Inside Taylor Swift fans’ fight against the Ticketmaster monopoly

You have probably heard of at least one person burned by Ticketmaster last week after millions of Taylor Swift fans attempted to buy tickets to her 2023 stadium tour, The Eras.

From failed connections to pre-sale codes not working, to the queue being paused, to the sale being cancelled altogether due to “extraordinarily high demands” on Ticketmaster’s system and an “insufficient” number of tickets remaining, a large majority of fans were prevented from getting tickets.

More than 3.5 million people pre-registered – the highest ever for a verified fan registration – and out of that group, 1.5 million received a code to purchase tickets for one of the 52 shows. What the sale didn’t prevent, though, was thousands upon thousands of tickets ending up on resale sites like StubHub for as much as $21,600.

For weeks leading up to the sale, Swifties were on a war footing. My feeds across all social networks was filled with “Tips on getting Taylor Swift tickets” TikToks and making jokes about Ticketmaster’s queue system paired with Taylor’s lyrics. But, after tickets went on sale, the jokes quickly turned to anger and frustration. Even an American astronaut, Scott Kelly, pleaded on Twitter for Swift fans to protest.

Fans did everything asked of them to ensure their seats. For “boosts” in the system, previous Lover Fest (the 2020 tour cancelled due to the pandemic) ticket holders were meant to receive priority. Purchasing merchandise, digital singles, and the Midnights album was also allegedly meant to move their spot in line. And they registered for Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan programme, a system meant to filter out bots from joining the queue to purchase tickets and help alleviate wait times for a smooth experience for buying.

Still, it was chaos: thousands of fans remain disappointed and many of the successful Swifties are disproportionately out of pocket. It’s a scary scene for international fans who are anticipating dates across the world to be announced soon, worried that they’ll have to deal with the same treatment.

“It’s really difficult for me to trust an outside entity with these relationships and loyalties, and excruciating for me to just watch mistakes happen with no recourse,” Swift wrote in a statement on her Instagram last week. She is fiercely protective of her fans and likes to have her hands on everything she does to ensure everything goes smoothly, stating that she has brought a lot of elements of her career in house with her team “who care as much about my fans as I do.” The tone was angry: she compared what fans had to go through as “several bear attacks”. She added: “It really pisses me off.”

But a ticketing system that owns major market venues across America is something Swift can’t control – even if she reportedly advised them on the scale of the expected demand (this was her first tour since 2018 – she has released four new studio albums since then). Ticketmaster’s first statement, which was deleted within a few hours, blamed Taylor and her fans for the demand. Their second statement provided more context on the system and where things went wrong.

DUBLIN, IRELAND - JUNE 16: Taylor Swift greets fans during her reputation Stadium Tour at Croke Park on June 16, 2018 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Gareth Cattermole/TAS18/Getty Images for TAS)
Taylor Swift greeting fans during her Reputation stadium tour in Dublin in 2018 (Photo: Gareth Cattermole/TAS18/Getty for TAS)

Ticketmaster didn’t foresee the “staggering number of bot attacks”, despite claiming that their “Smart Queue™” system prevents a “rush to the on-sale that favours the bots” to resell. Back in 2018, Ticketmaster closed Seatwave and Get Me In, its sister ticketing websites, in an attempt to prevent scalpers. Four years later and the problem is worse than ever, and the fans are the ones who continue to suffer.

On Ticketmaster’s “Ticketing 101” page they state that they work to provide a “smooth, safe and fair ticket buying experience” and that they are consistently “focused on using new technologies and building new products that help ensure tickets end up in the hands of real fans”. But those claims are not something Kate O’Hagan, a 28-year-old from Chicago, feels is true. “I’ve been a Taylor fan since the beginning. It sucks seeing those dedicated, loyal fans get locked out of seeing their favourite artist. For Ticketmaster and Live Nation to have such a large hold on the ticketing world, I think they have too much power.”

The power she’s talking about is Ticketmaster’s monopoly on the ticket-buying system. Since the 2010 merger between Ticketmaster and worldwide concert promotion company Live Nation, organisations have sought to “break up Ticketmaster”, with critics describing its approval by the US Department of Justice as one of the “clearest examples of failed antitrust policy in recent years“. 

The company controls 70 per cent of the American ticketing and live event venues market, with 97% of global ticket sales through their platform. This means that the merger gave Live Nation-Ticketmaster – together called Live Nation Entertainment – not just the monopoly on ticket-selling but a monopoly on venues, too. According to Cory Doctorow, an author-activist pushing the DOJ to break it up, venues that don’t use Ticketmaster to sell their tickets can’t book artists backed by Live Nation, and vice versa.

Taylor Swift, one of the biggest artists in the world, is promoted by Ticketmaster’s rival, AEG. But in order to play the larger venues – typically football stadiums in America – to support the size of the crowds who want to see her, they had to compromise. “Ticketmaster’s exclusive deals with the vast majority of venues on The Eras Tour required us to ticket through their system,” states AEG. “We didn’t have a choice.”

BTS fans await the band’s Love Yourself tour in Los Angeles in 2018 (Photo: Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty)

Ticketmaster suggested this experience was an anomaly, stating: “Historically, we’ve been able to manage huge volume coming into the site to shop for tickets, so those with Verified Fan codes have a smooth shopping process.”

