President Obama singed the Anti-Scalping BOTS (Better On-Line Ticket Sales) Act this month, and many in the industry rushed to claim this as a victory for the “little guy,” the average concert (and sporting event) ticket buyer. That should have made everyone who actually is a “little guy” concerned. It certainly gave me pause.
As described in the New York Times, the law now makes it illegal to circumvent security measures in place on ticketing websites, which bots often do, and would give enforcement authority to the Federal Trade Commission. Ticketmaster has estimated that bots grab up to 60 percent of the most desirable tickets to many shows.
Quoth the ticket merchant in its reaction to the bill’s signing, “Ticketmaster worked closely with legislators to develop the BOTS Act and we believe its passage is a critical step in raising awareness and regulating the unauthorized use of Bots.”
If you've never seen a "red flag," that's what one looks like.
Some backstory is in order. When tickets went on sale for Paul McCartney’s October, 2015 show at what we then called First Niagara Center, they sold out in seconds. Many fans were furious. My own investigations led me to believe that ticketing Bots – basically, software that snatches up more than the allotted number of tickets per customer, so that secondary ticket sellers can charge double or triple the face value, or pull a “whatever the market will bear” price-hike – were largely responsible for the rapid disappearance of tix.
The piece caused a stir, and soon after, I heard from State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, seeking clarification on the article. When Schneiderman initially proposed what eventually became the BOTS Act, that McCartney-based Buffalo News piece was cited. Sen. Charles Schumer came to town, met with local promoters, and spoke to the public in front of First Niagara Center. BOTS were cited as the main cause of the ticket availability problem.
In truth, they’re only part of the problem. Passage of the BOTS Act is a bit of a hollow victory. The Bots have been made the bogey man, but limiting their use will not suddenly make getting a big marquee ticket easier or more affordable for regular schleps like us.
Schneiderman’s official “Ticket Sales Report” acknowledged this reality. The Bots themselves were listed as the second most significant factor beneath the heading “The General Public Loses Out on Tickets to Insiders and Brokers.” Schneiderman noted that holds and pre-sale tickets were thinning the herd long before Joe Public was sitting at his computer, credit card in sweaty palm.
“Our investigation found that the majority of tickets for the most popular concerts are not reserved for the general public at least in the first instance,” the report reads, in part. “Rather, before a member of the public can buy a single ticket for a major entertainment event, over half of the available tickets are either put on ‘hold’ and reserved for a variety of industry insiders including the venues, artists or promoters, or are reserved for ‘pre-sale’ events and made available to non-public groups, such as those who carry particular credit cards.”
In the end, the bill targeted Bots, but Schneiderman concedes that pre-sales – which are not really “pre” anything, but are in fact rewards for folks who use a specific credit card or have paid to join an artist’s fan club – and promoter and venue holds are the larger problem. You can’t discount excessive demand, either. Bots add to the mess, certainly, but they didn’t necessarily create it.
There are two prime players in the secondary ticket market war. Stubhub, which is owned by EBay, and TicketsNow, which is owned by Ticketmaster (which is in turn owned by promoter Live Nation). If Ticketmaster is truly pleased by the bill targeting Bots, a reasonable conclusion is that StubHub will be somehow hurt, or held in check, by its passage.
But consumers who want tickets don't care who's doing the selling; they just want a chance to do some buying. And generally speaking, they’re willing to pay for it. Otherwise, these secondary sellers wouldn’t exist. It’s not only millionaires snatching up the triple-priced tickets. It’s the average folks, for whom a concert ticket to a beloved act on a given weekend seems to take on greater worth in direct relation to how horrible the rest of their week is. If your 2016 was anything like mine, dropping $300 to see a musical act that made you feel glad to be alive for a few hours was probably not the biggest financial hurdle you had to jump.
This suggests that the BOTS Act is a bit tone-deaf, or at least, more concerned with appearances (and lobbyists) than the realities of the majority of concert-goers.
The real problem? In my view, this goes back to the desire among the public to get their recorded music for free, thereby decimating the recording industry. When artists made the majority of their money from record sales, concert ticket prices were reasonable. Now that the majority of artists make next to nothing from sales of their recordings, ticket prices have gone through the roof, artists are holding back juicy seats for sales of VIP packages through their own web sites, and promoters are following suit.
You might have thought, initially at least, that you were getting away with something by paying nothing or very little for recorded music. You weren’t. You were helping to ensure that ticket availability and ticket pricing would become big problems for all of us. Hope you’re enjoying that Spotify.
It’s convenient to blame the Bots. But as is the case with most things that involve money, the real bogey man has a distinctly human face.