By Allison Considine
We’ve all been there---an artist announces a tour, and before you can log online to purchase a ticket, the event is completely sold-out. Beyond the usual supply and demand, consumers are up against computers battling for tickets to concerts and theatre productions. These cyber scalpers, usually ticket brokers, use multiple I.P. addresses and software systems called “ticketing bots” to snatch tickets quickly---sometimes thousands in minutes.
In December of 2016, President Barack Obama signed the Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act, a nationwide ban of ticket bots that makes using computer software to circumvent ticket purchase limits and bypass venues’ ticketing rules a federal offense. It is also now illegal to resell tickets that were obtained through ticket bot software, and violators are subject to a hefty fine of $16,000.
And while the new legislation certainly makes consumers more aware of the bot situation---particularly folks vying for Hamilton tickets on Broadway---a transparent and fair ticketing industry still seems far into the future. Performing arts venues of all sizes, booking agents, and performing artists across the country are wary of the impact the federal legislation will actually have on the ticketing issue.
“It is still up to the individual states to essentially follow-up, prosecute, and enforce the federal law,” says Josh LaBelle, executive director of the Seattle Theatre Group, a presenting house in Washington. “That is fine and good, but from our perspective the federal government hasn’t added any extra people in the mix to prosecute.”
Louise McDonald, assistant director of ticket services at Oregon’s Portland'5 Centers for the Arts, believes it will take additional staffers dedicated to spotting ticket bots and following through with cases to resolve the issue. “I think it would take manpower in a sense---manpower that many venues don’t have,” she says.
Performing arts venues are taking careful measures to ensure that more tickets are getting into the hands of fans than in the possession of greedy computers.
Seattle Theatre Group, which houses three performance spaces, works with Ticketmaster to distribute tickets.
“One of the reasons that we work with Ticketmaster is that they have some of the most sophisticated anti-bot software available, so they have tools for clients like Seattle Theatre Group to use to reduce the likelihood of bots coming into the system,” says LaBelle. “That said, it is still not enough.”
Earlier this year, the rock band Temple of the Dog performed at the Seattle Theatre Group’s Paramount Theatre. A ticket bot was able to circumvent the venue’s limit on ticket purchases, and bought a block of tickets in 12 seconds.
Portland’5 Center for the Arts partners with Tickets West, a ticketing organization that offers technical support and helps the venue track ticket bot activity.
Consumers seem to bear the brunt of the ticket bot fiasco, but it is also fares poorly with the business of performing arts venues---even if they are achieving their bottom line by selling out events.
“If a customer is having to spend more money than we the presenter and the artist had set the ticket prices at, it is going to potentially impact that patron’s financial capacity to come back anytime soon,” says Labelle. “It depletes people’s potential to see lots of art.”
Even worse, patrons often blame the venues for the lack of ticket availability, while the ticket service staff members are the ones on the frontline in the battle of the bots.
“They think that we are complicit with scalpers and getting tickets to secondary ticket sellers,” says LaBelle. “It reflects poorly on us in terms of our business.”
Aside from running anti-bot software for venues, ticketing companies are also employing innovative tactics to eliminate the threat of ticket bots.
Brown Paper Tickets, a Seattle-based ticketing service, offers a platform for smaller venues and productions to sell tickets all around the globe.
“Our focus is on making sure that event organizers are as profitable as possible,” says Steve Butcher, CEO of Brown Paper Tickets.
Producers of events can take advantage of the Brown Paper Tickets’s anti-scalping suite and its round-the-clock customer service to hinder ticket bots. The Brown Paper Tickets platform gives the event planner complete control over the price of tickets---which they can change at any time---and even offers producers the opportunity to sell tickets off-line and in person.
“The real issues come down to the idea of arbitrage of any commodity, and that is exactly what is happening here,” says Butcher. “If it is profitable, it is possible---and so that is where you get into an arms race with bots systems versus people.”
The arms race extends further than the venue’s ticket sales and into the sphere of the secondary ticket market---a problem that has become apparent even in small venues outside of major cities.
