CONCERT TICKETS: Coldplay and Taylor Swift are just the start: the ticket price plan to bleed fans dry

Conor Pope: Ticketmaster rarely goes into detail about the business of ticket sales, but the man who took that business to Ireland almost 30 years ago is more forthcoming. Scottish fans increasingly travel to Dublin for major gigs

It is hard to think of a less rock‘n’roll phrase than “Super-fan monetisation”, although “dynamic pricing model” does come pretty close.

These two notions have been front and centre in recent weeks, as many hundreds of thousands of music lovers who tried and failed to buy tickets to see Taylor Swift and Coldplay play in Dublin next year know only too well.

Super-fan monetisation is, in essence, music-mogul speak for bleeding the most loyal of fans dry by charging them stratospheric prices for concert tickets and merchandise, while dynamic pricing allows ticket prices to quickly and automatically go through the roof once a shrinking number of cheap seats are sold.

Taylor Swift and Coldplay have benefited hugely from both.

Swift, in particular, is riding a remarkable wave this year and her 131-date tour across five continents is earning her more than €10 million each night, putting her on the path to becoming the first artist to generate more than one billion euro in revenue from a single tour. Earlier this week she was able to reward her back room staff – including dancers and truck drivers – with bonuses totalling about €50 million.

Tickets for Swift’s three-hour show are selling like the hottest of cakes and changing hands for over €700 on secondary markets in the US. The cheapest tickets for her UK concerts next summer priced at about €500. It’s the same story everywhere from Singapore to Stockholm.

And – of course – Ireland.

Last month hundreds of thousands of tickets for Swift and Coldplay were sold via Ticketmaster’s platform but for every happy fan there were many more miserably ticket-less ones. That happens, of course, but what made this summer different was the palaver.

Fans had to jump through multiple hoops if they wanted tickets. They had to register their interest via email and hope for a pre-sale code. If they got one they had to follow a link at a set time to be allowed into a virtual holding pen. Then if they made it out of there, they joined a queue with their fate in the lap of the gods.

God’s name, in this case, was Ticketmaster.

Cáit Noone was left wondering what the benefit of pre-sale codes are. ‘I thought their purpose was early access for real fans but not so,’ she says

While prices started at over €100 for both Swift and Coldplay tickets, dynamic ticket pricing meant that when the cheapest seats were sold prices started to climb. Ultimately, Coldplay were selling “Ultimate Spheres Experience” tickets for just under €1,000, with “platinum tickets” going for almost €400. The highest priced tickets for Swift, meanwhile, cost about €750, with other packages selling for between €350 and €550.

At the start of July, Emer O’Reilly Hyland was in the market for tickets for both artists. When the curtain came down on the month, she was left with neither. It wasn’t for the want of trying.

With half a million people seeking 300,000 codes for fewer than 150,000 Taylor Swift tickets, she fell at the first hurdle and was excluded from the pre-sale event.

She and her husband did get Coldplay codes. It did not go well.

“We logged on half an hour before but when I joined the queue I was in something like 39,000th place,” she says.

There was better news for her husband, who had just 2,047 people ahead of him. “After around 20 minutes he got to the top but then the little wheel started to turn and the queuing page, which was due to go to the ticket-buying page, never moved. We got no further. We stayed on for ages but nothing happened. It was so disheartening.”

Cáit Noone was in a similar boat and left wondering what the benefit of pre-sale codes are. “I thought their purpose was early access for real fans but not so. Anyone can get a pre-sale code these days,” she says.

She was in three different queues for six hours over two days but ended up with nothing. She blames Ticketmaster, at least in part, for her woes.

Mark Conroy also points an angry finger at Ticketmaster. He’s in his 50s and has been going to concerts for four decades but says he has “never experienced the likes of last week trying to get Coldplay tickets on three separate days. I failed to get them, like thousands more, but it was made more sickening by the way Ticketmaster handled the whole episode.

