Nov 19 2022

Fair Tickets Follow-up

My post about selling tickets fairly generated a lively discussion at Hacker News with over 330 comments. As of this moment my analytics shows 10.9k unique visitors from that page, the majority (6.8k) from HN. The HN crowd is generally quite thoughtful and experienced, so there is lots of good stuff there.

The top comment was from user buro9, a technologist with inside music industry experience. I’m grateful for the time he spent adding his valuable perspective to the discussion. I especially appreciated his link to red ocean vs. blue ocean strategy, it’s worth a read. At the risk of paraphrasing poorly, I understand the primary objection to be that a descending price auction is in nobody’s interest except for wealthy fans. Promoters and venues prefer sales to be finalized as early as possible. Meanwhile, artists want all the seats filled with their most ardent (but possibly poorer) fans. He says a Dutch auction is antithetical to Taylor Swift’s core brand and would be “flat-out” rejected. Would it, though?

As far as the needs of promoters and venues, I’m tempted to shrug who cares about them. Prioritizing The System over The Fans has led to the present rotten mess. But, there’s no escaping that promoters and venues are stakeholders. Would a Dutch auction be materially worse for promoters and venues somehow? I wasn’t convinced by any reasons put forth in that thread. The sale might take a different shape than what they’re used to, but that doesn’t make it worse. Regardless of a theoretical revenue difference, detailed pricing information from the auction would be invaluable. Unless scalpers are somehow sharing their sales numbers, that data is currently unavailable. Information that unlocks future revenue is likely more valuable than one-time revenue.

But let us fantasize briefly about an alternate reality where a superstar artist could dislodge Ticketmaster’s chokehold (all historical evidence to the contrary). I believe a Dutch auction would be a big upgrade in ticket purchase fan experience, and that’s something any artist should be interested in. In a world of rapid inflation, the descending price aspect would be a fan-friendly move artists could brag about. Superfans could plausibly score dirt-cheap tickets in the nosebleed seats at the last minute. How is that possible today?

Dutch auction or not, the final ticket price should be all-inclusive. Not charging extra fees and taxes is crucial for a pleasant checkout experience, and the dynamic pricing of an auction can more easily enable that. The current system’s bait-and-switch dark UX patterns, obnoxious fees, and unpredictability leave them feeling anxious and ripped off. Are artists 100% sure that their fans’ animus is only directed at Ticketmaster/LiveNation? Anyway, a descending price auction is but one tool for the difficult and interesting problem of improving ticket sales.

There were objections to my using the word “fair” to describe the Dutch auction system. The idea that the people with all the money always seem to hoard the nice things seems deeply unfair. Agreed. I don’t know how an equitable or charitable ticket sale would work, but that wasn’t my focus. I meant “fair” in the sense that as a consumer, I expect to be able to make a purchase with minimal shenanigans. I don’t want to feel like I’m trying to win a game that’s rigged against me. I will continue to try to improve my word choice.

There was a Twitter thread by Ian Hogarth (co-founder of Songkick, sad story): “A few thoughts on Ticketmaster and @taylorswift13”. That spurred another interesting HN discussion related to this topic.