Ticketing: The ‘bad-news’ business?

Photo by Foad Roshan on Unsplash

Whilst ‘Tickets’ have never been more expensive, ‘Ticketing’ has never been valued less, says industry commentator and veteran Tim Chambers in this viewpoint.

With apologies to those friends, colleagues and peers networking and post-pandemically celebrating this week at INTIX Seattle for the 44th annual conference of those involved in the ticketing and live entertainment industry. It must be noted that whilst ‘Tickets’ have never been more expensive, ‘Ticketing’ has never been valued less.

In fact, ticketing is a bad-news business.

Ticketing: Service [sic] Providers

The first major problem of ticketing is that it is essentially a service provision, whether D-2-C, B-2-B, or B-2-C, and not a viewed as a creative enterprise.

It doesn’t make anything.

At best it enables or distributes access to the consumption of experiences, on behalf of the event Rights Owner.

Further, as a non-creator in the experiential economy its operational practises, technologies and systems don’t retain any intrinsic value, other than to collectors of ticket stubs (and the digitisation of ticketing has all but terminated that bedroom noticeboard signifier of cultural activity).

The ticketing industry is fundamentally service-orientated towards the needs, desires, restrictive policies, and pricing as determined by its clients – whether artists, attractions, sports franchises, event promoter / producers, venues, or affiliates and sponsors – i.e., inventory suppliers with relative lip-service paid to the end-user, you know the consumer, attendee, patron, subscriber, or ticket-holder – apparently flattered by the widescale adoption of the pronoun ‘fan’.

Somehow, this fetishising of the individual who purchases tickets weeks, months, or years in advance of events, with little or no right to refund, resale and/or exchange, elevates the consumer to a new more desirable social strata and seemingly places the ticketing transaction above the drab or commonplace necessities of life e.g., rent, transit subscription, or food etc.

In short, the ticketing ‘fan’ socially identifies someone with fewer rights when compared to other forms of consumer commerce, whilst seemingly applauding their purchase and celebrating their buy-in to the diversionary spectacle of ‘bread and circuses’.

Ticketing: Terms & Conditions

All too often, ticket inventory suppliers don’t understand, or care, about the technical complexity, and/or the actual operational conflict or irrationality, of their service demands. They, the client, simply want execution.

After all, how difficult can ticketing be?

‘Whadda want a bleedin’ medal? It’s not like it’s heart surgery’.

And it’s the ticketing service’s role to provide.

So, if any client wants at little-to-no notice another ‘exclusive’ closed-user-group pre-sale; or ticket bundle with (chart-eligible) digital tokens; or an up-sale of fan club / supporter membership validated by loyalty credit check & identity verification; or a limited-edition ticket + merchandise offering to previous bookers; not forgetting VIP, Hospitality, Car-Parking, Tail-Gate Parties, or ‘Golden-Circle’ festival glamping, across multiple locations, dates, and time-zones, then it’s the role of the ticketing service provider(s) to deliver.

Reliably, repeatedly, robustly. And securely. All KPI service requirements with measurable and public outcomes.

And the ability to sell tickets with a queuing mechanism that ensures each-and-every, interested party instantaneously acquires the best ticket available at the maximum possible yield to client, whilst conversely the lowest possible price to customers, regardless of the limitations or practicalities of individual event capacity.

And get any/all of this wrong – bad news warning! – and mainstream media outrage with blame-assigning Senate Hearing awaits.

Additionally, ticketing service providers and agencies, whether D-2-C, B-2-B or B-2-C, typically don’t own the product, or determine the primary face-value(s), or usually retain any proportion of that ticket price.

So, the cost of the ticketing services and technologies, alongside any incremental retail, marketing and distribution expense is added to the transaction, along with the inventory-supplier rebates, commissions, and kickbacks – hence the not consumer-friendly service fee superstructure.

Additionally, with the merging of primary and secondary ticketing practises, the arbitrage margin (i.e., above original notional face value) for those tickets resold via marketplaces is another cause of consumer alarm, distaste, or disgust.

Ticketing huh, yeah
What is it good for
Absolutely nothing

(with apologies to Edwin Starr for the misappropriation)

Ticketing: Huh ….

This opaqueness of fiscal incentives and the invisibility of ticket back-end services provided means that there is little understanding of the complexity, range and scale of ticketing and frankly despite the veneer of being a technology-based sector, much of ticketing remains ‘manual’: event creation; account management; the coordination of mobile / web / outlet / kiosk sales (with associated multi-channel load-bearing, redundancy & burstable bandwidths); box office operations; event-entry ticket scanning, ongoing fiscal reconciliation, fraud and chargeback management; CRM and event marketing, payment processing etc.

So ticketing is viewed by clients as a service utility, with an associated rebate incentive to use i.e., a source of revenue incremental to the product – the ticket.

And from the consumer perspective, the ticketing service is typically viewed as a surcharge to the ticket – the product.

Collectively clients resent the (net) margin retained by the increasingly commodified ticketing services (eventually the pennies earned per ticketing process become significant given enough volume) and so the Rights Owners have vertically extended their control over ticketing by consolidating their (typically less successful) event promotions and operational divisions by acquiring their own ticketing arm.

Within these international congloms, ticketing is therefore a smaller proportion of the overall revenues but disproportionately drives their profitability. But politically within these corporations whilst ticketing is often a fiscal strength it’s rarely allowed to direct the overall enterprise.