“They really should be held accountable for the absolute shambles and disgraceful way they sold those tickets. Leaving people hang for hours in a queue and then either providing no tickets for sale or charging [nearly €400] for a so-called platinum ticket, which is no different to any other stand ticket except that Ticketmaster decide to whack on the bones of 100 per cent more on to the price,” he writes.

Ticketmaster was having none of it. In a terse statement sent to The Irish Times, it said it had repeatedly warned that demand would exceed supply and not everyone would be accommodated and it stressed – as it has done on many, many occasions in the past – that is has absolutely no role in setting prices.

There is no disputing that. Prices and how venues are diced up is determined by the artists, their management teams and their promoters. Ticketmaster just does their bidding.

It rarely goes into detail about the business of ticket sales, but the man who brought that business to Ireland almost 30 years ago is more forthcoming.

Tommy Higgins started out with record stores in Sligo and Galway. By 1986 he was well established and, along with business partners including concert promoter Jim Aiken, made a deal with HMV that saw his little band of entrepreneurs find the UK retailer two record shops in Dublin. It was partly in exchange for the right to run ticket booths on the shop floors. “HMV had no interest in ticket sales but they liked the footfall,” he says.

That Ticket-shop business grew fast and a fortuitous investment in Riverdance allowed for greater expansion.

In the mid-1990s he cut a deal with the US giant Ticketmaster that saw him head its Irish – and subsequently European – operations.

It was a torrid time, during which there were multiple investigations carried out by the Competition Authority and even more calls from Joe Duffy’s Liveline [radio show] as people lined up to complain about the service, its dominance and wildly unpopular ticket service charges.

But the company brushed it all off and just got bigger and bigger. “Ticketmaster here must have around half a billion euro a year in revenue and we started off with two leased cash registers and a float of 40 quid and a book of tickets,” he says.

He stresses that he is out of the game and not a spokesman for the company, but he remains a stout defender of his baby and has insight into how it works.

“I always hear that Ticketmaster have a monopoly. We had no monopoly and there is no barrier to entry into the market. But the thing is nobody does it better,” he suggests.

While this has been the summer of the pre-sale – with all the heartache that has meant for many – Higgins points out it’s not new. “They started with artists giving access to fans for tickets. Small stuff. Then, 20 years ago, U2 and other artists charged a fee to join their fan club and gave priority to those fans for tickets, which is fair enough. There are multiple pre-sales now for fan clubs, sponsors [and] venues,” he says.

While the idea was a way to get the tickets into the hands of real fans, “scalpers found fan pre-sales an easy way to get access to tickets,” Higgins says. “It started with Buy & Sell magazine, but the Internet weaponised the sale of tickets for scalpers on the secondary market.”

That is where dynamic pricing came in. It was introduced by Ticketmaster in the US in 2018 with the aim of taking business and money off touts by making higher priced tickets available to the diehard fans willing to pay substantially over the odds.

Higgins believes it is “here to stay and some fans are prepared to pay whatever it costs … €300, €400, €500. It is no different to hotel and airline pricing.”

He says the money from dynamic pricing is “rightly going to the artist and promoter instead of going to the scalper who takes no risk but gets all the upside.”

He describes Ticketmaster as a “service provider”, adding that “despite all the uninformed comments, Ticketmaster never ever priced a show. They act by instruction on behalf of the client. All pricing and conditions are signed off by the artist and the promoter, nothing is done without their consent.”

When The Irish Times points out that while that may well be true, MCD – the promoter of the Taylor Swift concert – is part owned by global promoters Live Nation, which also owns Ticketmaster, Higgins says that “since Live Nation merged with Ticketmaster, there are always accusations about collusion. This is a myth, Live Nation would be Ticketmaster’s most difficult client.”

Ultimately, he suggests, it comes down to supply and demand. “That will always be a problem until somebody can design a building where 50,000 people can fit into 10,000 seats and all in the first 20 rows at €10 a pop.”

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