robot ticket sales
Illustrated by Ryan Snook

Instant sellouts once were a badge of honor, proudly touted as a testament to the demand for a show or tour. But today, it's rare for even the hottest acts to announce that all tickets were sold in less than an hour.

The latest ticketing technology certainly allows for lightning-fast sellouts. But several factors -- including marketing considerations, a desire to maximize revenue and level the playing field for fans, and the need to defeat scalpers and automated "bots" that game the system by generating hundreds of ticket requests -- have led to a deceleration of the on-sale, a world where fastest isn't always best.

"Our mantra is, ‘If we sell out the first day, we've screwed up,'" says John Meglen, co-president of Concerts West, producer of The Rolling Stones' Zip Code summer tour. "You might as well call five brokers and send them all your tickets, because that's what you're doing if you expect to blow out on a single day."

While speedy sellouts still are common for the biggest acts, there has been a shift toward a more targeted approach using digital and social tools.

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"Previously, the strategy was to market to one date, but now technologies enable more sophisticated and segmented marketing and sales," says Zeeshan Zaidi, senior vp/GM of Ticketmaster artist services. "Promoters will do multiple presales and segment some of the tickets off that way; and they'll do VIP and platinum, or premium ticketing. Sometimes it doesn't sell out right away, and they're fine with that because it maximizes revenue."

And while tickets remain for several of The Rolling Stones' 15 shows, "this will be a sold-out tour," says Meglen. "Ticketing today is a managed process, and we continue to do that right up until the band goes on stage."

Much of that process managing is related to price, where the promoters scrutinize sales patterns in a given market, see which price levels move fastest and slowest, and then have the flexibility to tweak the prices accordingly. "We figure out how to maximize revenue," Meglen says. "We could have blown the whole thing by being too low, but we found the sweet spot, because [the tour] is selling really well across all categories."

Another tactic on the Stones tour is releasing seats in a coordinated fashion that satisfies demand and thwarts those looking to purchase tickets and resell them at a higher price.  They also price the best seats high enough that the risk is greater and the reward less for secondary market profiteers. "We manage it in a way that the money goes to the artists, not to the brokers, bottom line," says Meglen.

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The Grateful Dead's Fare Thee Well reunion stand -- five shows total in June and July -- may rank as the greatest concert-ticket scramble in history. Three Chicago concerts (210,000 tickets total) were announced first, and producer Peter Shapiro used an old-school Dead tactic by making much of the manifest available through mail order, deluging the post office near the group's ticket service in tiny Stinson Beach, Calif., with nearly 70,000 envelopes containing 500,000 requests. The traditional online on-sale -- 10 a.m. EST on Feb. 28 -- had another 100,000 tickets snapped up in less than an hour, creating a perfect environment for scalpers to charge exponentially more than the top face-value price of $199.50.

Fare Thee Well producers then added two shows (130,000 tickets) in Santa Clara, Calif., this time implementing an online lottery orchestrated by Ticketmaster's TicketsToday division. Tickets were made available on April 10 right after the shows were announced on the Grateful Dead SiriusXM channel, with TicketsToday logging information for an estimated 300,000 fans, notifying them on April 15 whether they had won the lottery. Shapiro was impressed with the system, which has been used in the past for bands like Phish. "For a super hot show," he says, "it's the way to do it."

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Just as technology allowed for fast sellouts and then facilitated ways to slow down and better manage the process, the on-sale dynamic will continue to shift away from the kind of 10 a.m. free-for-alls that have marked the business for decades. Says Zaidi, "The beauty of the world we're in is we keep building new solutions."

A version of this story first appeared in the May 30 issue of Billboard.