January 31, 2023
Melinda Head

Ticketmaster in the Spotlight

Yet again …

Ticketmaster. I haven’t heard anyone jumping for joy about them. Ever. The Company has huge brand awareness and market share, but no adoration.

“Ticketmaster is one of the most hated companies on earth.” (John Oliver, Last Week Tonight)

Why is that? There is no short answer.

Limited ticket availability, high prices, hidden and increasing fees, poorly controlled bot/reseller behavior, “sketchy” business practices and being seemingly left with no other choice of ticket provider are the most common complaints. That’s quite a list.

This is old history for grunge band Pearl Jam, which attempted to boycott Ticketmaster in 1994 in an effort to make tickets more affordable for its young fans with limited financial means. Some feathers were ruffled, but few others joined in their cause and, in the end, it was all for naught. Despite Pearl Jam’s huge commercial success, Ticketmaster had the audacity to call the Band “petulant young children” during this period, flaunting its arrogance and power.

As we all know, history repeats itself. Most recently, Ticketmaster has come under fire for mishandling the sale of tickets for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Eras tour. In November, during the concert presale period, 2 million people managed to buy tickets from Ticketmaster in a single day – establishing a new global record. The huge surge in Ticketmaster traffic, including uses by bots/brokers, was rife with excruciatingly long waiting periods, site crashes and general platform chaos. Once the presale was over, tickets had sold out and fans without a Verified Fan presale code weren’t given any chance to purchase tickets. Not good.

After the fiasco, CBC Radio’s “As It Happens” show asked a number of very poignant questions to the very candid, often brusque, former CEO of Ticketmaster:

Fred Rosen says there were 3.6 billion attempts to get onto the Ticketmaster site and “no system on the face of the earth can do that”.  I’m not sure I fully agree with him. My gut feeling is that Ticketmaster is operating on a legacy platform with capabilities that do not take full advantage of the latest technology.

Why aren’t more tickets available from Ticketmaster? There is an excess of demand for limited seats, it’s as simple as that. This problem could be resolved, in part, by adding more concert dates. Granted, the issues associated with bots/brokers still need to be addressed; that’s a critical problem for Ticketmaster to own and resolve.

“Ticketmaster doesn’t set prices. Ticketmaster doesn’t set what shows go on sale. Ticketmaster doesn’t determine how many tickets go on sale … .” (Fred Rosen, former CEO, Ticketmaster)

“Ticketmaster is effectively paid to be a punching bag … it’s a thankless job. Why do you do it? Because it’s economically profitable and because somebody has to do it. So you do it … I just find it absurd that people aren’t smart enough to understand that’s the game … Is it Ticketmaster’s fault that demand is 10 times greater than the number of seats they have to sell?” (Eric Budish, Professor of Economics and Entrepreneurship, University of Chicago)

Why can’t bots be controlled? They can, the technology is in place to make it happen; however, it’s a constantly moving target, not a “one and done” fix. As long as there is a secondary market to sell tickets for a markup, bots and other bad actors will fill this void. The financial incentive is too strong and the threat/reach of legal action is too weak to stop this behavior. An immediate priority must be to stop this practice. End it. Period.

Why is this business so sketchy? I think this is an historical problem and a nefarious environment that is well known in the entertainment industry. There are claims that artists are flaky and moody, void of any business skills. There are claims of abuses of power. There are claims of mismanagement. There are claims of back door deals, and lack of transparency. For example, Ticketmaster claims that it is just a ticket seller, but its parent, Live Nation, also owns several hundred music venues that use Ticketmaster’s services. Resellers have never been anyone’s best friend, and Ticketmaster has been accused of working hand in hand with them. Bots are hard to control, but they can be controlled more effectively if they are a top priority.

If you read Live Nation’s most recent Annual Report, you will quickly see that the Company is large, arrogant, and focused on growth and profit. And why not, it will say, as the Company is responsible to its shareholders. Yes, but does that give you a license to be a shit head?

Is Ticketmaster responsible for high ticket prices? According to the Company, “no”, they are set by artists, agents and promoters, and, indirectly (handily not mentioned by Ticketmaster), by bots and resellers. However, repeated accusations about deal structures suggest that Ticketmaster does have a role to play in this matter.

Why are there no other ticket providers? There are, but artists, agents and promoters (and venues) choose how and where to place their concert business … though some say they truly have no other choice because “Ticketmaster is God” and owns the market. Pearl Jam proved this point, which you can revisit in “Pearl Jam Twenty”(see link above), an excellent documentary film about the first twenty years of the band and its eventual fight against Ticketmaster when an agreement on affordable ticket prices for fans could not be reached.

Rosen says that fan anger against Ticketmaster is misplaced, suggesting that we should follow the money, which will lead us to the act. That’s finger pointing if I’ve ever seen it. He goes on to justify Ticketmaster by telling us that: “It’s called capitalism … people have to grow up (and) recognize it’s a business”. I say, let’s get back on the Pearl Jam bandwagon. Let’s keep at it. A quiet revolution is brewing, but it will take efforts by many, and unrelenting commitment. Investor activism is another route to take; if you don’t like Ticketmaster, invest in Live Nation, attend the Company’s Annual General Meeting, make noise. Fans can be a catalyst for change; after all, without fans, there is no Ticketmaster.

Pearl Jam, you were amazing Ticketmaster trailblazing activists. There may be justice for you one day after all.

Eddie Vedder, Lead Vocalist, Pearl Jam

I heard a Senate hearing official say that when art is successful it unavoidably becomes a business, let’s rebalance this equation.

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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