A couple Mondays ago, I arrived at work hours early, ate an energy bar and created a Ticketmaster account to buy tickets for Beyoncé’s Mrs. Carter Show world tour. The moment they went on sale I requested two of the 19,000 seats at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center (whatever price, best available) and entered a human-proving captcha, but like countless others, didn’t succeed at getting tickets. I shouldn’t have been surprised. For popular events like Beyoncé’s tour, it has become nearly impossible to get tickets the way I tried: through Ticketmaster, when they’re made available to the general public. Ticketing in venues operated by Live Nation Entertainment, the mega concert company formed by the 2010 merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation, is incredibly complicated. Big tours involve a huge amount of organizations, all of them trying to maximize their profits. Many of them are private corporations, so public information about how deals are done, and how those deals impact consumers, can be hard to come by. Of the six people I talked to—four industry professionals and two fans—everyone struggled at least a little to put together the big picture. With their help, here’s everything I learned about what the ticket industry is like now, why Beyoncé tickets sell out so fast and how you can get seats to popular shows. Spoiler alert: there’s more than one bad guy.
They don’t. 19,000 seats were not up for grabs on February 11th, the morning of Ticketmaster’s public on-sale. The majority of available tickets had already been allotted elsewhere: to a presale for Beyoncé’s fan club, a presale for MasterCard holders, presales for Ticketmaster users, VIPs, Beyoncé’s team, and radio contesting.
It’s impossible to know. Because Barclays, like most of the arenas where big artists play, is privately managed, they do not share how many tickets were allotted to each group, or how many were left for the public on-sale. According to an investigation of this January’s Justin Bieber show at Nashville’s public Bridgestone Arena, on the day tickets went on sale to the general public, fans were competing for only about 10 percent of the concert’s seats. If that same ratio applied to Beyoncé’s Barclays date, then fewer than 2,000 tickets would have been available during the pulic on-sale. In the case of the Nashville Bieber show, 14,000 tickets were up for grabs in total. 6,000, the largest chunk, were held for an American Express presale. Presales are opportunities to buy tickets before the general public. An additional 3,000 went to a presale for Bieber’s fan club, 2,600 went to guest lists and special promotions, 900 to VIPs and 1,000 were sold during the general on-sale.
Often, it costs nothing to participate, but usually you’ve got to sign up for something, as small as a mailing list or as large as a premium credit card. Businesses—Ticketmaster, artists’ management companies, venues—like presales because they give them more information about the people who are interested in coming to their shows. “Everybody values data so much these days,” explains arena manager Michael Marion, general manager of Little Rock, Arkansas’ Verizon Arena (and the unpaid president of Ticketmaster-funded Fans First Coalition). Marion says selling the majority of a show’s tickets through presales became the norm around the year 2000, or “when we went from modems to ethernet and everything got faster,” and that they’re an excellent, cheap way to reach the right audience. “I look forward to the day when I don’t have to spend any money on advertisement and just have to send that one email,” he says. Presales usually take place in the days before the public on-sale, and most big tours have more than one, each belonging to a different entity. For Beyoncé’s first Barclays show, there were four presales: one for fan club members, one for MasterCard users, one for users of Ticketmaster and Live Nation’s mobile app and one for users of Ticketmaster and Live Nation’s website. (Other cities had a fifth presale, run by the venue.) Using Bieber’s January show in Nashville as a model, most tickets were probably up for grabs in MasterCard’s presale on February 7th.
