Scalper Bots: Public Enemy No. 1 For Music Fans

Scalper bots. That phrase has a sinister ring to it, suggesting cyborgs coming for your head.

In the concert business, they are considered public enemy No. 1, as the automated software (also referred to as ticket bots) routinely deprives regular music fans from buying the concert tickets they desperately crave.

This problem really hit the headlines this past summer, as controversy broke out over the inability of fans of The Tragically Hip to score fair-priced tickets for what was billed as that beloved band’s final tour.

Last week, CBC show Marketplace explored this topic, and managed to get the concert promoters and ticket sellers to acknowledge the troubling extent of the problem. Their headline read "Live Nation admits for the first time that brokers and bots made millions, leaving many fans shut out."

The story quoted Joe Berchtold, chief operating officer of Live Nation, the world's largest tour promoter and owner of Ticketmaster, which sold tickets for the Hip's tour, as stating "The odds are absolutely stacked against the fan. Probably a third of the tickets went to bots, another third went to brokers who were just like fans, pounding away at the keyboard, but better trained, more aggressive at it, and maybe a third of them went to fans. There's a big problem, and the big problem starts with bots."

Berchtold estimates resellers made an estimated $25 to $30 million in markups on the Hip's tour.

Bots are designed to snap up prime seats within milliseconds of tickets going on sale. Ticket brokers, many of which operate legitimately, buy up tickets and resell them at a profit. The ticket reselling industry has many operators, from large companies to smaller outfits.

It is not just the bots that prevent the average concertgoer from fair access to purchasing tickets. The Marketplace report cites Live Nation as acknowledging that "25 to 50 per cent of tickets may be held back for other distribution streams, including premium packages, or for the artists, promoter and venue."

In response to the public outrage over the Hip situation, Ontario's attorney general announced last week that the government will table legislation to outlaw ticket bots, but many see this as more political hot air, a move that will prove unable to stop the bots from operating.

In 2015 the Ontario government changed its law to allow online resales of tickets, so long as the reseller provides authentication the ticket is real or a money-back guarantee. Attorney general Yasir Naqvi told Marketplace the rules need to be re-examined in light of the Hip tour fiasco. "Clearly that example shows that more needs to be done and I'm committed to doing that," he said.

His anti-bots legislation will be introduced next spring, and he is reportedly consulting with New York's attorney general about similar efforts there. "I want to see what kind of solutions we can put in place," Naqvi said. "New York and London are bigger markets than us, and they're struggling with the same thing."

His government's legislation will build on Liberal MPP Sophie Kiwala's private member's bill, which also sought to ban scalper bots.

According to the Marketplace report, "the proposed legislation isn't expected to address the role brokers play, and, since many bots are operated from outside the country, it's not clear the law would be effective."

Bots are legal in most jurisdictions, including across Canada, but Ticketmaster is publicly against the practice, and has made using bots to buy tickets a breach of its terms of service.

This is not a new problem, nor is it confined to Canada. Back in January, ran a story entitled "Can't Buy A Ticket To That Concert You Want To See? Blame Bots." It noted that "Tickets to the most popular concerts and other live events are often hard to find because of abusive practices by vendors who illegally use computer programs called bots to grab them up, according to a report released by New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman."

"In some cases, tickets to live events sell out within minutes, only to appear right away at enormous markups on sites such as StubHub, according to the report, which calls for major reform to the ticketing process."

The report stated that "The problem is not simply that demand for prime seats exceeds supply, especially for the most in-demand events. Ticketing, to put it bluntly, is a fixed game." 

It cited one dramatic example where "a single vendor was able to buy 1,012 tickets to a U2 concert at Madison Square Garden just one minute after they went on sale, even though the venue supposedly limited sales to four tickets per customer."

A recent New York Times story referenced the difficulty of shutting down the ticket bots, explaining that "for a website that is trying to detect scalping, the challenge is finding the bots among the humans. It is not as easy as it sounds. To avoid detection, sophisticated scalpers use bots designed to look like humans, although they use the website far more efficiently. Bots don’t misclick or need to use the delete key, though they may do that as well, in order to further obscure the evidence of a nonhuman purchase."

Back in 2013, a feature on cited an earlier NYT story on bots, estimating that they account for up to 60 per cent of tickets bought. The story noted that "For anyone who's logged on at precisely 9:00 am the morning that Radiohead show goes on sale only to be interminably redirected to the seating chart page—or the thousands of real people who lost their LCD Soundsystem seats to scalper-bots—this revelation will probably make you want to smash something. You've been hopelessly competing with virtual robots that have been programmed to buy up your tickets. You never had a shot at getting into that Arcade Fire show, no matter how furiously you clicked."

In his interview with CBC, Ticketmaster's Berchtold stated that "Every year we block about five billion bots trying to attack our Ticketmaster system, but even if we're 99 per cent effective, that's 100 a minute that get through our system."

Read the Marketplace report here



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