Presale tickets for Harry Styles’ world tour went on sale Monday morning, and #Ticketmaster is currently trending on Twitter for exactly the reason you’d think: The onsale was a complete shitshow, as big-ticket concert and sports ticket onsales have been for the last two decades.
Now, fans are upset, scalpers got tons of tickets, and everyone is mad.
This is a familiar story for Ticketmaster. An "onsale" is when people try to buy tickets for an event the moment they go on sale. It usually happens at 10 a.m. local time. For big artists, this means thousands and thousands of people trying to buy tickets at the same time. This often results in Ticketmaster's servers breaking, and the show completely selling out within seconds or minutes. Thus, "onsales" are the only time it's even possible to buy tickets for lots of artists.
On one hand, Ticketmaster is in a difficult position: There are far more people trying to buy tickets for artists like Harry Styles than there are actual tickets available. On the other hand, Ticketmaster keeps breaking its onsale system in new and exotic ways. It has been selling tickets online since 1996 and, if anything, it has gotten harder for fans to buy tickets when they go on sale, not easier.
Despite Ticketmaster repeatedly saying it cares about fans and hates bots and scalpers, there is little reason to believe this is actually the case. All of its changes to ticket onsales actually benefit scalpers (for a lot of different reasons), and there is simply no reason to believe that Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster, even remotely cares about fans. Earlier this year, Live Nation’s president of U.S. concerts Bob Roux was caught directly transferring nearly 90,000 Metallica tickets to the secondary market.
A few years ago, I wrote a feature about Ken Lowson, a ticket scalper who for nearly a decade broke Ticketmaster’s online ticketing systems and was able to vacuum up hundreds of thousands of the best tickets for the most sought after events. In one case, Lowson’s company, Wiseguys Tickets, was able to buy 496 of 500 tickets that were made available during a presale for a U2 concert in New York City.
At the time, Ticketmaster told me that, today, fans can’t buy tickets to shows for major artists because "there are more people who want to go to a show than there are tickets available.”
"For example the 2015 Adele onsale, there were about 10 million people lining up to get tickets and we only had a little over 400,000 tickets. There's a big difference there and we're sensitive to the emotions behind these on sales for passionate fans,” a spokesperson for the company said at the time.
That’s understandable. What is not understandable is that Ticketmaster’s website, apps, and servers continue to crash under the weight of people trying to buy tickets for high profile events, which causes mass confusion, anger, and heartbreak. The company has been doing this for nearly 25 years and still has not figured out how to handle an influx of people pinging its servers during a hot onsale.
A bigger problem, however, is that Ticketmaster is also constantly tweaking how its onsales work: Gone are the days where you merely refresh the page, type in a presale code, click “best available,” enter a captcha, and hope for the best.
Now, Ticketmaster has “waiting rooms” that only allow a certain number of people to buy tickets at once. It also attempts to verify that its users are real people by requiring that they give the company their phone number and enter a verification code sent via SMS, and it only allows each user account to wait in one waiting room at a time.
When a user gets through the waiting room, they are greeted with a buggy and complicated seat map, where you can select specific seats rather than the “best available.” When hundreds of thousands of people are trying to buy tickets at once, this means that the tickets you select might already be spoken for.
There are many places where this process can error out: During the waiting room process, during the ticket selection process, and during the payment process. When I was trying to buy Harry Styles tickets for my sister this morning, I got errored out during both the waiting room process and the payment process. I didn't get any tickets.
For four years during college, I bought and scalped tickets on the side. I didn’t use bots and I wasn’t good at it. I ultimately lost a lot of money. But I did learn quite a lot about the ticket scalping industry. And I learned enough to know that the “anti-scalper” strategies Ticketmaster has deployed in recent years benefits scalpers, not fans.
It is the full-time job of thousands of people in the U.S. and around the world to buy tickets during hectic Ticketmaster onsales and sell them at jacked-up prices. When Ticketmaster tweaks how sales work, scalpers have lots of time and incentive to learn how to optimize for its new systems and to circumvent its anti-scalper tech. By making onsales more complicated, Ticketmaster is hurting average fans who buy tickets using the site only a couple times a year and helping the people who buy tickets every single day, in dozens of different onsales.
There are easy ways to circumvent every new hurdle Ticketmaster has, each of which you are more likely to do if buying tickets is your full-time job:
- SMS user verification can be circumvented by creating multiple (or dozens, or hundreds, or thousands) of cell phone numbers using either Google Voice or pay-as-you-go burner phones.
- It’s easy to create dozens or hundreds of accounts to allow you to wait in a bunch of different waiting rooms at once, giving you many more bites at the apple. This is something that makes sense for a scalper to do, not a regular fan.
- “Fan” presales are not really for fans at all—every serious scalper joins fan clubs and is willing to pay for fan club memberships because they can make money doing so.
- Credit card presales benefit scalpers, too, because every scalper has many, many credit cards. This is because having more credit cards makes it easier to circumvent Ticketmaster's ticket limits, but also because ticket scalping requires putting down a lot of money, which is easier on a credit card and scalpers are also obsessed with credit card miles.
The end result in this case is that, while an actual Harry Styles fan has just one chance to buy tickets, which is completely ruined if they run into an error, the average scalper can have dozens of chances to buy tickets. If one transaction errors out, they can have many more browsers and accounts and can simply try again.