The reason you’d expect: money. In today’s music industry, where artists collect piecemeal revenue from YouTube plays and Spotify streams, touring is still one of the best ways to turn a profit—Beyoncé’s last world tour, for example, grossed almost $86 million. Since Ticketmaster makes it hard for artists to completely handle their own ticket sales, teaming with credit card companies on presales is one way for artists to make their tours more profitable. Even though Bey has previously starred in ads for American Express, MasterCard is an official sponsor of her tour this year. If she and the credit card company have a partnership, “it’s virtually certain they’re not doing it out of charitable reasons,” explains Joe Ridout, a spokesperson for Consumer Action, a nonprofit for whom he runs a consumer assistance hotline. Beyoncé, her tour company and her management “may get a larger cut” of revenue from credit card presale tickets than from general sales, hypothesizes Chris Grimm, communications director of Fan Freedom, an advocacy group largely funded by StubHub. Arena manager Michael Marion confirms that artists, not venues or Ticketmaster, decide how many tickets are set aside for credit card presales.”That’s an artist-to-credit-card deal,” he says, and a mutually beneficial one.
In the case of Beyoncé, no. Some fan clubs, like Dave Matthews Band’s, charge a membership fee and give longtime members priority access to tickets, which ices out scalpers who create new accounts to scoop up tickets for selling later. Beyoncé’s BeyHive club is free to join, and doesn’t prioritize members seniority, making it appealing to resellers. When fan club tickets went up for sale on Beyoncé’s site on February 6th, five days before Ticketmaster’s public on-sale, the site was slammed. “10AM hits and the site goes dark and we can’t get it to reload,” recalls Caity Weaver, a writer who has covered Beyoncé extensively. “I start panicking. After three minutes my coworker’s computer managed to get onto the site, but all that was left were the thousand-dollar tickets.” Weaver passed on those pricey seats, figuring she’d be able to find more reasonable seats during other presales, but to no avail. “I had the same bad experience three times,” she says. “I was so pumped and honestly couldn’t envision a scenario where I didn’t end up with tickets. I want this more than people want a child. I’m still holding out hope. I signed up for an account on Pepsi.com because they were giving away tickets. There’s got to be some way, like an old school radio contest. It’s such a big place, there’s no way the tickets are all gone.”
“That wouldn’t be our information to share,” says Jacqueline Peterson, Ticketmaster’s VP of corporate communications. Ticketmaster, she says, simply sells the tickets that their clients want sold, when they want them sold. Fan Freedom’s Chris Grimm says revealing how few tickets end up on sale to the public would embarrass Ticketmaster. “They don’t want fans to know that they don’t have a shot,” he says. Ticketmaster counters that Fan Freedom and StubHub’s main goal is to grow the robust secondary market for tickets, where ordinary fans and professional brokers resell popular tickets for way more than face value. (Seats for Beyoncé’s Barclays show were priced from $48 to $253 on Ticketmaster; on StubHub right now, the worst seats are going for $200—four times the original cost—while standing, general admission tickets are selling for $2,500 and a suite is going for $10,000.) More transparency about how many seats are for sale and when would make make it easier for scalpers to scoop up cheap tickets and flip them for profit, according to Ticketmaster’s Peterson. With more disclosure, she says, “resellers would have a road map of when tickets are going to be sold and how many tickets are going to be sold via what method, and they would to start organizing to take advantage of that information. That would be an awful thing for fans.”
Scalpers are definitely around, and their computers are “out of control,” according to an anonymous scammer who talked to Billboard last year. “I met a guy who told me he had 600 modems in his piece of crap strip mall store that generated so much heat the neighbor couldn’t get their temperature right,” he said. Scalpers with ticket-getting software certainly love popular tours like Beyoncé’s, because people are willing to pay astronomical amounts for tickets. But, while there’s no doubt that brokers and their bots were vying hard for Beyoncé seats during public sale and the presales before it, unfortunately, “there’s almost no authentic data on how many tickets are being swallowed up by bots and scalpers, because the industry refuses to release information,” according to Consumer Action’s Joe Ridout. With a Beyoncé show, it’s safe to say that, along with bots, plenty of human fans were slamming sales. “Some artists are just so popular that if they perform literally every night, in the biggest locations, there still wouldn’t be enough tickets. It’s not an answer people want to hear,” says Ticketmaster’s Jaqueline Peterson. “But underneath all of this, at the core, is supply and demand.” Even if a scammer hasn’t directly stolen your ticket, the threat of bots has strongly impacted the ticketing industry. Venues have to invent new ways to scan and authenticate tickets and fans have to jump through hoops to prove they’re human.
