- Sean Metcalf
Anyone who frequently buys concert or sporting event tickets has likely grudgingly purchased from the secondary market. On websites such as Craigslist, or even more regulated ones like StubHub, consumers often pay through the nose to snag seats to top music, theater and athletic events. It's a harsh reality, but the sting of credit card debt usually subsides a bit once the curtain goes up or the first pitch is tossed.
Sky-high prices may be a symptom, but the disease affecting the secondary market is fraud. Sometimes, customers think they're purchasing legitimate tickets that turn out to be fake. They're either completely fabricated or are digital copies of a real ticket sold multiple times. But even more insidious is the use of bots, malicious software applications that can bypass online security to snatch up scads of tickets in seconds, leaving few or none for the average fan.
Despite federal legislation, such as the Better Online Ticket Sales Act of 2016, which outlaws such software, the issue continues. For instance, in 2018, Ticketmaster sued ticket broker Prestige Entertainment for allegedly employing bots to purchase thousands of Hamilton tickets.
Summer concert season has arrived, and many top-tier events in the Vermont area are already sold out. This week, Mountain Man with William Tyler at the First Unitarian church in Burlington on Sunday, June 9, and Death Cab for Cutie with Jenny Lewis at the Shelburne Museum on Wednesday, June 12, are both at capacity. Ditto for Friday and Saturday, June 28 and 29, of Wilco's Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Mass. Folks looking to procure admission to these and other events should be cautious of the secondary market and follow some commonsense guidelines.
"The best thing that we as a culture can do is education — understanding where and how to buy tickets in a way that's scrupulous and through official channels," says Alex Crothers. He's cofounder of South Burlington nightclub Higher Ground and its off-site arm, Higher Ground Presents — the company producing all three of the aforementioned events.
Ensuring that you're buying tickets through legit channels requires a little bit of internet savvy and attention to detail. For instance, Crothers points out that many of the top Google search results for "higher ground tickets" are not for the venue's official site. They connect to sites like ticketoffices.com, a resale marketplace. The dubious link leads to a list of HG's upcoming events. Clicking on a link for tickets to the monthly LGBTQ First Friday event on June 7, users arrive at a list of available tickets. But they're going for $43 to $134, an outrageous inflation of the $7 to $10 event. And the event isn't even sold out yet.
Similarly, Crothers notes a convincing website that appears to be the point of sale for the State Theatre, a concert hall in Portland, Maine, that he co-owns. On the erroneous site state.theater/portland, users see a streamlined, official-looking page that indeed connects to ticket sales for the "State Theater" (note the different spelling). The individual event pages appear authentic, with links to tweet and like on Facebook and informational bios similar to what you'd find on a given band's website.
But tickets to these events aren't sold through the venue's official ticket seller, Ticketmaster. Purchasers are redirected to Ticket Liquidator, another virtual marketplace. Currently, Ticket Liquidator has a one-star rating on Yelp, with dozens of Yelpers claiming they were scammed. Others say they had positive experiences.
Crothers admits there's not much his organization can do to combat sites like state.theater/portland.
"Technically, they aren't doing anything truly wrong," he says. A fine-print disclaimer at the bottom of the landing page does state that the site is "not affiliated with any venue or production company."
One way Higher Ground attempts to weed out nefarious resellers is through a process called "scrubbing." For certain fast-selling, high-profile events, Higher Ground staffers pore over the master list of ticket holders to look for certain buyers.
"[We have a] known-resellers list where we know that those folks have been flagged [for fraud] through either email addresses or credit card information," Crothers says. Those orders are then rejected and refunded.
"We need to create a system that's out in the open, that's got transparency, where the consumer can go and have a platform where they can trade or buy a ticket after the official market closes down," he continues.
One such platform is Lyte, a fan-to-fan marketplace used by Ticketfly, Solid Sound's ticket seller. While still selling tickets to sold-out events for higher than face value, Lyte uses algorithms that assess the market and slightly undercut outrageous rates on other secondary ticket sites.
Another resource is Burlington-based tech company CashorTrade. The online marketplace, created by brothers Dusty and Brando Rich, emphasizes fairness above all else by not allowing users to sell tickets for above face value. Since Seven Days profiled the company in 2017, its user base has grown from about 110,000 to nearly 200,000.
CoT operates similarly to sites like StubHub in that visitors can browse a list of tickets available for sale. But unlike other secondary ticket market sites, CoT employs a heavy social networking component to keep its users honest.
"Fans on CashorTrade have a full profile identity, where they have validated personal information on file connected with Facebook or Twitter," explains Brando. Much like lodgers can write a review of an Airbnb, CoT buyers can provide feedback about sellers.
"Because users have that personal profile, other users can tell that they're transacting with a real fan," says Brando.
CoT has recently begun partnering with artists, such as Vermont jam kingpins Twiddle, as their official reseller. Anyone looking to unload a ticket for the group's shows, such as the upcoming Tumble Down festival at Burlington's Waterfront Park in July, is advised to do so through CoT.
"We realize there's a difference between a sophisticated broker trying to basically exploit the system and profit largely and a normal fan maybe trying to make a couple of extra bucks," says Brando. But those kinds of fans will find no quarter at CoT.
"There's the unscrupulous secondary market, the bots and what you think of as scalpers," says Crothers. "Those are the arenas we're trying to thwart. That's the stuff that makes everybody grumpy and annoyed."
But the other arm of the secondary market, individual resellers, is more complicated to parse, at least philosophically speaking. The concept of supply and demand is the most basic economic principle: If demand increases and supply decreases, prices go up. So what moral responsibility, if any, does someone have if they choose to sell a ticket to a sold-out show?
"Secondary markets are always going to exist wherever you've got a commodity in short supply," says Crothers. "That's capitalism. Someone who buys a ticket should have the ability to sell that ticket, and whether they make a couple of dollars or whether it's at face value, I think that's a personal choice. Everybody just wants a degree of fairness."