Entertainment

Who's really to blame for Taylor Swift's Ticketmaster fiasco?

Taylor Swift fans were outraged when Ticketmaster's system couldn't keep up with demand when presales started for the superstar's next tour. But a number of entertainment industry experts — and even some Swifties — are asking whether she deserves some of the blame.

Scalping is the real problem, and artists can do plenty to stop it, experts say

Taylor Swift, a blonde woman wearing a gold dress, waves at an awards ceremony.
Experts say Taylor Swift, seen here at the 2022 American Music Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 20, could have done more to prevent the trouble her fans faced on the Ticketmaster site when presales for her next tour started earlier this month. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

After overwhelming demand for Taylor Swift tickets caused a meltdown at Ticketmaster, many outraged fans demanded investigations and a shakeup of the ticketing giant. But a number of entertainment industry experts — and even some Swifties — have since been asking: Does the singer deserve some of the blame?

Some fans faced myriad error messages, while others endured an hours-long wait in Ticketmaster's virtual queue, only to find there were no reasonably priced tickets left after presales for Swift's Eras tour began on Nov. 15. Meanwhile, tickets that were originally priced from $49 to $449 US ($65 to $597 Cdn) skyrocketed on the resale market to as much as $28,000 US.

"We don't like to think of our favourite musicians as complicit in corporate greed.… Instead, it's much easier to find a villain," industry writer Eriq Gardner, formerly of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote for the entertainment, finance and technology site Puck.

It's a role Ticketmaster has accepted, admitting its website wasn't ready for the traffic from millions of humans and bots, the latter of which were hoovering up tickets to be resold by scalpers.

Swift has received far less attention or blame.

Three days after the ticket fiasco, she said there were "a multitude of reasons" for it, but specified only Ticketmaster's inability to withstand demand.

Swift is pictured receiving the best video award at the European MTV Awards 2022 in Dusseldorf, Germany, on Nov. 13, two days before Ticketmaster's site crashed. (Martin Meissner/The Associated Press)

"I'm trying to figure out how this situation can be improved moving forward," Swift said in a statement.

Experts see plenty of ways.

"If there is a problem in the marketplace, it really is on the shoulders of some of the artists to do something about it," Gardner told CBC News. "If Taylor Swift stood up and said 'I want a better solution,' Ticketmaster would take notice of that."

Artists' power over tickets

Long before tickets go on sale, entertainers, their promoters and ticketing partners negotiate over how many tickets they need to sell and at what price, before agreeing on pricing tiers, how many tickets to reserve for different groups — including verified fans, certain credit-card holders and guests — and whether to allow resales.

"Artists, Ticketmaster, promoters, venues, organizations, they don't work in a vacuum," said Maureen Andersen, president and CEO of the International Ticketing Association, of which Ticketmaster and some of its personnel are members.

"It's a little bit like attacking [on] D-Day and doing the Normandy invasion — all of this stuff is worked out together."

A fan holds up her ticket to Swift's performance at Paris' Olympia Theatre in on Sept. 9, 2019. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Resales are the root problem. If scalpers can be deterred from trying to capitalize on particular shows or tours, a system like Ticketmaster's is much less likely to be overwhelmed by an army of ticket-gobbling bots. 

And artists — especially those with Swift's level of stardom — can demand measures to ban or restrict resales.

Pop star Ed Sheeran, for instance, doesn't allow his tickets to be resold above "face value" — that is, what they originally cost. In 2017, the singer took the extraordinary step of invalidating 10,000 tickets that had been resold at inflated prices, offering those fans the chance to buy a new ticket — at face value.

Others use different measures, including printing the purchaser's name on tickets, which must match the bearer's identification.

Miley Cyrus and Adele have required concertgoers to present the credit card used to purchase their tickets; Pearl Jam tickets are non-transferable except on fan-to-fan exchanges; The Black Keys have ordered Ticketmaster to invalidate resold tickets and turn away fans carrying them; and tickets to country star Eric Church's shows aren't sent out until 24 hours before each show in order to verify that the buyers are real fans.

Pop star Ed Sheeran has a strict 'ethical resale' policy for tickets to his shows. Here, Sheeran performs at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Los Angeles on Nov. 5. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

'A criticism-absorber'

"[Swift] is one of the most popular, powerful artists in the world. She could have done anything she wanted to," said Alan Cross, a music writer and host of the radio series The Ongoing History of New Music.

"She, from what we know, talked to Ticketmaster and said, 'Can you handle the demand?' And that was where it ended."

Fans watch Swift perform in Tampa, Fla. on Oct. 31, 2015. Swift's Eras tour is due to start March 17. (Tim Boyles/Getty Images for TAS)

It's unclear whether Swift's sales involved Ticketmaster's controversial "dynamic pricing" system, which raises and lowers prices based on demand at any given moment. Ticketmaster did not respond to CBC News's request for comment.

Cross says since many artists underprice their tickets to avoid appearing greedy or out of fans' reach, the dynamic pricing system ensures they still benefit when fans are willing to pay more, instead of that money going to scalpers. 

"That perception of greed is transferred from the artist to Ticketmaster, and they get the blame," he said. "It is designed as a criticism-absorber."

But it can backfire for artists, too, as when fans of Harry Styles, Bruce Springsteen and Blink-182 complained about their decisions to use dynamic pricing earlier this year as ticket prices soared beyond fans' reach.

While Ticketmaster is now shoring up its system before resuming sales for Swift's tour, it faces intense scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators, and renewed calls to break it apart from parent company Live Nation Entertainment, with which it merged in 2010.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who chairs a subcommittee on competition and consumer rights, has promised a hearing "to examine the lack of competition in the ticketing industry," while the Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation, the New York Times reported

Industry-watchers hope those investigations will shine more light on how Ticketmaster operates, and give fans better insights into how many tickets are really available, why prices keep shifting, and who is to blame when they have a hard time buying.

In the meantime, they will be watching to see what lessons Swift takes away from the saga — and how those might benefit ticket-buying fans in future.

A woman purchases tickets at an arena in Miami on Nov. 18. Swift has promised to look at ways to improve her ticket sales going forward. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"I think it's incumbent on her and her reps to give answers [to what went wrong] and to advocate for better change, and if there are alternatives in the marketplace, to explore those," Gardner said.

"It's possible that there could be a competitor to Ticketmaster that comes along, and maybe we won't be raising hell about this situation next time."

LISTEN | The trouble with Ticketmaster:
Last week, Ticketmaster pre-sales for Taylor Swift's Eras tour quickly devolved into chaos, with site crashes, many people waiting eight hours or more in online queues, and tickets going for upward of $40,000 US on secondary sales sites like Stubhub. This is far from the first incident to prompt widespread outrage against Ticketmaster. Sky-high prices for Blink-182 and Bruce Springsteen concerts have been among the sore spots. But the Swift fiasco is shining a new light on the company's virtual monopoly over wide swathes of the live music industry, prompting many — including several U.S. lawmakers — to call for the company to be investigated and broken up. Today, Jason Koebler — editor-in-chief of Motherboard, VICE's technology site — joins Front Burner to break this all down.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura McQuillan is an online journalist with CBC News in Toronto. She covers general news, social issues and science and has a special interest in finding unexpected answers to unusual questions. Laura previously reported from New Zealand and Brazil.

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