Ticketmaster’s Troubles: Beyond Taylor Swift
There was a time, not so long ago, when you actually had to show up at a concert to get ripped off. Scalping, the process of buying tickets for cheap and reselling them to desperate fans, usually on the day of a show, used to be limited to crowded stadium entranceways and sidewalk waiting areas.
These days it all happens on Ticketmaster. As fans of Taylor Swift know best, America’s leading online ticket peddler is a mess: Late last year, the site buckled under the pressure of presale demand for the megastar’s Eras Tour. When a bot attack overwhelmed the site, many fans were left in the lurch, forced to turn to secondary markets with markups in the tens of thousands of dollars. In a congressional hearing this week sparked largely by that fiasco, just about everyone ganged up on Ticketmaster’s parent company, Live Nation Entertainment. “I want to congratulate and thank you for an absolutely stunning achievement,” Senator Richard Blumenthal told Live Nation’s president and CFO, Joe Berchtold. “You have brought together Republicans and Democrats in an absolutely unified cause.”
The Swift debacle may have had the precise kind of universal appeal to unite Congress on this issue—the site’s partial crash provoked widespread outrage—but even if this is an edge case, Ticketmaster represents a product that’s fundamentally unsatisfying even when it works. An interface that should be minimal and clear is mired in confusion, and plagued by automated scalpers that snap up tickets faster than real, human customers can check out. Considering Ticketmaster’s size and value, you would expect something smoother: Live Nation now controls much of the American market for live events and tickets; to encounter this multibillion-dollar chimera of an events-promotion firm, venue-management business, and ticketing platform isn’t really a choice, in 2023, as much as a demoralizing inevitability. Even putting aside all the problems that come with Ticketmaster’s enormous market share, the site’s basic consumer experience has begun to feel rickety. If customers have nowhere else to go, why bother changing things?
Buying tickets to a Taylor Swift concert will probably put a dent in your wallet, but it shouldn’t—to quote Swift’s own assessment of the situation—feel like going through “several bear attacks.” In the best-case scenario, customers would feed money into the system and receive their tickets without much hassle. That’s not the reality for many consumers. Take the biggest problem people seem to have with Ticketmaster: hidden fees. In some instances, fans end up paying an additional 60 or 70 percent of a ticket’s face value—charges with opaque names that pop up at the last second. That fees are high is one thing; that customers don’t even know what these fees are for, or that they don’t necessarily know they’re coming, is another. Even when Ticketmaster is ostensibly doing its job, purchasers are likely to come away overloaded. (In an emailed statement, Ticketmaster professed full support for “upfront all-in pricing” and said that it has “invested over $1 billion in capital to improve the Ticketmaster system.”)
But Ticketmaster’s woes don’t end with fees. Sales of all types have been plagued with bot attacks for years. Taylor Swift presale tickets involved a kind of anti-bot verification system, but as Berchtold admitted during the hearing, bots got in anyway. This was an issue even before Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation in 2010—bots, which can snag tickets within fractions of a second and artificially inflate prices for any sort of live event, are something this industry can’t seem to beat. The problem is compounded by long wait times: Fans might end up queueing hours and hours for a ticket that not only is out of reach, but is funneled straight into the resale market, where brutal markups await. In the case of the Swift tour, fans who didn’t make it onto the presale list didn’t have any customer experience at all—Ticketmaster canceled the public sale when it realized it didn’t have enough tickets left to sell.
During the hearing, Berchtold tried to claim that Ticketmaster dominates the market because of the quality of its product, but these confusions are as much a result of poor design as extractive business decisions abetted by the company’s disproportionate power in the marketplace. The CEO of the corporate rival SeatGeek, who was also at the hearing, said, “We don’t know who has the best product, because there is not a competition.” (SeatGeek is not perfect either: The company apparently charged one woman 14 times for Swift tickets she never even purchased.)
Despite what Live Nation’s president seems to want Congress to think, the company now finds itself in this position largely because of its market dominance. It’s true of many businesses, but particularly those that offer some kind of tech solution: As competition wanes, the product itself stagnates. Because no other company poses a serious threat to Live Nation’s market share, it has no financial reason to invest greater resources into solving its bot problem, or to reinforce its infrastructure to be able to handle millions of concurrent requests.
At a moment when much of the discourse around tech monopolies has to do with the social, political, and economic power they’ve come to exert over the past two decades, it’s easy to forget about the evolution of the products themselves. Google—the internet search tool, not the company—hasn’t changed all that much over the past 15 years, because it hasn’t really needed to; it’s still the search tool of choice for the majority of information seekers, even if the site isn’t quite as effective as it used to be. That Amazon has figured out one-day delivery makes for a better consumer experience, but search results are now cluttered with ads and intrusive product recommendations.
Though it can feel as intractable as a utility company, Ticketmaster is still mostly a functional business. But it shouldn’t wait to reveal hidden fees until the moment of purchase, and it certainly shouldn’t leave its infrastructure this vulnerable to outside manipulation. The biggest ticketer should expect the most traffic, and it should protect its tech accordingly. These are basic asks of a product that’s in many ways stuck in the past. If only Ticketmaster had a reason to listen.
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