It's hard to believe StubHub has been around almost 20 years. The ticket exchange business launched in 2000 and was purchased by eBay in 2007. Jeff Poirier, StubHub's general manager of music & theatre for North America, sat down with Billboard during Canadian Music Week in Toronto for a well-rounded and robust talk about the resale ticketing business, covering everything from all-in pricing, competition, festival sales, legislation, ethics, removing tickets, transparency, lower resale versus higher, and more.
People complain about scalpers and secondary market sites, but then when you don't have a ticket, you go to StubHub or equivalent. When you come to music business conferences, what is the feedback you get? Do people love you, or hate you?
Both, and some in the middle, and some that don't know how to feel because they don't fully understand what we do, the partners we have, the sellers that are on our site that leverage our platform, the buyers that leverage our platform. So a lot of it is education.
Why shouldn't the public hate you?
StubHub provides a transparent, easy solution to buy a ticket. No strings attached. You find an event. There's plenty of tickets, for the most part, find the one that's at your price point, understand what you're buying, choose to buy it or not. You can wait, you can set a price alert. It's a seamless experience. It's transparent. The alternative being what people have been trained to do, which is get very worked up about not knowing whether or not they'll have access to a ticket when it goes on sale and, in recent times, having to jump through additional hoops just to have the chance to have a chance to get a ticket. You put all these roadblocks in front of people and it's not the right thing to do. The industry in general is in need of an overhaul. We believe that we're doing it the best right now, is it still the best? Or what it could be? I think there's ways to make it easier across the board.
Who is your competition, besides Ticketmaster re-sale, Vivid Seats and the like?
It's offline methods that are full of friction and actually can be unsafe sometimes. So going to Kijiji or Facebook, or whatever it is, to try and sell the ticket. Those are all areas of competition I would say.
Is there more competition now? When you come to events like CMW, do you see new ticket business ideas trying to launch? Twickets is one that's face value.
We have seem more competition over time. The qualifier that you have to put on top of that is at what scale? Some of them picked out super niche areas. Gametime is an app out of the U.S.; it's pretty sports focused. Last-minute ticket purchases, they parked out that niche. And they do pretty well at it. Their scale is not nearly what we have, but it's the deconstructing of a marketplace with a bunch of different verticals, like home and garden or whatever. People over time picked off certain verticals to be super good at those verticals and we've seen a little bit of that, but not at the scale that we would be imminently nervous.
What partnerships are you doing now to further integrate into the industry with artists?
So in short, there's a lot of partnerships that we have that are not made known to the public.
Why is that? Why not be transparent?
We'd love to be. The industry is evolving. I'd say the sports leagues are very progressive in their adoption and embracing of a market that determines what a ticket is worth. On the music side, I think we'll get there. Clearly artists, rightfully so, have a brand to protect and they should be careful about that brand. It's the same time, if they want to provide their fans the best experience in buying a ticket. There's other ways to do it than how it's done today with the idea of an on-sale or registering to verify yourself and all that kind of stuff. So we're getting there. Some are more progressive than others in terms of artists, but there's also some that want to dip their toes in, and have been working with us over time to use us as a distribution channel. They should just view us as another distribution channel, and that's what we're trying to educate them on, on the benefit of that.
What about respect for those artists that don't want their tickets re-sold? Bruce Springsteen as an example. Why not respect the artist and remove those listings?
Just to be clear, we don't own inventory.
Right, but is there a way to remove them?
Well sure, we can take an event down and not even have the event. Our point of view is that a free and open marketplace is what's best. We were just chatting earlier about some surveys that we've done through third parties — focus groups, customer insight type stuff — and over 70 percent, near 80 percent, of one-off sellers, consumer sellers as we would define them, are selling because they can't go to the event. It was never because they were trying to flip tickets
But are they selling at cost? No.
They're selling at market rate, which is open market place, supply and demand.
That said, if there was a white supremacist band with tickets for sale on StubHUb, wouldn't you remove that?
So why not respect a Springsteen?
[Laughs] I'm trying to differentiate between a white supremacist and…
And Bruce Springsteen? The point is you have that ability.
We do have that ability. We do [remove them] when it comes to charitable events or things of that nature.
So you draw the line at charity?
We absolutely draw the line at charity, and not-for-profit.
But not for an artist that's vehemently against scalping?
What it comes down to is we're providing a marketplace. We believe in transparency and supply and demand dictating what it sells for. One of the things to think about is if we don't have that up, and there is nobody else around to re-sell as a platform online, it's just going to go out to the street. It will because that's how it used to be, if you're mispricing an asset.
I've heard this with the drug argument.
The drug argument?
Legalizing marijuana and other drugs.
We're not going to get into that conversation.
FYF Fest was just canceled due to poor ticket sales. Some festivals are struggling. What have you seen in terms of resale value for summer festivals?
