'There's a big problem': Two-thirds of Tragically Hip tickets weren't sold directly to fans

CBC’s Marketplace investigated why it’s so hard for fans to get good seats and found that only one-third of tickets for the Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour made it to fans at face value.

Live Nation admits for the first time that brokers and bots made millions, leaving many fans shut out

Fans excited to see Canadian rock legends The Tragically Hip in concert. (CBC)

Machines may have spoiled the Tragically Hip's Man Machine Poem tour for a lot of fans this summer.

Two-thirds of the tickets for the band's landmark tour were snapped up by brokers and automated software, known as bots, CBC Marketplace has learned.

As a result, actual fans were able to buy less than a third of tickets at face value from Ticketmaster when they went on sale to the general public. This doesn't take into account other tickets that were set aside for VIPs, such as the band, promoters, venues and other insiders.

"The odds are absolutely stacked against the fan," said Joe Berchtold, chief operating officer of Live Nation, the world's largest tour promoter and owner of Ticketmaster, which sold tickets for the Hip's final tour.

"Probably a third of the tickets went to bots, another third went to brokers who were just like fans, pounding away at the keyboard, but better trained, more aggressive at it, and maybe a third of them went to fans."

"There's a big problem, and the big problem starts with bots."
'Probably a third of the tickets went to bots, another third went to brokers,' says Joe Berchtold, Live Nation's chief operating officer. (CBC)

Ontario's attorney general announced yesterday the government will table legislation to outlaw ticket bots.

Bots are an automated software designed to snap up prime seats within milliseconds of tickets going on sale.

Ticket brokers, many of which operate legitimately, buy up tickets and resell them, often at a profit. The ticket reselling industry has many operators, from large companies to smaller outfits.

Berchtold estimates resellers made an estimated $25 to $30 million in markups on the Hip's tour.

The tour was announced after lead singer Gord Downie revealed he has terminal brain cancer, and saw fans flock to shows in 10 cities this summer.

CBC's Marketplace looked at how ticket sales are rigged against fans. The full investigation airs Friday, Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. on CBC and online.

  • Read Part 2 tomorrow. 'The whole system is rigged': An insider exposes what stands between you and the ticket you want.

Tickets for the final concert in Kingston, Ont., on Aug. 20 went on sale for as little as $50, but many fans paid hundreds, even thousands of dollars more to get in. Tickets sold out in seconds, only to reappear on sites like StubHub, where ticket holders can sell their seats, sometimes for a steep markup.

Superfan Peter McClatchey was stunned at how the tickets sold out immediately, and just as quickly appeared on StubHub for much higher prices. "Tells me that the fix was in right from the get-go," he said.

"The last thing I wanted to do is pay these guys this money. But I had no other choice. I have to be at this show, so I bought the tickets."
Peter McClatchey felt he had no choice but to purchase tickets from scalpers. (CBC)

Reselling tickets for a profit is only illegal in Manitoba. Other provinces, including Quebec and Ontario, have established rules for such transactions.

The Ontario government changed its law in 2015 to allow online resales of tickets, so long as the reseller provides authentication the ticket is real or a money-back guarantee.

But Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi told Marketplace the rules need to be re-examined in light of the complaints from Tragically Hip ticket-seekers.

"Clearly that example shows that more needs to be done and I'm committed to doing that."
Some Tragically Hip fans paid thousands of dollars for tickets to the band's Man Machine Poem shows.

The anti-bot legislation Naqvi announced Thursday will be introduced in the spring, after he consults with New York's attorney general about similar efforts there.

But the proposed legislation isn't expected to address the role brokers play, and, since many bots are operated from outside the country, it's not clear the law would be effective.

Ticketmaster can't stop all the bots

Bots are legal in most jurisdictions, including across Canada, but Ticketmaster is publicly against the practice, and has made using bots to buy tickets a breach of its terms of service.

Many tickets are set aside for VIPs such as the band, promoters, venues and other insiders. (CBC)

And yet, despite using security measures such as CAPTCHA, which asks users to enter a word seen in an image, Ticketmaster cannot stop all bots from getting through.

"Every year we block about five billion bots trying to attack our Ticketmaster system," Berchtold said, "but even if we're 99 per cent effective, that's 100 a minute that get through our system."

Bots and brokers are only a couple ways fans are at a disadvantage.

Former Ticketmaster CEO Nathan Hubbard wrote in "Fans have known for decades that, whenever they buy tickets for concerts or games, the deck is almost sadistically stacked against them."

Best seats gone before tickets go on sale

Others in the industry agree it's an open secret.

"Everybody in the industry knows that most of the best tickets for most of the shows are never sold to the public," said Don Vaccaro, CEO of TicketNetwork, which runs a resale site similar to StubHub.

He says many are sold in premium packages, reserved in advance of the general sale by primary sellers like Ticketmaster. The packages offer a prime seat along with parking or promotional materials like a signed photo for a sizeable markup. 

"By the time the actual sale to the general public happens, 90 per cent of the tickets might be gone."
'Most of the best tickets for most of the shows are never sold to the public,' says Don Vaccaro, CEO of TicketNetwork. (CBC)

Hubbard put it this way: "The on-sale process is like a mysteriously devastating airplane farter: tickets leak out little bits at a time, nobody can figure out where they're coming from, and the whole thing reeks."

"By the time the actual on-sale happens, 90 per cent of the tickets might be gone; they usually aren't very good."

Live Nation calls that an extreme example, but acknowledges 25 to 50 per cent of tickets may be held back for other distribution streams, including premium packages, or for the artists, promoter and venue.

Vaccaro wants fans to see, upfront, how many seats are actually available for general sale, but Live Nation's Berchtold says that would only benefit brokers, by advertising the demand.

Hubbard says ultimately, it's the fans who get screwed. "This shouldn't be a zero-sum game, but it is. And you already lost."

  • Based on a Marketplace investigation by Kathleen Coughlin, Andrew Culbert and David Common


David Common covers a wide range of stories for CBC News, from war to disrupting scams. He is a host with the investigative consumer affairs program Marketplace, and a correspondent with The National. David has travelled to more than 85 countries for his work, has lived in cities across Canada, and been based as a foreign correspondent in the U.S. and Europe. He has won a number of awards, but a big career highlight remains an interview with Elmo. You can reach David at, Twitter: @davidcommon.