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Takeaways from the Bruno Mars Ticket Experience

Brothers Le
Brothers Le

Bruno Mars tickets are on sale again!  The third Mars concert at Aloha Stadium is scheduled for Thursday, November 8, 2018.  Tickets go on sale Friday, August 3, 2018, 10am.  Online only.  Hawai‘i fans get first crack at the tickets--it's zipcodes from the 808 only for the first 48 hours of ticket sales.  That, of course, did not stop bots from snapping up a huge percentage of tickets the last two times we did this, and websites are still reselling them at over fifty times the original price. But, here we go again, as Ticketmaster tries to spin off new ways to sell tickets, and our local Consumer Protector sits waiting for leads.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports on what we've learned.

Bobby Rohded
Credit bobby Rohded
Bruno Mars in the Super Bowl 48 Halftime Show in Metlife Stadium, 2014.
Ticketmaster Executive Vice President, Head of Music David Marcus discusses fees, working with artists, behind the scenes, how popular are live events these days anyway? and more.

The Bruno Mars ticket sale was a cultural phenomenon in Hawai‘i.  All our hometown love for a homeboy smashed flat up against the mayhem of online ticket sales ruled by robot buyers.  Ticketmaster Executive Vice President, Head of Music, David Marcus,  says the Bruno Mars ticket selling process made sense as designed.

Marcus:  Bruno’s goal was to have a single on sale that favored the residents of Hawai‘i, so having the billing zip code restriction was, I think, a good decision.  There is nothing that could be done to solve the supply demand equation.

Tickets for the first concert officially went on sale June 9th , 10am.  Fans lined up at the stadium box office, and online, tickets from $49.50 to $125 went to Hawai‘i zip codes only for the first 48 hours! But thousands of people were shut out. A second show was added, and the line started Tuesday, 5pm, for box office sales on Saturday.  Still, many fans were shut out, and dozens walked away emptyhanded from the physical box office.

"Both shows have sold out, but you could go on a reselling site right now and purchase a ticket.  You can get a ticket if you want to spend $500 for a field ticket, you can get a ticket today, that’s the problem."

That's Stephen Levins, Hawai‘i’s Executive Director of Consumer Protection. He estimates, with just fans alone, there were well over 100 thousand devices cramming the system at once.

Levins:  But I think it’s fair to say there were a significant number of tickets taken by bots.

These tickets are now showing up on the secondary market, it’s called scalping.  

Levins:  Federal law essentially prohibits what is happening. It prohibits these automatic programs from scooping up all these tickets.  The challenge here is finding the bad guys who are doing it. I talked to Ticketmaster about this, and they said the bot usage here was less than what they’ve seen in other venues.

David Marcus, Executive VP at Ticketmaster, Head of Music, says tracking bot usage is a fast changing rabbit hole.

Marcus:  We spend a ton of time a day trying to figure out what’s our next move to make it harder for bots to access tickets.  I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s the number 1 priority at Ticketmaster. We spend more time and more money defending our system than we have to try to figure out who is behind these things.  And for the federal government it’s just not a priority, or hasn’t been.

Bot entities can set up thousands of accounts, say, in Hawai‘i’s zip code, and leap other verification hurdles too.  Marcus says artists want to offer lower ticket prices but those get snapped up and resold.  Second row seats at the Mars concert, originally $125 are now offered for $6,972 at Stadiumhonolulu.com. On Broadway, Hamilton retaliated by raising prices themselves, that cooled the scalpers but is everybody happy? 

Marcus:  We want to change the dynamic and not make it about how fast you can come to buy tickets, but about who you are, and whether you’re a consumer who wants to go to a show or whether you have a business interest in mind and want to resell a ticket.

In late 2016, Ticketmaster launched Verified Fan, a new system by which buyers register and are vetted before being invited to buy tickets.  Forbes did a story on that project in 2017.

Marcus:  Like with the Taylor Swift case, we let people in, effectively one at a time, based on effectively how much they had engaged with Taylor Swift over her album release campaign.

They know these things.

Marcus:  In some cases we only select enough people to participate as there are tickets to sell.

Marcus says all buyers might gather in a “waiting room”, and purchase as their randomly selected numbers are called.  There is no extra fee for this. Yet. As for waiting physically in line? Fewer do it, the last 15 years.

Marcus:  That’s the old school way.  That’s the way people my age used to buy tickets when we were kids.  When the Who was coming to town, or when Led Zeppelin was playing, you’d go camp out, spend the night sleeping on the sidewalk.  It’s the way you build community, and share your love of the artist, and be committed. The internet has made that a little bit obsolete, but I think that for a lot of people, there’s something fun about it.

Whether or not you got tickets? About 75 people were turned away from the box office empty handed for the second show.  Other states have anti-scalping laws and Senator Rosalyn Baker says her Consumer Protection Committee will look at some kind of legislation next session.  Not that anything will be easy to enforce.

Still, Stephen Levins, of Consumer Protection, says the State stands ready to investigate and prosecute whoever is employing the bots, and they are following up with Ticketmaster.  Levins says instances of irregularities, like Mars tickets sold before the 10am official release, have been explained as one-time operator errors. That one was related to a time zone mistake.  In another twist, some online sites were offering tickets to the second show before they had gone on sale.  That’s another common practice by scalpers anticipating their haul.

Levins says he was pleased to see only about 8% of Mars tickets were “held back,” in a common practice by which artists and promoters hold back tickets for particular purposes.  Levins says, that plus the zip  code restriction means Hawai‘i fans got every opportunity they could to purchase tickets.  Unfortunately, there are still a lot of tickets for sale at very high prices.  Stubhub is offering tickets in the yellow bleachers for $157, and seats in the BBB section for $5250.  Ticketmaster is also doing verified resales; you can get AAA3 Row 6 for $1901.

If you're disturbed about paying fees that come with ticket purchases, marcus makes a case for Ticketmaster in the extended interview.  He says that the Ticketmaster fee is a small percentage of the  highly variable service fees that are tacked on to ticket prices.  Wise Bread estimates that in a face value ticket price, about 74% goes to the artist, 20-30% goes to show costs and 5% is taxes.  On top of that, service fees that include a facility charge, convenience charge, and order processing, are added.  That percentage varies with ticket cost and can be up to 100%.  The final ticket price is set by the venue.

Aloha Stadium Manager, Scott Chan, advises against buying tickets from a third party seller because they are difficult to verify.  He says Aloha Stadium opted to have on-site sales for the Bruno Mars concert to provide locals with an opportunity to purchase without the service charges added online.  Honolulu police and the Stadium Authority are concerned about safety going forward, and are considering alternative plans, including online only ticket sales for major events.

Fans might benefit from a few tips offered online:  buy at the box office to avoid extra fees, visit the artists' website for possible benefits, sometimes fan club members get perks.  Occasionally other entities like credit card companies, will offer discounts for their members.

Here's a Freakonomics episode addressing the question: Why is the live event ticket market so screwed up?

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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