We have numerous that leverage us as a distribution channel because what they recognize is, if we're putting top talent on the stage, we know that we've got a great experience for the people coming. We want to make sure we're capitalizing on what we're putting together and deriving the value from it. Festivals are hard.
Is it softening? Are you seeing sales?
Festivals make up a portion, not a huge portion, but a portion of our overall concert sales. That's where festivals are imbedded in our business. Not surprisingly, there is a concentrated number of festivals, a small number of festivals, that make up the lion's share of the festival sales.
Which would those be? Coachella…
The obvious ones, Coachella, Lollapolooza, Austin City Limits, Outside Lands, kind of the marquee ones.
Would that also be for the limited VIP passes that sell out or just general admission?
It's everything. And to be honest, a lot of festivals around the world leverage us to sell tickets for GA, VIP, parking, camping, whatever it might be.
Would you ever, like with the airline industry, have price and surcharge fees inclusive because that's a shock sometimes. You lose customers I'm sure that abandon a sale at checkout. And here, we have to convert to Canadian dollars too.
There's a bunch to unpack there. So whatever currency it's in, we've committed to and have been clear what it's in throughout the flow. Some of the competitors don't do that. Whatever pricing mechanism, you always have the ability to look at the fees and see how much they're going to be before you actually check out.
Why not include the add-on fees in the listing, so there are no surprises?
We did that in 2013….. For U.S. and Canada events we went all-in pricing, so the price you see is the price you pay. What we found is it was detrimental to our business because competitors did not adopt that. So even though buyers said that's what they wanted, the behavior suggested otherwise. So we did reverse that. Now, if regulations, or the like, came to bear that said, "You have to do all-in pricing," we'll totally comply with that, as long as it's a level playing field and are holding everyone accountable.
What do you feel about Ticketmaster having its own fan-to-fan re-sale option?
They have every right to have that, but at the same time, I guess you can speak out of both sides of your mouth. Are you trying to be the best experience for the fans or are you trying to be the best experience for the artist? There's a balance that has to be struck there and, in the end, I think you end up alienating quite a few people when you're saying one thing but doing another.
What are your thoughts on government regulation, by state or province or federal?
I'm pretty up to speed. It's going to be messy is my sense. In the U.S. it's by state. There was a federal law that got passed, an anti-bot law that we were fully supportive of. Here in Canada, it has so far been by province and what I would call the most onerous proposed legislation that's been passed, has been here in Ontario. I say onerous because while it's been framed as protecting consumers, we have been working in good faith with the government to figure out exactly what they mean by certain provisions of the legislation.
What are the main things that are being cast in the States and Canada?. The anti-bot laws?
The bot thing was probably the biggest thing in the States. Up here, it goes way beyond that. It goes into price caps of 50 percent over face value, disclosure of seller information for business sellers. There is an anti-bot provision of which we're super supportive.
Are you supportive of all the other elements?
Not the 50 percent cap?
No, it'd be like putting housing caps. Over time, it's been proven time and time again whether you look at studies in the UK — we urge them to commission a study here in Canada — price caps don't work. They just don't work.
But you're pricing out young fans, who get a little allowance or work for minimum wage or don't work at all. Those are the next generation of concert-goers.
I disagree. Whoever sits in the front row is just as much as a fan as whoever sits in the back row.
Right, but if you want to nurture this industry and get young people to appreciate live music, there has to be a way to accommodate them.
It's a difficult situation. The focus gravitates towards: this ticket was $50 out of the box office and it's selling for $150 now. Not a lot of attention gets paid to this ticket for Taylor Swift went out of the box office for $350 and now I can in at the Rogers Centre at the Aug. 4 show for, like, $38 US. It goes both ways and that's where it benefits people just as much as people may get frustrated by higher prices.
In the U.K., fans who purchased Ed Sheeran tickets through resale sites other than face-value reseller Twickets were denied entry.
The idea of matching an ID to a ticket I understand, but at the same time if you're going in a group of six, does that mean when you buy, you're putting everyone's name on? What if I can't go? How does that mechanism work? So there's a bunch of logistical things within that, but the bigger point around that is why are you taking that out on the fan? They don't know. They just want to get access. They just want to get the ticket so that they can get into your show, but then they're the ones left high and dry at the door through that.
I don't think that's the route that we should be going if they're concerned about the re-sale tickets. One thing to point out, I'm not suggesting every artist should or can even do this — because we know this is a supply and demand problem, that demand far outstrips supply — there's artists who will provide more supply. So they'll play multiple shows. Garth Brooks is a good example. I'm not suggesting that everyone's Garth Brooks or everyone has the ability or wants to go do that, but he's looked at that as a way to increase supply, and so largely his ticket prices stay pretty reasonable because he tends to match it. Otherwise, you become the diamond in the rough that is the 10,000 seats are available to 300,000 people that want it, and it becomes difficult.