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The Tragically Hip performs in 2016. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
The Tragically Hip performs in 2016. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

After years of criticism, Ticketmaster hopes to be hero in fight against bots Add to ...

Hidden behind a pair of innocuous double doors in plain sight on a well-travelled concourse at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, Ticketmaster’s Canadian operations occupy a space once built for a long-forgotten nightclub within the stadium. The concrete-and-steel construction offers a certain intercontinental ballistic-missile-silo ambience to the place. Come to think of it, the design might also make a nice lair for a white-cat-stroking Bond villain.

The industrial-cum-bomb-shelter headquarters fits well with the public perception of Ticketmaster, which has long been regarded as the omniscient, faceless, all-powerful seller of tickets to concerts, sports, theatre and other live events. The company has migrated almost entirely to a virtual plane, having phased out pretty much all its bricks-and-mortar box offices. And, with a corner on at least of 80 per cent of the ticket-selling marketplace, it’s difficult to avoid using Ticketmaster if you want to get into that show.

Now, though, having silently endured criticism and epithets for years, the company would like to soften its image as well as clear up the myths and misconceptions about, well, its facelessness and lack of empathy for customers.

Patti-Anne Tarlton, chief operating officer of Ticketmaster Canada, is the niece of Donald Tarlton, the man behind the famed Canadian concert promotions company Donald K. Donald Productions. “Our goal is to get tickets into the hands of fans the most convenient and secure way possible,” she says. “But there are so many misconceptions of how we do things. We’re trying hard to set the record straight. There’s an ambition to bring clarity to the process.”

Why now? In a word: bots – and the aggravations they bring.

Concert-ticket-buying robots – software programs that can snap up hundreds, even thousands, of tickets faster than any human being – are a massive headache for fans, artists and Ticketmaster.

“It’s an ongoing arms race. We continue to fight and invest millions,” Tarlton says. “Last year alone, we combatted five-billion bots in North America. There’s continued investment – data science, machine learning – so we can, in real time, not have the bots circumvent the system, and make those tickets available to real fans.”

Ticketmaster is often blamed for instant sellouts, those occasions on which all the tickets to hot shows disappear in a matter of a minute or two. This issue burned so hot last year for the Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour that Kingston MPP Sophie Kiwala introduced a private member’s bill that aims to stop ticket bots.

Along with Britain, Australia and other jurisdictions, the Ontario government continues to study the situation, conducting an online survey that attracted nearly 35,000 responses, and fan roundtables held in Toronto and Kingston.

“Our government will be introducing new rules for buying and selling tickets online to give fans a fair shot at getting tickets to see their favourite team, musical act or theatrical performance,” Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said. “These new rules will build on the bill introduced by MPP Kiwala, aimed at banning scalper-bots. We have heard how frustrating it can be for fans to see tickets sell out right away only to see them pop up on a resale site at double the price.”

Not being able to get a ticket to a big gig is, of course, as old as the entertainment business itself. Quick sellouts are a simple case of demand outstripping the supply of tickets. What is new, though, is the speed at which tickets can be sold.

In days of yore, when 30,000 tickets went on sale for a stadium show, there would be 30,000 people in line. But now, Ticketmaster has the technology to conduct thousands of e-commerce transactions a second. There’s no need for anyone to physically go anywhere to wait for someone to sell them a ticket. The flip side to this convenience is that you’re jostling with many thousands of would-be online buyers.

“There’s so much of a story to be told on the technical front,” Tarlton says, “because so much attention is being given to the speed of sales and the nefarious activity of bot operators.”

Lack of transparency is also a problem. If an arena holds 15,000 people, how many of those tickets actually go on sale to the general public? The answer is more complicated than you might think.

“As an industry, we’ve somehow come up with the labels ‘presale’ versus ‘public’ sale. Fans are buying tickets in a presale window [that period of time before tickets go on sale to the general public] through fan clubs, an Amex opportunity or through some sponsor, some radio station.”

This means that when the general on-sale date is reached, all that remains are tickets left behind after all the presales. How many is that? Each show is different, but an industry average of 46 per cent has been cited. As for a breakdown for tickets reserved for presales, fan clubs, industry use and for use by the act, that’s a mystery.

“For those presale opportunities, the barriers to entry are very low – even zero,” Tarlton says. “In some cases, all you need to have is an e-mail address. The idea that the tickets that are available to one group over another isn’t correct. Pro-activity is the key.”

Fans often wonder how tickets for hot shows end up being advertised for sale on the secondary market before any on-sale date.

“Those are speculative postings,” Tarlton says. “Those posting are based on the thought or the promise or understanding or the hope and dream that that ticket may become available and thus for sale.

“Or it’s bad operators out to dupe someone. And that’s where government can play a role in complement with what the industry is already doing. If there is a bot legislation on the books and we see that tickets have gone to bots, then we can cancel those tickets at the direction of the artist without fear that there might be some bad operators out there who say, ‘Hey, you didn’t have any legal right to do that!’”

Ticketmaster must be given credit for trying to make it tougher for scalpers – both carbon- and silicon-based – from getting their hands on tickets, thanks to the recent Verified Fan option.

“It’s a registration process,” Tarlton says. “Artists set up a registration page. Fans come in and register. We can vet that information with our data-science teams who can say, ‘This looks like a real fan’ and, ‘This looks like a bot.’ The real fan will get a code. The bot does not. It’s an ongoing investment to refine these technologies.”

So far, it seems to be working. A report on Salon.com says the Verified Fan program has cut down on scalping by the secondary market by around 90 per cent.

The secondary ticket market is both a boon and a headache for Ticketmaster. Like StubHub and others, the company operates in this space, too. Ticketmaster owns TicketsNow, an “integrated resale platform” that allows fans to resell tickets through Ticketmaster’s facilities. Like StubHub, the price of the ticket being resold is set by the fan – whose identity must be verified to Ticketmaster’s satisfaction – and Ticketmaster charges fees associated with the resale (“That’s typical in the secondary markets,” Tarlton says), which is a double-dip, to be sure. Fans make deals with other fans, with Ticketmaster acting as a secure transaction agent. The Ticketmaster website displays seat maps that distinguish between primary and secondary sales.

Some find this a bit dodgy, but Ticketmaster maintains it’s better than defaulting over to, say, StubHub. Given that the secondary market is worth a reported $8-billion (U.S.) in the United States alone – it’s estimated that up to 20 per cent of tickets sold appear on secondary-seller sites within 24 hours of going on sale – you can see why Ticketmaster wants to play this game. The Salon report says that StubHub sold 1.3 tickets a second on its site during the fourth quarter of 2016, on its way to $4.3-billion in revenue.

Ticketmaster has other public-relations problems it would like cleared up, including the myriad fees beyond the face value of a ticket that quickly add up. There’s sales tax, of course – nothing can be done about that – but what about those ambiguous service charges and venue fees?

“We don’t control the [face value] price of a ticket,” Tarlton says. “[Service charges and venue fees] are revenue-generating tools that we use to sell and execute an event. They are above and beyond what the artist is charging for a ticket. It covers our costs. In our case, it’s the technology that’s used to distribute those tickets. In the case of the venue fee, it’s the venue-itself charges to cover its fixed costs.”

What about the argument that Ticketmaster is too big and too dominant? Tarlton says “it’s the scale that helps us fight the bad operators. If you were to try to keep pace with the expectations of the fans, which is, ‘I wanna buy a ticket when I feel like buying a ticket,’ then you need scale for the technology to keep advancing.

“It’s an ongoing investment. We have all the back-end technologies. But equally important is the consumer, the fan. We have as much investment in the consumer experience as we do in the back-end tools.”

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