On Concerts and Ticketing

Posted on May 2, 2020

This was supposed to be a great year for live music. Well, every year is a great year for live music. But, for me, any year with a new Pearl Jam tour these days is a good year.

One of my favorite things to do is see my favorite bands and performers live in concert. In a previous life I would travel up and down the east coast to see shows as much as I could. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a few bands and still wish I could go to more. It’s harder for me to get out these days (life with small children at home is complicated!) but I still manage to get to a select few shows each year.

And yet, right now I can’t imagine a more dangerous place than a crowd of 500 to 20,000 people sitting together in close proximity. Everyone breathing on one another. Ugh. Gross. This isn’t something we’ve imagined before. Live events are supposed to be fun: a way to escape life and enjoy the music for a few hours. As with everything else right now, it’s a whole new world.

The music industry doesn’t know how to handle what’s happening. None of us do, really, but some are handling it better than others. The music industry is lazy. More specifically, the live music ticketing industry is lazy and has barely innovated in decades.

Why should they innovate? Each year millions of people, just like me, buy tickets as fast as they can when their favorite artists announce new tours. There’s no reason for these providers to change when they are already making money at an alarming rate compared to the actual service they provide. Service charges, convenience fees, and other ticketing add-ons continue to increase in cost, while the service and convenience they offer continue to decline.

As fans, we go online at a specific time to try and fight the bots and scalpers to get decent tickets. The tickets go on sale at 10:00 AM local time on some random weekday when we’re all supposed to be working because the ticket providers still can’t handle a surge of traffic that’s less than Amazon receives in an hour of Cyber Monday sales. And yet their servers still buckle under the pressure. Bots, scalpers, and preferred ticketing vendors get all of the good seats and true fans are left with scraps. Which we always buy because, hey, we’re in the building. And so is Paul McCartney!

Or, if you’re out of touch like me, you don’t even realize when tickets are on sale until that magical time has already passed. This happens to me all of the time. I’m listening to something on Apple Music and I wonder if the artist is touring soon. I check it out and sure enough they are coming soon, but tickets are already mostly sold. Then you’re stuck in the third-party market of StubHub and others; inevitably paying a hefty premium on top of a face-value ticket price to some scalper that never intended to go to the show anyways. There has to be a better way.

Then the coronavirus happens and the live music world is upended. Last night I received an e-mail from Ticketmaster about a show that was supposed to take place back in March:

Hi John,

Unfortunately, the event organizer has had to cancel your event.

The good news is that a refund will be processed automatically for you. Due to the unprecedented volume of cancellations, you should expect to receive your refund in as soon as 30 days.

Please Note: If the tickets were transferred to you, the refund will go to the fan who originally purchased the tickets from Ticketmaster.

Of course the concert has been canceled. It was supposed to take place in March, and it’s now May 2nd. That’s also nice that they are going to refund my purchase. Strangely though, much like unsubscribing from a mailing list, it takes 30 days to refund. But it’s better than nothing.

Except for the last sentence of the e-mail: “the refund will go to the fan who originally purchased the tickets from Ticketmaster.”. Ticketmaster knows that I have the tickets, but it isn’t smart enough to realize that I didn’t purchase the tickets. I bought them from someone else on StubHub (for a premium, sigh) and then received the tickets as a transfer. So according to this it seems that I probably over paid for the concert (which is totally fine) on StubHub, and now the original purchaser is going to receive a refund for whatever they paid. We can only assume that I’ll receive nothing by way of a refund, even though I clearly ‘own’ the tickets in my Ticketmaster account.

The money I’m out for the concert is annoying, but I get that. It’s a minor blip on the coronavirus radar these days. It wasn’t an expensive ticket so I’m not that worried about it.

But the bigger issue is how much of a mess the ticketing industry is. Ticketmaster, building on tech from decades ago, is not prepared to handle simple things like returning an order. StubHub, and others like it, are seemingly still operating on the idea that a ticket is a piece of paper that once transferred to someone retains no historical context of its origin.

The concert industry, like many, is hurting right now. This could be a time of great innovation and overall cleanup. Ticketmaster is a giant. They have immense resources and even more political sway in the industry. What if they took on the task of modernizing the concert ticketing space? That seems unlikely.

The more likely and hopeful scenario is one of disruption from a new player in the market. Cloud services are ubiquitous. Mobile ticketing solutions are available to everyone with a smartphone. The databases and integrations required for this type of innovation are not complicated from a systems design perspective.

The live music industry is at a standstill right now. It’s going to be months or years before concerts are back to the way we left them. That’s plenty of time to start innovating and clean up this mess.

As a fan, I hope someone is up to the challenge. Here’s to 2021 being the best year for live music and ticketing yet.