problem for years. Wiseguy, the ticket broker I investigated, used bots to grab nearly all the best tickets for hot shows.
While politicians have addressed the bot problem, they have done little to unwind the Ticketmaster/Live Nation monopoly that gives the company so much power, and have done little to actually disincentivize ticket brokers in general.