But that isn’t entirely true – it’s something other artists with passionate fan bases have struggled with. In October 2021, BTS’s “Army” criticised Ticketmaster for an alleged faulty system, security issues, and a plethora of ticket touts snatching up all the tickets for the K-pop group’s shows at the Sofi Stadium in Los Angeles. A special pre-sale for those who had tickets to a cancelled date due to Covid-19, in addition to another pre-sale, was set in place ahead of the general sale. Much like The Eras Tour pre-sale, Ticketmaster couldn’t handle the traffic and they cancelled the general sale. BTS fans noticed that shows that were allegedly sold out had tickets listed on resale sites for shocking prices with some listed at $15,338.

 “Ticketmaster hasn’t learned a thing,” Lucy Ford, a fan who had a difficult time securing a ticket, says. “When presented with no other option and no other ticket outlet, fans’ hands feel forced to pay those prices so there’s no incentive for Ticketmaster to stop.”

It’s something that Hans Ober, CEO of ticket selling platform TicketSwap, sees as a “wake-up call” to the industry that it desperately needs an overhaul. “Tickets for Taylor Swift’s concert are appearing on resale sites at a whopping 4,900 per cent mark-up, which has caused, understandably, mass outrage and disappointment from fans,” Ober says.

“This shows that there is an urgent need for ticketing platforms to rethink their policies and start putting the fans first.” Unlike Stubhub and Ticketmaster’s own reselling system, TicketSwap actually caps resale prices to make fans the priority and put an end to unethical selling practices.

With no other option but Ticketmaster and sky-high resale prices, fans are now mobilising to take the ticketing giant down. BTS followers have set up the TM Task Force, a coalition of fans who are compiling research to change Ticketmaster practices. After last week’s fiasco, a group of Taylor Swift fans who double as lawyers, government employees, regulators, and more came together to create Vigilante Legal to work to deconstruct the merger.

Blake Barnett, a 30-year-old lawyer, is one of them. “Our goal is to mobilise the fanbase, and greater community at large, to create lasting change,” he says. “We’re all stuck dealing with Ticketmaster and their unfair practices if we want to see our favourite artists play live music. Our goal is to present fully formed legal packets to shop around to attorney generals until someone picks it up.”

Some American politicians are already listening. New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “Daily reminder that Ticketmaster is a monopoly,” adding that its merger with LiveNation should never have been approved and the company needed to be reined in. “Break them up,” she wrote.

The US Department of Justice is investigating Live Nation Entertainment regarding the antitrust concerns. Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ed Markey of Massachusetts all sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland to encourage him to investigate the company.

As fans unite to take the monopoly down, there’s an urgent need for better alternatives. As a fan myself, dealing with Ticketmaster is always an anxiety-inducing experience for big shows because of the exorbitant fees and the system constantly failing. The music industry is more expensive than it’s ever been, due to the ripple effect of the pandemic, especially for live music and touring.

It is impacting musicians as well as fans, too: independent artists like Little Simz are having to postpone tours due to financial reasons – “I pay for everything encompassing my live performances out of my own pocket and touring the US for a month would leave me in a huge deficit.” The secondary ticket market needs an overhaul and artists are already taking note – Ed Sheeran, for example, requires IDs to be checked at the door and has been proactive in cancelling tickets on resale sites. Last year, Ireland banned any sales of tickets above face value. 

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A way for Ticketmaster and secondary resale sites to make the experience easier is to cut down on the hidden fees when purchasing, a cause US President Joe Biden is already promising to act upon. Further, both Ticketmaster and secondary resale sites like Stubhub can cap the pricing of resellers on their own platform, similar to the work Ticketswap is doing.

“Ticketmaster having an outsized footprint in the vertical finds no issues in high fees and enables predatory resellers” says Hunter Abramson, CEO of ticketing company Relic Tickets. “Reassessment needs to be focused on ‘how do we ensure the ability to purchase tickets is respectful: humane, fair, and successful for the fan?’”

His suggestion? Disrupting the ticketing industry through NFTs. “Blockchain ticketing using Smart Contracts will prevent predatory practices and price inflation on the secondary market,” he explains. Relic uses blockchain technology that allows for transparent information-sharing within a specific network. Their “Smart Contracts” can be used to manage the secondary market by embedding the NFT ticket with certain benefits and restrictions, like reselling for mass amounts of money. It essentially gives the power to the artist to set the price and fans to keep the ticket or, if they need to sell, only transfer it for the price they are permitted to. 

“Imagine the selling of a ticket governed by price guards as well as percentages going back to benefit the right people – those truly invested in the success of the live production,” says Abramson. “Blockchain will make sure venues and artists know who a ticket holder is and then deliver engaging messages to help them retain their ticket in perpetuity.”

Web3 and NFTs give the power to the artist, allowing them to price-guard their tickets against scalpers, he argues. “For example, we can implement a rule that states a ticket holder cannot sell a ticket for more than 10 per cent or 20 per cent of what they originally purchased the ticket for,” says Abramson. “This provides a justifiable profit for ticket holders but also creates a safeguard [against] immediate and massive profits.”

It’s not a perfect solution, and it won’t fix the system immediately, but it could bring much-needed change to an industry that has been at the mercy of Ticketmaster for far too long.

“It’ll take a movement supported and driven not only by the community but by bands to create change,” says Abramson. “NFTs are just a tool that will enable the cause. It’s what Pearl Jam didn’t have when they took a stand back in the early 90s.”

Heartbroken Taylor Swift fans may have to wait until the next tour to find out if it works. In true Swiftie fashion, they are making as much light of the situation as possible. One fan account posted a screenshot of Twitter’s trending topics, dominated by comments about The Eras Tour chaos, saying: “There will be a documentary about this.”

If Swift herself has anything to do with it, it could change the industry for ever. It wouldn’t be the first time.

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