It depends who you ask: Ticketmaster blames secondary markets like StubHub, while Fan Freedom, the nonprofit funded by StubHub, blames Ticketmaster. Jacqueline Peterson, Ticketmaster’s rep, says StubHub encourages scalping by providing brokers a welcoming place for scalpers to make money. “If someone is coming to StubHub with eight tickets, they should be shutting that person down, because clearly that is over the ticket limit,” she argues. Peterson says Ticketmaster stops “millions of ticket requests from bots” every year, has opened a new office in Seattle to attract tech talent and invested “millions of dollars” in anti-bot action. In January of this year, the company re-worked its anti-bot captcha system, changing to a phrase-based screening system and eliminating the need for captcha altogether on its mobile app. Ticketmaster also boasts about how much their customers like scalper-repelling paperless tickets, which can’t be re-sold, as well as the company’s role in bringing down Wiseguys Tickets, a multimillion-dollar scalping business, in 2010. (Wiseguys’ operators pled guilty to felony charges in New Jersey; they faced prison sentences, but ultimately got off with probation and community service.) Fan Freedom counters that Ticketmaster should focus on doing a better job policing the sales they execute for fan clubs and credit card companies, which can be particularly vulnerable to scalpers, who use bogus names and multiple cards to snatch up tickets. Spokesperson Chris Grimm questions the integrity of Ticketmaster’s efforts to stop bots, asking, “If they’re selling something and there’s a computer program that guarantees their inventory will sell in seconds, why would they try and stop that?”
Artists themselves—or at least their management—are often involved in their own form of scalping. For that Justin Bieber concert in Nashville, 500 of the show’s most desirable tickets were reserved for Bieber’s team, who sold them through Ticketmaster’s Platinum program, which marks-up prices and offers fans perks like pre-show drinks and photos with the artist. Another two rows of balcony tickets were sold for profit by Bieber’s camp on Ticketmaster’s secondary market site, TicketsNow. Similarly, according to Dean Budnick and Josh Baron’s 2012 book Ticket Masters, Beyoncé placed sought-after tickets for past tours on TicketMaster’s TicketExchange site, selling them at premium prices and, in doing so, essentially reclaiming the inflated profits typically earned by scalpers and professional brokers.
Sure. Lauren Blackwood, a Brooklyn marketing coordinator currently working toward a public health masters degree, scored a good seat at the first Barclays show for $187, its original face value. After missing the BeyHive presale (she was on a plane to visit relatives in Trinidad), she downloaded Ticketmaster’s mobile app and participated in their February 8th presale. “I had my best friend hold my credit card right in front of my face. She was yelling numbers to me and I was typing them in furiously. Then, boom, I was just like, buy, buy, buy. I bought insurance because that’s what you do when it’s Beyoncé.” Blackwood, who’s seen Beyoncé live once before, bought just one ticket, and figures that gave her better chances than, say, a family looking for four tickets in a row. Empty-handed friends don’t appreciate Lauren’s luck, though. “There are people who are not talking to me now because I was out of the country and I got tickets and they didn’t. And they were using computers and I was on my phone. But I was supposed to go,” she says. “I think it was god. It was my time.”
Be prepared and willing to hand over your email address. Sign up for mailing lists: on Beyoncé’s BeyHive site, Ticketmaster, and your local arena. If your credit card is affiliated with a tour, find out when their presale is and whether or not you qualify. Consider trying for just one ticket, like Lauren Blackwood, or traveling to a small city where there’s less demand (this time around, tickets were easier to get in Charlotte than at Barclays, for example). If you’re well off, investigate the special packages offered by credit card companies and Ticketmaster; these are prohibitively expensive for most people (and scalpers), so you’ll have a better shot. Beyoncé has added dates to the Mrs. Carter tour sporadically; so it’s possible more will be announced. If not, for now, try your luck on StubHub. The prices are inflated, but they’ve got plenty of seats.