“They are starting to hunt lower and lower on the food chain outside the Ticketmaster-type events,” says Butcher of the ticket bots. “Once you have a good bot engine, it will work on anything.”
The persisting growth of this secondary market goes hand in hand with the issue of cyber ticket scalpers. Even if the owner of a ticket bot does not drastically increase the value of the ticket by on a secondary site, the reselling of tickets creates additional marketing around the event.
Washington has had a state law in place banning the use of bots since 2015, a bill that was spearheaded by attorney general Bob Ferguson. But after bots get hold of tickets, the matter is out of the venue’s hands because the reselling of tickets is legal in the state---and tracking the origin of a transferred ticket back to a bot engine can be tricky.
Seattle Theatre Group executes the reselling of patron’s tickets through its box office, ensuring that more fans have access to seats. “Ticket reselling is legal, however if we were to just put them into the system and let the internet help out, I am quite certain that one of the trolling bots would eat them up in two moments,” says LaBelle.
For Portland’5 Center for the Arts, the biggest problem with ticket bots is not with initial sales, but the new points of sale outside of their venue.
“We see bots grab and hold seats,” says McDonald. “Not to buy them, but to prevent other people from buying them. The person who owns these bots will then be able to sell these tickets on secondary sites.”
McDonald says her staff has seen tickets for Portland’5 events on secondary ticket sites before the seats are even sold. Ticket bot owners will wait to sell a ticket on the secondary market before actually purchasing the real ticket from the venue, creating a tug of war between venues and the ticket bot owners for the seats.
Now bots have begun trolling the venue, so much so that even tickets for performances of local musicians or smaller shows are winding up on secondary ticketing websites.
Because tracking down and following through with a prosecution can be resource intensive, venues have a protocol for handling a case of the bots.
“If we see people exceeding a ticket limit we will remove their order and contact them,” says McDonald. “At this point, we are doing this when the promoter wishes.”
Portland’5 is working with its ticketing partner Tickets West to create language on the website that will make the canceling of ticket sales by all suspected ticket bots part of the venue’s standard procedure moving forward.
For Seattle Theatre Group, ticket bot owners that are tracked are placed on a scrub list and receive a disparaging letter from the venue.
Of course, the performing artists can also be affected by bots. Though concerts or events may be sold-out, seats may go unoccupied by excited fans or remain empty.
“If that crowd isn’t on, it can be a great performance but it doesn’t feel like a great performance,” says Butcher.
Booking agents and artists can work with venues to create ticketing plans to prevent bots. Artists may set a percentage of pre-sale tickets aside for fan club members, stagger the release dates of tickets, mandate I.D. registration, or make tickets to their shows non-transferable.
Paperless tickets, a method requiring verification of the credit card used to purchase tickets and a valid I.D.,may be more challenging for major recording artists. The process of checking proof of purchase and I.D.s at large venues can eat into the load-in time for popular concerts with a hard start-time, and frustrate the ticket holders.
From the planning to the selling to the re-selling, the cyclical nature of the ticket industry is unfavorable for all parties---except, of course, for the bots.
Folks working within the primary ticket industry express dissent about how the law will affect the market moving forward.
“I don’t think that the law itself is going to help that much, unfortunately,” says McDonald. “There will always be a big secondary market. Hopefully with vigilance on artists, promoters, ticketing people, we can put some sort of limit on it and educate people one consumer at a time.”
For one, McDonald suggests that consumers go directly to the source for tickets instead of using Google to find event tickets---which often yields results of secondary sites. Ticket buyers who conflate primary and secondary ticketing sites fuel the market.
LaBelle also believes that education about the industry will play a large role in diminishing the use of bots and making consumers more aware of ticketing schemes. He thinks publicizing cases of prosecutions and making the general public aware may slow down people and companies that utilize bots.
“I would like to be more optimistic, but it is such a huge problem that I just don’t see the answer now,” says McDonald.
Butcher thinks the BOTS Act of 2016 may be the start of more legislation.
“I don’t think we have heard the last from either side,” says Butcher. “I think there are going to be more laws. There are more ways of detecting and more ways of hiding---I don’t know where that ends.”
Allison Considine is a Brooklyn-based arts journalist.