Will Ticketmaster's Vaccine Verification System Make It Harder to Resell Concert Tickets?


This is the way the concert business will return: not with a bang, but a shot — into the arms of music fans, who will then be cleared to attend live shows staffed by professionals happy to be back to work.

Since the coronavirus pandemic shut down touring in March, the return of live music at a sustainable scale has been tied to the availability of a vaccine. At least two are expected to be approved for immediate distribution as soon as mid-December. Within a few months, most of the millions of people who want to go to concerts, theme parks and even some foreign countries will need a digital health pass that verifies that they've received the vaccination.

Those passes will essentially serve as virtual inoculation cards, updated as pharmacies and clinics administer vaccines. Companies like Ticketmaster will then need to integrate their technology with that of the pass providers (Clear and IBM have submitted plans to regulators) to verify an individual's vaccine status. It sounds simple — until it has to be done while people are waiting to enter Madison Square Garden.

To make this work at scale — 98 million fans around the world attended a Live Nation concert in 2019 — Ticketmaster is planning to deploy the same technology it began testing last year for its decadeslong battle against scalping.

When Ticketmaster introduced SafeTix in May 2019, the company said it would give artists the power to keep their tickets in the hands of fans and off of resale sites, where they often sell at huge markups. Executives at major resale markets like the eBay-owned StubHub called the technology anticompetitive and argued that this "paperless ticketing" simply gave Ticketmaster's own resale platform, TM+, an unfair advantage. It touched such a nerve politically that over a dozen states banned some of SafeTix's features — like the ability to keep tickets from resale sites — before the tool even launched.

In December 2019, four members of the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law criticized SafeTix, arguing that it limited consumer choice, and asked the Department of Justice's antitrust division to investigate whether the technology violated a 2010 consent decree meant to prevent monopolistic behavior on the part of Live Nation and Ticketmaster. Two months later, Ticketmaster came under heavy criticism for using SafeTix technology to block hundreds of fans who bought resale tickets for a Black Keys concert in Los Angeles from entering the venue.

Will attitudes toward technologies like SafeTix soften if Ticketmaster can demonstrate that they can be useful for public health reasons? It's hard to imagine verifying vaccinations without them: Manually matching 20,000 paper tickets with vaccination documents would be impossible, and potentially unreliable as well. Ticketmaster says that local health officials and artists will have the power to decide if, and how strictly, vaccine mandates should be enforced.

That's where things get complicated. Navigating different rules and health policies depending on the venue and the local rules could be confusing for fans. Vaccination documentation will present the same challenges: It's one thing to verify the identity and vaccination status of a ticket buyer — quite another to do the same for three of his or her friends. What if someone suddenly can't attend a concert that night — how hard will it be to transfer the tickets to someone else, or list the tickets on StubHub and sell them to strangers?

Patrick Ryan, co-founder of ticket resale firm Eventellect, says vaccination verification doesn't need to prevent the resale of tickets, as long as Ticketmaster continues letting consumers transfer tickets to the majority of shows that Live Nation promotes — which the company does, unless an act says it prefers otherwise, as Pearl Jam did for its rescheduled Gigaton Tour. "So long as the tickets are transferable," says Ryan, "it doesn't change the access or the process for the secondary market."

That compatibility isn't simple, though. StubHub and SeatGeek invested millions to make their technology work with Ticketmaster's SafeTix at the insistence of the National Football League. During the latest round of negotiations between the NFL and Ticketmaster, team owners asked for the anti-fraud features of digital ticketing with a system that lets StubHub and SeatGeek act as distribution portals. "We have spent the past five years adjusting our business to a digitized, paperless environment," says an executive at a major ticket resale market, "and we're comfortable that we can adapt to any vaccine validation program built around that system."

It's hard to know exactly how difficult any of this will be: A vaccine hasn't even been approved in the U.S., much less a plan for a digital health pass. And it's not clear whether Ticketmaster or promoters would want to verify vaccination statuses when tickets are purchased or closer to the date of the show. The former could cut down on scalping, but the latter would be more flexible and presumably face less opposition from fans.

Any verification process could also change the way tickets are purchased. Ryan says he thinks music executives would be surprised how many fans "use fake names or emails to go to events because they are either very anti-'big brother' or they don't like all the solicitations that can happen after event attendance." That's going to be harder in a post-pandemic landscape where the name on a ticket needs to match an ID.

"It's going to be challenging for fans in a post-pandemic world to keep their identities private from the places they visit," says a secondary-ticketing executive who has been following Ticketmaster's plans. "It's not as simple as trading privacy for access — if you have to register an account on your phone that's linked to your identity, there's going to be a lot of people who feel uncomfortable sharing those details."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.