Touring

Black Keys Ticketing Blame Game Overshadows Larger Issues Ahead for Concert Business

The Black Keys
Alysse Gafkjen

The Black Keys

It didn't take long for the finger-pointing to start after hundreds of fans were shut out of a Black Keys show at The Wiltern in Los Angeles last Thursday. 

Fans who purchased tickets for the band's tour opener on sites like StubHub and Vivid Seats were denied entry because of a decision by the band and Ticketmaster to use a function in the new SafeTix technology prohibiting the resale and transfer of tickets. Somehow, hundreds of fans who bought tickets for the show on resale sites didn't get the message and showed up with screengrabs of tickets that didn't work.

Blame for the snafu is still being hashed out, but Thursday’s chaos outside of the Wiltern is a preview of a larger battle ahead for Ticketmaster's parent company Live Nation and its secondary market competitors. The $15 billion concert promoter giant is coming under increasing scrutiny by lawmakers who accuse the company of acting like a monopoly. SafeTix gives Ticketmaster a major advantage because it grants the company control over the entire lifespan of the ticket, from sale to show night, with a digital ledger showing every time the ticket is sold or transferred, along with the identity of everyone participating in the transaction.

It's an unprecedented amount of power, which Ticketmaster officials argue was taken away from artists by the secondary industry. The company also argues it is not anti-secondary market (although it was in the past) and that the tech makes shows safer, noting SafeTix has a digital integration with StubHub and SeatGeek for the NFL that has significantly reduced fraud.

It's also shifted the balance of power and shows that Ticketmaster can now, essentially, shut down the secondary market with a push of a button. In response to Thursday's temporary lockout (Ticketmaster said all fans eventually got in, although others dispute that claim), StubHub accused Ticketmaster of “punishing fans” with its SafeTix platform, while other secondary execs claimed Ticketmaster was pulling a power move at fans' expense, causing the intentional disruption of a high-demand show. 

Ticketmaster's response: We're not that clever. According to company officials, The Black Keys show was the first event to use the non-transferability option and the new technology seemed to work "too well." While Ticketmaster officials concede they could have done a better job communicating how the tech would work for fans and brokers, they insist they didn't intentionally create a mini PR crisis in front of a venue owned by its parent company. 

The Wiltern incident's whodunit nature overshadows much larger changes ahead for how fans buy and sell tickets. Ticketmaster's new SafeTix technology replaces the static barcode on mobile phone tickets with a barcode that changes every 15 seconds. This is expected to practically eliminate fraud since, unlike a static barcode, these changing barcodes can't be screengrabbed and shared.

Safetix is currently being used by the NFL and has been rolled out for Madonna’s Madame X tour and several other high profile shows. Ticketmaster says the vast majority of its shows will not limit transferability and those that do use the technology will need to go through a new system of executive sign offs. 

Underplay shows like the Black Keys' kickoff concert are rare, but in the past Ticketmaster has struggled to keep low-priced tickets for special engagements like this off the secondary market. Ticketmaster has previously experimented with will call-only tickets, but found that is difficult to implement on large arena and stadium shows. The company has also tried requiring fans to bring their original credit card used to purchase tickets to gain entry, but found that scalpers were using prepaid credit cards to buy tickets and then mailing them to customers.

Ticketmaster plans to switch all tickets to the platform by the beginning of 2021. And, in addition to the ticket tracking, it will give a more complete view of its customers with the ability to follow and send them offers for concessions and merch. 

It's also a system that will take plenty messaging with fans and marketplaces, like StubHub, where it appears communication was severly lacking last week. The Black Keys snafu -- which attracted a news helicopter to the scene as hundreds of angry fans crowded the sidewalk outside The Wiltern -- was an unforced error that needlessly created so much confusion it took the media several days to sort out what even happened. Officials with Live Nation say that after the chaos settled down, affected fans' tickets were manually checked and nearly all were let into the show. Officials with StubHub and reps from other markets claim they have no evidence anyone was allowed into the show. 

“We believe most of the ticket holders did not make it in, but it is possible a select few of those people may have actually ended up finding their way in,” said a Stubhub rep in a statement. "That said, when we received a high volume of inbound customer calls, we decided to refund all orders for the event, plus a $100 credit for every order.”

Ticketmaster officials responded by saying they stood by their numbers and said their own venue report shows that the drop count for the show was 97% of venue capacity. 

Also in dispute is the number of fans affected by the snafu -- Ticketmaster said that about 405 tickets scanned as invalid while another 1,645 scanned in as valid, for a total of 2,050 tickets sold. There were also more than 200 comped tickets for show -- capacity for the Wiltern is approximately 2,300 standing room. 

Stubhub disputes Ticketmaster’s figures and says it alone sold 542 tickets, while other secondary executives said the sales from other marketplaces pushed the number closer to 1,000 tickets. Reseller also said they weren’t aware of the non-transferability issue until two hours before the show; Ticketmaster officials say fans were notified of the policy when they purchased tickets.

"Last night’s concert tickets were $25 and geared towards the fan club,” a statement issued by the Black Keys reads, addressing Thursday’s incident. “Because we were playing a venue far smaller than the rest of the venues on the tour as a warm up show, we turned off ticket transferability to ensure that our fans got in the door at the low ticket prices we set for them."

The band was also quick to point out what it saw as the true culprit -- greed.

"Unfortunately, scalpers took this opportunity to defraud our fans and steal their money by selling tickets that were ineligible for transfer on scalper sites," the band wrote in their statement. "This caused a customer service nightmare and created a chaotic scene outside the venue and slowed entry for fans with real tickets.”

The Black Keys were understandably upset when $25 tickets meant for their free-to-join Lonely Boys & Girls Club fan club members were jacked up 800% by scalpers. Compared to the band's roughly $51,250 gross earnings, those scalpers made $70,000 to $175,000 in collective profit, depending on whose numbers you believe. Whether intentional or not, scalpers took the hit in their pocketbooks, issuing refunds and credits on hundreds of tickets. 

But while The Black Keys should be commended for trying to put on an affordable show for fans, one wonders how scalpers made it in the fan club in the first place. With enough blame to go around, The Black Keys -- and other artists thinking of using this same system -- would be wise to make sure their fan clubs are truly filled with fans, and not just miscreants and grifters looking to make a profit. 

UPDATE: The end of this article was changed because it implied Ticketmaster and the band intended to financially hurt StubHub and other secondary sellers. While all sides agree there was a financial loss, Ticketmaster officials and reps for The Black Keys say they did not intentionally try to cause financial pain to any party.

2019 Billboard Live Music Summit and Awards