One of the keys to the Live Nation/Ticketmaster model is the vertical integration of the company. From the parent company comes exclusivity ties to a huge percentage of the venues in the country. Ticketing flows through them for a huge number of acts. Then, when tickets are gone, they can simply filter people looking for them through to their secondary marketplace holdings.
A customer complaint to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman details the unfortunate side-effects to that kind of system: One company can’t help but struggle to be all things at all times within an ecosystem.
Fans of Prairie Home Companion fans showed up to see one of the final run of Garrison Keillor’s career. Through Ticketmaster, they had purchased two not-so-great face value tickets and two well-placed resale tickets at what they were led by Ticketmaster to believe was a sold-out show. But in the weeks the show approached, the prices in resale dropped to nearly nothing – at the show, they saw last-minute fans piling in to the rows in front of them- for free.
The instant sellout is a common story in the modern ticketing era. Customers logging on promptly at onsale time, selecting the first and best available tickets, and watching them disappear from the map or cart instantaneously. Refresh, click, repeat.
In fairness, demand that far exceeds supply for a given event does occur (this is where the open market i.e. dynamic pricing on the secondary comes in handy). This customer in particular, though, was buying tickets for a live taping of Prairie Home Companion, a weekly radio variety show created out of Minnesota Public radio in 1974, at The Town Hall in New York. It’s longevity has brought with it plenty of popularity, but it’s not exactly Adele at the Garden.
Circumstances later made this reality all too clear when the tickets this customer purchased for “a lot more than the face value” had plummeted in price down to a mere $11 in a matter of weeks. The false sell-out was made even more painfully obvious when tickets were advertised as free on New York Public Radio day-of and passed out like coupons at the door.
Needless to say, this experience made for some very unhappy customers. In theory, they are the ideal Ticketmaster patrons; they logged on exactly when they were told, with wallets open and ready to buy four of the best seats in the house. Given the outcome of the event, Ticketmaster should have been more than grateful more this sale. Still, the customer wound up with two tickets located much farther back than desired, and two tickets purchased, as the progression of the story proves, for much more than they were worth.
Where did the Ticketmaster system fail in this frustrating Prairie Home Companion experience? Was it indeed mass ticket-buying bots, as this customer predicts? Was it a dump to the secondary before the primary had its run? Due to the opacity of the onsale process and holdbacks, there’s really no way of knowing. All that’s definite is that there was one unhappy customer at the end of the day.
Below is the full complaint to the New York State Attorney General from an anonymous complainant in June 2016.
Dear Prairie Home Companion, Town Hall, Ticketmaster, and Minnesota Public Radio:
I am writing to let you know – as I assume many other have – of a very distressing and underhanded “scalper bot” experience I had when I attempted to buy Prairie Home Companion (PHC) tickets.
My own story begins when I went online on February 6, 2016 – at the appointed day and hour — to get tickets for PHC’s April 16, 2016, show at Town Hall. It was not just an unfair and frustrating experience; it also became very expensive for us.
I am a longtime Prairie Home attendee, and for years and years we’ve abided by the system set out on your website: at the appointed day and hour, we go online and buy the tickets. It’s not complicated, and you can get good seats if you get on the ticket site early.
This time, however, it was impossible. For this concert, PHC tickets were now being sold through Ticketmaster – a site that I am very familiar with as a frequent customer with my own login etc — yet the moment I clicked on an “available” seat for the PHC show, it became unavailable.
It happened again and again. Seats marked as available for purchase were suddenly unavailable – they evaporated — when I tried to buy them. And let me tell you, I know how to move quickly on a computer, but even a fast human can’t out-click a robot. I tried again and again and again. Dozens of pairs of tickets evaporated when I tried to buy them.
Meanwhile, friends of mine – with whom we’ve gone to Prairie Home every year for so many years – were also trying to get tickets, and had the same crazy experience. They finally gave up.
I was able to get two mediocre seats for $143.20, and grabbed them. It was amazing I got anything. In less than a few minutes, the seats were wiped out. No humans can move that fast. It was clear that bots were at work.
Since we always go to PHC with our friends – and since it was their anniversary – we decided to bite the bullet and buy them some expensive Prairie Home tickets from an online seller called Vivid Seats. As a result, we now had two face-value mediocre seats (for which we paid a “service fee”, which seems laughable), and two orchestra seats for which we paid a lot more than the face value. We felt we had no choice.
SO IMAGINE OUR SURPRISE some weeks later, when we started seeing the online, secondary market price for PHC tickets plummet – to the point that you could buy them online for $11.00!
As we were going to the theater that night with our four expensive tickets, we check the Vivid website and saw dozens and dozens of unsold PHC seats. Unsold seats for the last PHC show in NYC with Garrison Keillor? Wow. Something was clearly awry.
AND IMAGINE OUR FURTHER SURPRISE when, at Town Hall, there were so many unsold seats that they were GIVING THEM AWAY! Yes, it was announced on WNYC that there were empty seats being given out for free at the theater.
As we sat in our very expensive seats, we saw people with pink “free ticket” slips move into much better seats than ours, seats that Ticketmaster told us weren’t available when we tried to buy them months earlier.
It’s clear what happened: scalper bots mowed through the Ticketmaster website and ate up every ticket they could get, then the humans behind the bots — realizing some weeks later that this wasn’t a fancy show — just started dumping them.
And when that didn’t work – Town Hall – clearly aware of what was going on – was forced to give tickets away so that Garrison Keillor, on his farewell tour, wasn’t delivering his show to a concert hall with long rows of empty orchestra (and elsewhere) seats.
If you hadn’t allowed bots to move into this operation, every seat would have been paid for at face value, and filled. As it was, it was a mess and it was true ripoff of customers.
I demand that you address this. The money we spent because PHC turned this task over to Ticketmaster, and the money we spent because Ticketmaster isn’t able to control its site – well, it’s not right.
I want a full refund for all the four tickets we bought. And I will be forwarding this note to AG Eric Shneiderman. My situation is exactly in keeping with the illegality he has been documenting.