Ticketmaster is, yet again, pointing blame at literally everyone but itself after the latest debacle involving tickets for Taylor Swift’s 2023 “Eras” concert tour. On Thursday, after days of frustration and confusion, Ticketmaster announced it was straight up canceling the planned public ticket sale as a result of “extraordinarily high demands on ticketing systems and insufficient remaining ticket inventory to meet that demand.” Perhaps the de facto monopoly ought to reflect upon this line from America’s current No. 1 song, “Anti-Hero:” “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”
Whether you’re a Swiftie superfan, NFL diehard or just enjoy the occasional Broadway musical, virtually everyone agrees that our ticket-buying experience is beyond broken. Trying to see your favorite artist often requires participating in a process that begins with hitting the refresh button hundreds of times over the course of a few minutes and hoping to hit the equivalent of a lottery until finally allowed into a transaction. The lucky ones earn the privilege of being held over a barrel by companies that can charge them whatever and however it would like. The vast majority aren’t so lucky, and must take their efforts to the secondary resale market, where they can expect considerable if not exponential markups on the face value of a ticket.
This, most everyone would agree, is a patently insane system. Yet it is allowed to persist because Ticketmaster and a few other stakeholders in the live event industry are enormous beneficiaries of the status quo.
As chairman of the New York state Senate’s investigations committee and author of top-to-bottom ticketing reform legislation, I’ve spent the past two years fighting to level the playing field for fans who currently face an incredibly rigged ticket-buying experience. Here’s why the system is broken and how we can fix it.
This, most everyone would agree, is a patently insane system. Yet it is allowed to persist.
Ticketmaster should be considered a monopoly. Executives dispute this, but the reality is the company has enormous leverage if not outright control over a ticket’s prices, fees and which venues get which shows. If a fan or artist or venue doesn’t like the arrangement, what’s their alternative? Federal anti-trust regulators never should’ve allowed the company’s 2010 merger with Live Nation — and should course-correct by breaking up Ticketmaster. Short of that, “exclusivity” provisions should be banned in contracts between Ticketmaster and venues, which would foster a far healthier, more competitive marketplace.
But it doesn’t end there. Holdbacks are one of the dirtiest secrets in the industry. It’s likely that at each of Taylor Swift’s 52 upcoming concerts, thousands of tickets will be “held back” and never released to the general public. These tickets are typically reserved for VIPs, “friends and family” and platinum credit card holders, among other insiders. According to a report compiled by the New York Attorney General’s Office, over 50% of tickets to top shows between 2012-2015 were not reserved for the general public. Holdbacks should be banned or severely limited.
At the same time, bots and professional ticket brokers using software and savvy can prevent real fans from accessing events. The federal BOTS Act of 2016 makes this activity illegal but, over the course of six years, there has been exactly one single set of prosecutions. Ticketmaster has invested in technology to identify when bot activity occurs — and catches some of it — but is all activity being reported to the relevant authorities? Seems unlikely, given the lack of successful prosecutions. Instead, the U.S. Justice Department and state attorneys general ought to be alerted when such illegal activity happens so that charges can be brought and the activity can be effectively deterred from happening in the future.
Even if you do secure a ticket, fees are out of control. In egregious situations, fees can amount to over 40% of the ticket price. In the primary marketplace, this is a direct result of monopoly: real competition would force fan-friendly fee structures. In New York state, we have a longstanding yet unenforced law requiring ticketing fees be “reasonable.” When I asked a Ticketmaster executive at a public hearing in 2021 what he defined as reasonable, his response was, “what buyers and sellers agree is fair,” clearly unable or unwilling to come to grips with the fact that buyers across the board do not believe current fees are fair. A strict cap on fees ought to be considered and every state should adopt what New York just adopted this year: all-in pricing which requires fees be posted in the original listing price, not added in at the checkout page.
Dynamic pricing is part of a free market but, completely unregulated, undermines the system’s integrity. Just like any other business, ticket sellers should be able to adjust their prices based on supply and demand. Without any guardrails, however, prices can fluctuate wildly — even possibly during a transaction. That’s akin to getting to check out at the supermarket and the cashier swapping out the price sticker while ringing you up. Practices like this — and generally unabated dynamic pricing that resulted in recent Bruce Springsteen tickets selling for over $5,000 — ought to be reined in.
You don’t have to be a Swiftie — I love Taylor Swift as much as the next fan — to understand how awful the ticket-buying experience is in our country. But, it doesn’t have to be. Reasonable laws can and should be enacted to finally prioritize fans over monopolies. To the millions of Americans who have experienced the visceral, throw-your-laptop-against-the-wall pain described in this piece: take your dinner table grumbling and Twitter hashtagging and move your complaints to the email inboxes of federal and state representatives. There are pending bills to reform the system in Congress and many state legislatures and the only way they’ll pass is if elected officials finally start feeling heat from their constituents. “I should not be left to my own devices,” sings Taylor Swift. “They come with prices and vices.” Don’t let ultimate antihero Ticketmaster get the last laugh.