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How the ticketing world is taking on scalpers and bots

Bots keep snapping up the hottest tickets to gigs -- here's what the ticketing industry is doing to stop them.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Your favorite band is coming to town and there's no way you're going to miss them. You've saved up for the best seat in the house and set an alarm so you'll be ready the moment tickets go on sale. But by the time you've logged in and made it to the front of the virtual queue, everything's sold out and your hot ticket is going for twice the asking price on a dodgy-looking website.

You grit your teeth and resign yourself to a night in with Spotify. You wonder, why does this keep happening, and what is the industry doing to make it better?

Ticket resellers, scalpers or touts: Whatever you call them, they're the bane of both fans and artists. In some ways, they're not all that different from a guy hanging out near a concert venue, trying to sell last-minute tickets to anyone who happens to be passing by. Euphemistically described as "power users" within the ticket industry, they do business on sites such as StubHub, Viagogo and Get Me In. They use bots to scoop up tickets to popular events as soon as they go on sale, then sell them for huge markups.

But as reselling tickets has grown into an industry worth billions of dollars, technological advances are helping stop scalpers in their tracks and get real fans in the seats where they belong.

A blight on the industry

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Helen Rolle is the venue business manager in charge of marketing and special events at Islington Assembly Hall, an art deco live music venue in north London. She says touts are a blight on the music industry and blames their getting away with it for so long on paper tickets.

"Paper tickets have been a tout's dream," Rolle says. "You get them and you can [easily] pass them on." Although it's possible to set up rules around paper ticketing -- insisting that the name on the ticket has to match an ID or credit card details, for example -- she's found that that hasn't been secure enough. So in September 2017, Islington Assembly Hall partnered with ticketing startup Dice to tighten up security by getting rid of paper tickets.

Dice, which launched in 2014 in partnership with digital design studio Ustwo, now sells 50 percent of the tickets to all shows at the Islington Assembly Hall, with the rest allocated to various promoters. Dice's tickets live within its app, appearing as an animated QR code so you can't take a screenshot and send it to another phone. Russ Tannen, Dice's head of music, says that locking a ticket to a phone ensures that tickets will only go to people who are going to go and see the show.

"I think as soon as you actually send someone an e-ticket or you send someone any of sort of PDF or, obviously worst case, a paper ticket," Tannen says, "you're completely losing control of who's actually gonna end up coming."

Dice is made for dedicated music fans. Its typical user is under 30 and goes to an exhausting-sounding four to five concerts a week. But on the opposite side of the cultural world, another app is working to pull in young people who can't afford a hot ticket and would frankly rather curl up on the sofa and watch Netflix. In the process, it's found a way to offer affordable seats that don't get resold.

TodayTix has sold tickets to theater, dance, stand-up comedy and other live cultural events in New York, London and other cities since 2013. Rather than selling the best seat in the house three months in advance, the company focuses on pulling in people who are intimidated by high prices and sold-out hits. It also hosts virtual "lotteries," offering tickets to high-demand and high-priced shows.

Lottery tickets cost $25 to $40 on average and aren't easy to resell. That's partly because they're handed over to the winner in person at the theater and winners' IDs have to match the name on their account. But it's also significant that most winners are only selected two to four hours before showtime. "You'd have to be incredibly crafty and turn that around very quickly," says Emily Hammerman, TodayTix's VP of account services.

Letting the fans down

Artists hate to see their tickets fall into the hands of resellers. They don't profit from the artificially increased prices and hate to hear from disappointed fans. Tannen was working in artist management in 2012, just as social media was making it easier for fans to communicate with their favorite musicians. The more the two worlds merged, the harder the problem with touts was to ignore.

Tannen says that shows were selling out only to have tickets listed on reselling sites an hour later for double the price. Fans' complaints weren't disappearing into a customer service email address anymore -- they were on Twitter for everyone to see, the artist included. Those artists have since become a driving force, pressuring their managers and ticketing companies to crack down on resellers.

