The Man Who Broke Ticketmaster
Ticketmaster has been run rife with bots that are able to out maneuver regular ticket purchasers by buying out tickets mere minutes after they go on sale to turn a profit on the 3rd party market. Now the man who first introduced the bots scalper scheme is trying to stop them.This article originally appeared on Motherboard
In February 2005, after the band won its third Grammy of the night, U2 drummer Larry Mullen Jr. stepped to the microphone and made an announcement about the band's upcoming Vertigo tour:
"Due to circumstances beyond our control, a lot of our long-suffering fans didn't get tickets," he said. "And I'd like to take this opportunity on behalf of the band to apologize for that."
There was a very specific reason die-hard fans couldn't buy tickets. Ken Lowson, the most successful and notorious ticket scalper in history, had bought nearly all of the 500 general admission tickets that were made available to the band's fan club for each show.
"When the sale dropped, we took 496 in New York, 492 in Boston, 496 in LA," Lowson, the former CEO of Wiseguy Tickets, told me in one of our many phone calls over the course of the last six months. "They apologized on the Grammys because of us, and then they had a second round of sales to make up for it. We took all the good tickets in that second round, too."
U2 is one of dozens of artists that has addressed the fact that their tickets weren't being sold directly to fans. For more than a decade, Wiseguy was the biggest name in ticket scalping. The company fundamentally broke Ticketmaster, using one of the first ever automated "ticket bots" to buy and flip millions of tickets between 1999 and Lowson's eventual arrest on wire fraud charges in 2010.
The scourge of ticket bots and the immorality of the shady ticket scalpers using them is conventional wisdom that's so ingrained in the public consciousness and so politically safe that a law to ban ticket bots passed both houses of Congress unanimously late last year, in part thanks to a high-profile public relations campaign spearheaded by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
But no one actually involved in the ticket scalping industry thinks that banning bots will do much to slow down the secondary market. Seven years after his Los Angeles office was raided by shotgun-wielding FBI agents, Lowson told me he's switched teams. Now, he's out to expose the secrets of the ticket industry in a bid to make sure tickets are sold directly to their fans.
Any discussion about ticket scalping starts with bots, a mysterious scourge that people blame for buying up tickets.
A ticket bot is a computer program that automates the process of buying a ticket from Ticketmaster or another primary ticketing website. There are several different types of ticket bots, but the ones that anger Ticketmaster, politicians, fans, and artists are usually sophisticated pieces of software that can snag tickets the instant they go on sale by filling out Ticketmaster's dropdown prompts in a matter of milliseconds; it takes even a skilled human at least 10 seconds to get through the prompt. The most sophisticated bots can be programmed to make thousands of requests on Ticketmaster's servers using thousands of different IP addresses, giving bots another distinct advantage over humans. Once the tickets are successfully reserved, a human can then buy them.
What's missing from the public debate about bots and ticket scalping, however, is a nuanced understanding of how the primary and secondary ticket markets work, and how ticket brokers have a fundamental advantage at buying tickets than the average fan, bots or not. For many brokers, buying tickets is their livelihood, and they're far more obsessive and more motivated to get to tickets first. After all, how much time have you spent studying the underlying architecture and quirks of the Ticketmaster site, researching presale passwords, signing up for fan clubs, or enrolling in presale-specific credit cards?
I learned that scalping is hard work after a failed dalliance with the business in college. Six years later, I'm still paying off my credit card bills. Even highly automated ticket scalping operations require a massive time investment in researching shows that are likely to make money, managing inventory, and finding new ways to get tickets faster than the public.
As momentum was building for the anti-bots law, I began to get frustrated: I understood enough about the industry to know that banning bots wouldn't instantly solve the scalping problem, because the vast majority of brokers don't use bots (I certainly didn't). From my perspective, bots were a bogeyman, a simple narrative that could be used to cover up the highly complex and secretive world of how concert tickets are actually sold. Worst of all, none of the articles blaming bots ever explained how they worked.
A version of this story appeared in the February issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.