How successful was Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program for Harry Styles recent tour? So successful, Ticketmaster had to issue an apology.
Ok…maybe not an apology, more like an open letter to fans acknowledging that tickets were practically impossible to purchase because there are far more fans than available tickets.
“The North American tour sold out in record time because of massive demand,” the letter reads, “and that means most of you did not successfully get tickets. Even if you did everything right and pushed the button exactly at 10AM, so did hundreds of thousands of other fans.”
By touting its technology, having fans sign up in advance and then only delivering tickets to a small fraction of buyers, Ticketmaster was certainly setting itself up for public outcry. But worry not Ticketmaster…anyone who understands the business can see this mess really isn’t your fault.
Here are the facts: Styles is playing 13 intimate show on the U.S. leg of his tour at epic venues like the Ryman in Nashville and LA’s Greek Theatre. Typically, these type of underplays are big money makers for scalpers, and knowing such, Styles and the folks at Ticketmaster utilized their Verified Fan technology.
We’ve covered Verified Fan extensively (both at Amplify and Billboard), but here’s what you need to know — in order to get more tickets into the hands of fans, Ticketmaster requires ticket buyers for certain popular shows to register in advance. They then take that list of registrations and cross-check it against a list of scalpers, bots and resellers.
Even after scrubbing the list, Ticketmaster knew the demand for the Harry Styles concert was going to far outpace supply. According to our source, there were seven ticket buyers registered for every one ticket sold. Ticket buyers who did make it through were allowed to purchase four tickets. So that means about one in 28 people — less than four percent — were able to buy tickets to see Harry Styles. By Ticketmaster’s own count, there were a “few hundred thousand #verifiedfans trying to buy 45,000 tickets.”
One high-placed source told me that TM and the band had an idea that a massive outcry was coming — the crazy demand, the shortage of tickets, the greed of scalpers and the crazed fandom behind Harry Styles and One Direction — was a recipe for a flood of complaints, both online and in the media.
Perhaps getting all these people to signup in advance for a ticket sale in which many had zero chance of success was a bit overly ambitious, but I’m not sure what the alternative would have been. Some would argue that Styles should have played bigger venues or added more shows. I don’t buy that. Harry Styles should play the venues that Harry Styles wants to play. And for fans who got a chance to see him at a venue like Radio City Music Hall, the experience would have been legendary. And for those who don’t get in — well perhaps a little education and a realistic discussion about the economic realities of touring wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Live Nation Michael Rapino likes to say tickets are the only retail item in which the price and value increase after being sold, but he’s forgetting one much bigger marketplace — illegal drugs. As illegal drugs make their way through the supply chain from country of origin to the streets of the U.S., they exponentially increase in value. And like tickets, when police take steps to curtail the supply, with say, a raid on a local kingpin, they actually drive the price up. Shrinking the supply of drugs and taking a dealer off the street does not lessen demand. Those who manage to not get caught now have a more valuable product on the streets and can make more money.
It’s really not that different in ticketing. By cracking down on scalpers with Verified Fan, Ticketmaster is shrinking the supply of tickets, driving up the price of those that do make it on to sites like StubHub and not making much of a dent into market demand. Despite its best efforts with Verified Fans, tickets still make their way into the hands of resellers. These guys are the professionals — they’ve been gaming the system for the last two decades and a check-in with an email and phone number isn’t going to stop them.
Of course Ticketmaster has more than one tool in its toolbox to claw back ill-gotten inventory. If Verified Fan is the carrot, then ticket cancellations are the stick. Ticketmaster has the power (and the right) to scour sites like StubHub and cancel tickets it can trace back to the buyer.
“Harry has asked us to review every purchase to make sure it was fair,” Ticketmaster’s letter reads. “Harry and his management have asked that Ticketmaster cancel any orders that violated our purchase policy. We are actively identifying any orders in violation of our policies, which may result in some tickets being cancelled that are currently listed on secondary sites.”
Ouch. How Ticketmaster actually identifies ill-gotten tickets (or how it knows 95 percent of tickets went to fans) has never been explained to me. Will it make any actual difference? Probably not — according to Ticketmaster’s number, we’re talking about 175 tickets MAX per show being returned to the public. In a battle that’s all about optics, converting a few angry fans into grateful customers might slowly turn the tide, but it’s really not going to make a big enough difference to sway public opinion.
Perhaps it’s time to change the messaging. Tell fans that if they actually make it past the thousands of other people in their city and score tickets to a Harry Styles concert, they are a winner. And everyone else? Let’s stop treating them like losers. How do we change that experience so fans don’t feel like they’re getting screwed when they can’t get tickets? Perhaps we need to do a better job explaining the actual odds to the fans and hold their hands a bit more when things don’t go right. Maybe explain to people in a gentler, kinder way that doesn’t make them feel like they somehow lost out. Perhaps the flip side to #VerifiedFans is #RealisticFanExpectations and #GentlerRejections.