From Tannen's perspective, offering refunds for tickets to sold-out shows and limiting the ability to pass them on are two ways to cut reselling. "I don't think that people should be able to resell their tickets for many times the face value, making a huge profit outside of what the artist or promoters in the show are making."

Finding the real fans

David Marcus, Ticketmaster's executive vice president and head of music, agrees that resellers are a problem. But he takes a different approach to finding a solution.

"Artists hate to get the tweet or the email, or the direct message that says, 'Hey, I'm your biggest fan. I didn't get tickets and now they're 10 times face value on the secondary market,'" he says. "[Ticketmaster hates] that too because that means we sold a ticket to a business, not to a consumer."

It's that question -- whether you're a front for a business or a real audience member -- that drives Ticketmaster's Verified Fan algorithm. The company uses Verified Fan on popular shows to decide whether to sell you a ticket. Fans register their personal information, which Ticketmaster then uses to predict whether or not they'll actually go to the show. Once selected, customers will be given a code that they can use to buy tickets (Ticketmaster won't reveal exactly how it determines whether or not to verify people).

But being verified doesn't guarantee you'll always get a ticket -- they could still sell out before you get to the front of the ticketing queue. Some artists, such as Ed Sheeran, give all verified customers equal access to tickets, while others give more devoted fans better access to tickets. For her 2018 tour, Taylor Swift used Verified Fan -- and courted some controversy -- to reward people who bought merchandise, streamed her videos on YouTube or shared more of her content on social media.

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Marcus says that Ticketmaster isn't opposed to resale in itself, and doesn't stop people from reselling tickets to Verified Fan events. The company sees a difference between touts scooping up tickets for the secondary market and individual fans reselling to each other -- even if fans selling to other fans means resale prices will still be sky-high.

"[Professional resellers are] making the market," Marcus says. "They're controlling the supply, they're playing with price, releasing some tickets, not releasing others... it's a very deliberate process. That's a totally different thing."

He says that verifying fans in advance makes it so the majority of tickets will go to people who actually want to see the show. So you'll be less likely to resort to resold tickets in the first place.

So far, the numbers are convincing: Fewer than 5 percent of the tickets sold through Verified Fan have ended up on the secondary market. For comparable tours without Verified Fan, Ticketmaster says that 30 to 40 percent of the tickets were resold.

Dice's approach has also drawn interest from bigger artists and events. Since its 2014 launch, it's provided tickets for the Apple Music Festival in 2016 and Adele's concerts at both London's O2 Arena and Wembley Stadium. Tannen highlights Sam Smith's exclusive show at the Hackney Round Chapel, also in London, which he describes as a "perfect" event: "Sellout venue and not a single ticket on any of the secondary websites. It wasn't listed there at all."

The end of queuing?

For the moment, whether tickets can be resold or not, you still buy them the same way: You wait until they go on sale and then sit in a virtual queue.

TodayTix's Hammerman says that wait is the biggest problem with the current ticketing system. It creates a "crazy high-demand rush mentality" to buy an expensive ticket even though they won't be used for months. Ticketmaster's Verified Fan algorithm is a good way to block resellers and bots, she says, but the queuing system doesn't reflect the way younger customers prefer to get hold of tickets. As she sees it, they prefer to buy a cheaper ticket that they'll use right away.

The amount of time you spend waiting to buy tickets is also weighing on Marcus' mind. Ticketmaster built its success on selling tickets quickly, he says. "Where we're going, I think, is being able to be the best in the world at selling tickets slowly."

That means digging deeper into customer data to learn more about you and anticipate more of the things Ticketmaster thinks you'll want. "I think once you can start dealing with people individually, you can really make that experience much more human and much more rewarding," he says, when I ask him how he sees the future panning out. "And much less anxiety-ridden."

This story appears in the Summer 2018 edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, click here.

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