Bruce Springsteen, robots, the Feds and concert tickets

Dec. 11, 2015, is a day that will live in infamy for Bruce Springsteen fans.

That’s the day tickets went on sale for the Boss’ River Tour 2016 in area arenas. The shows were sold out in minutes, but perhaps even more frustrating, seats were available on secondary ticket market websites, such as StubHub.com, but at vastly inflated prices.

“You felt like you were being pushed back to the end of the line,” said Kevin Farrell of Sea Girt, who attempted to purchase tickets online. “I was on the Brooklyn show (on the Ticketmaster web site) and the wait time was down to 10 minutes. Then it was bumped up to 30 minutes and how did it go from 10 to 30? Then it went down to 20 minutes and I got a message saying no tickets were available.

“How did that happen?”

Such was the experience of thousands of Boss fans. And when Bruce Springsteen fans are upset, people take notice. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman began an investigation into why the secondary ticket sites StubHub, TicketNetwork and Vivid Seats had “speculative” tickets to River shows on sale the week prior to the onsale and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-NJ) sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission requesting a federal investigation.

“You have presales and industry holdbacks so folks are getting tickets prior to the pubic onsale — there is a distribution method that’s going on, so tickets could end up on StubHub legitimately,” said Laura Dooley, senior manager of government relations for StubHub. “When people do put tickets up for sale up on our site and they do not necessarily have the rights to those tickets, our user agreement prohibits that type of practice … and we’ll work to them off our site.”

Fast forward to Washington last week. On the eve of River Tour stadium onsales, the long dormant BOSS Act, an acronym for “Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing,” introduced in 2009 by Pascrell, was taken up on by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee. The BOSS Act and the similar BOTS Act, introduced by Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn), were both given a thumbs up by the committee after a hearing.

“Right now, there’s no oversight, no one wants to protect the consumer,” Pascrell said.. “I have a right to ask for transparency in the selling of tickets. I have an interest in it and damn it, I’m not going to sit by, not while young kids and adults are getting shafted.

“(The concert ticket industry) is a multibillion industry that has no oversight and that’s not acceptable in this day and age.”

The price you pay

Bruce Springsteen concert seats have been a tough ticket for decades.

“Years ago, people would lineup and sleep overnight at the local Ticketron location,” said Farrell of the precursor to Ticketmaster. “Then we had mail-in lotteries and the postmark determined your particular time and date. Now after 40 years, we’ve gone into virtual waiting rooms.”

The Schneiderman report, issued in January, confirmed for many what had been an open secret about the ticket industry.

“Ticketing is a fixed game,” said Schneiderman in a statement. “This investigation is just the beginning of our efforts to create a level playing field in the ticket industry.”

The report details how as many as half the seats for big shows are not part of public onsales and how high-tech resellers purchased more than 1,000 tickets for a single show in less than a minute.

There are myriad ways that tickets end up on the secondary market, said Tony Knopp, CEO and co-founder of InviteManager, a developer of sports ticket and invitation management software for companies. Scalpers will join fan clubs, make insider deals and hire day laborers to purchase tickets, Knopp said. But it’s the use computer software, or bots, that circumvent control measures on ticket sellers’ websites which is drawing the attention from authorities due to their efficiency in purchasing tickets.

“You have fairly sophisticated bots where you’ll have a group of guys in India or the Ukraine who are writing the captcha letters, so the bot is pinging and all these guys are typing,” Knopp said.

A captcha is an online test that determines if the user is a human or a computer.

“While all this is happening, the bots are getting 150,000 pings and you’re getting three. Not only are they getting all the tickets, but they’re deciding which tickets they want.”

Big Springsteen online sales have a history of ticket troubles, especially on the East Coast. In 2009, New York lawmakers called for a federal investigation into Ticketmaster for sending Springsteen fans right to its secondary market site for the 2009 Working on a Dream tour. Also in 2009, thousands of Springsteen fans who bought seats for a Washington, D.C., show were told they did not actually have the tickets. It prompted a written response by Springsteen’s camp lambasting the then-proposed merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation.

A bill to enhance consumer protections in regards to the ticket industry was approved 66-2 by the New Jersey State Assembly in 2013, but there has been no action on it since then.

Out of the shadows

Over the years, the secondary ticket market has evolved from a shifty guy on a corner with a stack of tickets in his hand to a legitimized component of the ticket industry, which is expected to grow in value worldwide from $7 billion today to $15 billion by 2020, according to a study by Technavio, a market research company based in the United Kingdom.

Where once primary ticket sellers and artists kept the secondary ticket sellers at arms length, many have now embraced them.

“It used to be the evil black market, but today it’s becoming legitimized,” said Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a leading concert industry journal. “Ticketmaster, rather than battling them, joined up (with secondary sites including TicketsNow) and Axis (owned by concert promoter AEG) does the same thing.”

“The artists themselves, the promoters and in the case of sports teams, the owners themselves, they want to tap into that extra revenue — they look at it as their money. If the tickets are being resold, they want to be the ones who resale them.”

Pricing is an issue, say observers, as the value of a ticket can fluctuate from below face value to many times above face value.

“There are always people with more money than time who want to get into a show,” Bongiovanni said. “No show is ever sold out in today’s world. If you’re willing to pay the money, you can get in.”

Making changes?

The BOSS and the BOTS Acts are being introduced in a legal landscape where there is no federal oversight of the concert ticket industry. There is a patchwork of state laws with varying degrees of efficiency.

“By requiring greater transparency in the primary ticketing market, prohibiting egregious broker practices like undisclosed speculative ticketing, and limiting the ability of connected insiders to surreptitiously divert tickets to the secondary market, the BOSS Act would lead to beneficial reforms in the ticketing marketplace,” said John Breyault of the National Consumers League during his testimony before the House committee on Tuesday.

Dooley said StubHub welcomes the feds’ involvement. “Our goal is to maintain a free and unrestricted secondary ticket market because we believe that’s what best benefits consumers,” she said. “The one thing we talk about quite frequently is the idea of non-transferable tickets, when a consumer buys a ticket and they don’t have the ability to transfer that ticket to somebody else. It inconveniences fans and consumers and it’s something that should included.”

Laws regarding the reselling of tickets vary from state to state.

“Along those same lines, we would talk about the idea of what we call platform exclusivity requirement, when a primary ticket provider tells fans they can buy a ticket on their site but if that person needs to give that ticket away or resell it, they can only resell it on the platform that’s controlled by the primary ticket provider,” Dooley said. “Those are the types of things that are not included in these bills that should be looked at.”

Representatives of Ticketmaster, Vivid Seats, Seat Geek and ViaGogo did not reply to a request for comment for this article.

As for Springsteen tickets, Farrell, a contributor to Sirius/XM’s E Street Radio, would like to see the creation of a Springsteen fan club that would disburse tickets to members, who presumably would be Springsteen fans.

“Other bands, Pearl Jam and U2, have fan clubs and they manage to allocate a number of tickets to hardcore fans,” Farrell said. “It would give fans access before the scalpers got to them.”

The most recent Springsteen onsale, Tuesday, May 24, for the Aug. 30 show that’s part of the band’s three-show summer run at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, went off without substantial complaints from fans about ticket availability.

“There were many more tickets available,” Farrell said. “It’s possible all this outrage is making a little bit of an impact.”

Website: http://www.dailyrecord.com/story/entertainment/music/2016/05/31/bruce-springsteen-robots-feds-concert-tickets/85180568/