Tragically Hip ticket shortage highlights online-buying challenges

When tickets for The Tragically Hip's recently announced tour sold out in minutes, it sparked outrage. Here's a look at what others have done while trying to discourage scalpers.

How Barbra Streisand, Dave Matthews and Miley Cyrus tried to beat scalpers

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)

When tickets for The Tragically Hip's recently announced tour sold out in minutes, it sparked outrage and raised questions about what can be done to ensure people have a fair shot at getting tickets and beat out the computer bots that buy tickets in huge quantities.

Tickets sell out at high-demand events because of ticket brokers using these bots. These tickets are then placed on secondary markets, where they command a premium price and the artists themselves don't see the extra money.

In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, the creator of the Broadway smash Hamilton wrote that bots should be made illegal.

"You shouldn't have to fight robots just to see something you love," wrote Lin-Manuel Miranda.

While there are different options for what can be done to give people a fair shake, there are pros and cons.

The Dave Matthews approach

In the 1990s, musician Dave Matthews toured relentlessly. He'd announce a concert date with relatively cheap tickets and if it sold out, he'd simply add another show in the same city.

"And if you just keep meeting demand then it's not much of an issue, so that's obviously an effective way to do it," said Nate Good, the chief technology officer at ShowClix, a U.S. ticketing agency.

In the case of The Tragically Hip, it offered up a limited touring schedule because of singer Gord Downie's terminal cancer diagnosis.

Good says the scalpers are having a field day because the Hip tickets are underpriced compared to what the public is willing to pay.

Floor seats at Barbra Streisand's shows in Canada will cost between $1,000 and $4,000. (Evan Agostini/Invision/Associated Press)

The Barbra Streisand approach

Singer Barbra Streisand will be playing in Canada this summer, but she's taking a different approach to ticket pricing. Streisand's strategy is to simply charge high prices. Floor seats range in price between $1,000 and $4,000. Even if scalpers buy those tickets, they likely won't be able to make much profit when selling the tickets in the secondary market.

However, not all artists can get away with this.

"The public and the media tend to react very negatively against high prices. So there is an issue of fairness, exploitation is looked at, taking advantage of high-demand events," said Pascal Courty, a professor of economics at the University of Victoria who researches ticket markets.

For that reason, he says, some bands undercharge for their shows.

One of Good's clients is The Daily Show, which is taped in front of a studio audience. Tickets are free, but first you have to register through ShowClix. On the day of the show, you pick up your ticket in person and show ID proving you are the same person who registered.

The approach is labour intensive and workable on a smaller scale. For larger shows, variations on this theme have been tried.

Miley Cyrus's attempt to curb ticket resales by requiring proof of purchase at the gate ran into some complications. (John Shearer/Associated Press)

The Miley Cyrus experiment

Good says Miley Cyrus once partnered with Ticketmaster to curb ticket re-sales by requiring proof of purchase at the gate. It didn't go well.

"They were trying to scan credit cards at the door that were used to purchase tickets. And as you can imagine, credit cards expire, parents buy tickets for their kids, so there are all kinds of reasons, legitimate reasons why someone wouldn't have the credit card that they purchased with," said Good.

Good says that approach has largely been abandoned. Ticketmaster now tries to prevent scalpers from getting their hands on tickets in the first place by using Captcha technology, which requires people to input randomly generated words and numbers to prove they are human.

However, Good says this technology is flawed.

Working on software

Ticketmaster also owns TicketsNow, which is a secondary retailer that competes with the likes of StubHub.

Good's company is working on creating software that weeds out scalpers through a pre-registration process. He says this model will predict whether the person is a ticket reseller or a genuine fan.

The risk with this system is it might prevent legitimate buyers from getting tickets.

While The Tragically Hip added four more shows to its tour, an insatiable demand for tickets remains — and no easy solution remains in sight.