Inside the Music Industry -- and Congress' -- Fight Against Ticket Bots

Andrew Rae
     

Like playing the stock ­market, the process of ­securing choice ­tickets for music and ­sporting events seems, to many, like a rigged game -- even at the highest levels of the music ­business. "I don't know how people in the first 30 rows get their ­tickets," Q Prime's Peter Mensch, ­longtime Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers co-­manager, told Billboard in January. "But none of my friends seem to be able to do it. And no one seems to care."

However, consumer ­dissatisfaction over what many view as unfair ticketing practices -- primarily centered around resellers who employ automated software programs, aka "bots," to purchase huge blocks of tickets in seconds -- reached a new peak earlier this year, when seats for Adele's U.S. tour and Bruce Springsteen's The River trek tours were gone ­practically as soon as they had arrived. The ­conversation ­intensified on June 7 when Lin-Manuel Miranda, star of Hamilton, penned an op-ed for The New York Times titled "Stop The Bots From Killing Broadway." The ­continuing uproar has led to the revival of twin bills before Congress, with one -- the BOTS (Better On-Line Ticket Sales) Act -- passing unanimously on June 9. (Separately, on June 17, the New York State Assembly voted in favor of ­making the use of ticket bots a Class A ­misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison.)

Both the BOTS and BOSS (Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing) acts call for banning the use of such ­technology, which allows buyers to ­outmaneuver ­primary-market ticketing ­companies. But even if adopted, can these bills make a difference?

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Introduced in February 2015 by U.S. Representatives Paul D. Tonko (D-N.Y.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the BOTS Act would make the use of computer software to circumvent security measures employed by ticketing sites an “unfair and deceptive practice” -- essentially a Federal offense -- under the Federal Trade Commission Act. It also would create a private right of action whereby parties harmed by bots can sue in federal court to recover ­damages.

“Ticket scammers go online as soon as a ‘window’ opens and use botting software to scoop up the tickets, then take them to the secondary market and triple the price,” says Blackburn. Organizations supporting the BOTS Act include The Recording Academy, Pandora/Ticketfly and Live Nation Entertainment/Ticketmaster. Blackburn says she hopes to have the bill signed into law by the end of summer.

More comprehensive and ­controversial is the BOSS Act, ­introduced by U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) in 2009 after Ticketmaster received complaints for redirecting fans to its secondary site TicketsNow for Springsteen concerts, and reintroduced May 17, the eve of another Springsteen on-sale. The bill was heard on May 24 by the House's Energy and Commerce Committee, where it gained the ­support of the Federal Trade Commission, whose chairwoman, Edith Ramirez, recommended ­further action on both bills.

What makes Pascrell's bill ­different is that it also calls into question the practices of the ­primary industry by asking how many ­tickets are ­actually put up for sale (as opposed to holding them back for presales, fan clubs, sponsors and giveaways). Consequently, it has not gained widespread industry ­support. “The retail companies that do this stuff don’t feel they need to be regulated,” Pascrell says. “The fact that they’re mostly self-regulated has led to the problem. This isn't just the guy ­selling tickets on the corner anymore. It's a multibillion-dollar industry full of corruption, kickbacks and backroom deals."

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Asked to comment on the BOSS Act, spokespeople for both Ticketmaster and leading ticket reseller StubHub declined ­interviews but provided Billboard with ­statements saying that their ­companies welcome efforts to ensure tickets get into the hands of fans. But Don Vacarro, CEO of TicketNetwork, which has an ­estimated 10 percent of the ­secondary market, asserts that the BOSS bill will result in "a huge ­dogfight that no one wants" by exposing certain primary-­ticketing practices. “No artist or venue wants to show how they hold back tickets,” he says. “The interesting thing is, the secondary market brokers actually welcome this bill.” 

Pascrell concurs. “They want a fair chance,” he says. “I’m going after the big guys who have made [reselling] an industry. These are the folks who want to control the entire venue, from the peanuts and beer to the person who’s going to be performing that particular night. [This is] a conscious effort to control and be able to buy into, be part of, invest in, the secondary market.”

Despite these efforts, don't expect fans to be able to quickly buy prime seats at face value anytime soon. For one, bot software developers, as well as the secondary market at large, have proven remarkably adept at staying one step ahead of efforts to thwart them. Beyond that, the primary industry has a vested interest in maintaining a level of status quo when it comes to just how many seats are available at on-sale, and the ticketing companies are only selling per their clients’ direction. 

“We know it’s going to be tough,” Pascrell says, “but it sends a very clear message that somebody’s watching here and unless you bring up some transparency, you guys are going to be in trouble.”  

"We're not afraid of increased transparency," says Fielding Logan of Q Prime South, management firm for Eric Church, a longtime ­outspoken critic of secondary-market tactics. "But I'm skeptical that any legislation will stop scalpers from using bots."

This article was originally published in the July 2 issue of Billboard.