Ticketing, seemingly always the submissive to their dom.

Whereas for consumers ticketing is more usually identified as just plain evil.

Ticketing: Drip-Pricing

Ticketing’s greatest achievement (?) is the codification of drip-pricing – try and buy any ticket without attendant fees.

With perhaps the greatest ever consumer misnomer ‘the convenience fee’ – convenient to whom?

Closely followed by ‘the transactional fee’ whereby consumers seemingly pay an additional amount to print off the PDF of the ticket, or to have the digital token held on their mobile or have hard-copies sent by postal or courier service with some incremental mark-up.

Similarly, money-grabbing is the live entertainment practise of charging consumers an additional amount to visit the place where the spectacle is occurring, with the ‘the venue facility fee’ or ‘the venue restoration fee’. Apparently, it’s not enough that the consumer will likely make incremental F&B, Merchandise or Parking purchases whilst attending the event, increasingly they are expected to also contribute to the upkeep of ‘bricks & mortar’, whether historic and/or requiring some level of refurbishment and repair, or not.

When Fred Rosen accelerated the externalisation of ticketing from individual box offices to a centralised bureau solution, the economic model incentivised inventory supply (with key determinants being ticket volumes and face values) and chief executives were deeply impressed by the ability to turn-off various internal costs (box office personnel, contact centre operations, event marketing services, system licencing & website maintenance etc.) and for clients ticketing operations then became profit-centres with the adoption of service fees.

This externalisation process – from individual operator to aggregated agency – took place during a period of change in the dominant sales distribution channels: walk-up > advance purchase via box office sales > telesales via contact centres > web browser-based > social > mobile > digitisation.

The evolving mid-to-long term technology demands, skillset and expertise required to administer and operate within ticketing was seen, as least for a period of time, as roadblocks to continued independence, and the immediate economic and budgetary benefits of signing with agencies was apparent to many.

And once institutions had ‘sucked-on-the-teat’ of recoupable/non-recoupable rebates, and commissions then competition was reduced to competing ticketing agencies, typically differentiated by the level of fiscal incentives – or the perception that signing with one platform might means fewer events from an allied promoting organisation being available to your facility.

Initially the adoption of service fees was decried as North American brash capitalism but is now universally adopted, even by those performing arts institutions who still maintain their own ‘independent’ ticketing operations – albeit with pricing just below the market rates so they can still slut-shame the grubby commercial sector.

Ticketing: ‘A bad bad thing’

Baby did a bad bad thing
Baby did a bad bad thing
Baby did a bad bad thing
Feel like crying
I feel like crying

Chris Isaak – ‘Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing’

Despite the various issues of ticketing, overwhelmingly the vast, vast majority of times, consumers do gain access to the life-affirming, enriching spectacle of heightened emotion, tears (of joy), laughter, thrills and yes more tears of the live entertainment experience.

But when it goes wrong, then ticketing is just the worst. A bad, bad thing.

As illustrated by the TV footage of Mother & Daughter outside the arena in tears because events have seemingly sold out in seconds for their favourite androgynous K-Pop phenomena.

Or the inarticulate barrage of social media proving an outlet to disbelievers that event tickets are finite or accepting that live entertainment is an industrial commercial practice utilising yield-management and not just a participatory pastime.

Or the tattooed & head-shaven football supporter not-so-quietly remonstrating with hapless box office staff over the invalidity of their fake tickets.

Or silver-haired theatregoers befuddled by the opaque ticket pricing and distribution channels who are disappointed at their view from behind a pillar for the latest jukebox musical, but usually too polite to complain.

Or media interviews with populist free-market politicians lobbying against ‘crown jewel’ events being oversubscribed or out of reach to the common-man, whilst continuing to personally accept grace-and-favour hospitality.

When it goes wrong, ticketing is a big, bad, heartless, grubby, nasty business.

When demand exceeds supply.

Or when pricing and distribution isn’t perceived as equal or inclusive.

Then ticketing becomes a signifier of the inherent greed of the artist, promoter, venue, or all of them in combination. But one of its main service requirements is to plead guilty on behalf of its client-base. Ticketing always takes the rap. 

Ticketing: The grand delusion

So ticketing is invariably disliked by both clients and consumers, but how does it treat its staff and employees?

Well, the short answer to that is, equally badly.

Unless of course you’re a senior executive within one of the major operators, who typically trumpet their importance as co-creators-of-events (‘look-at-me’, ‘look-what-I-did’), as opposed to being members of a team of technicians, service providers, retailers & distributors.

All too often staff within the ticketing industry work long, and oft anti-social hours. Manually working around the inadequacies of whatever internal budgets, tools, or ticketing technologies they are provided with.

Routinely they are young, first-jobbers, often freshly graduated, and keen to work alongside their preferred cultural or sporting interest. Or those returning to the workplace after childbirth or other career-change and are seeking something part-time, and yet still involved in the creative arts or sports community.

Their love of the performance or spectacle allows them to overlook the poor ticketing salary / compensation package and instead revel in their closeness to the artform, with ready access to the events albeit once work duties have been completed.

So the ticketing industry stresses the emotional care it provides.

The ‘love’ that dares not speak its name it selflessly gives to clients. The care and support it provides to customers, and the primary-colour, infantile playrooms/offices, breakfast cereals and dog-rooms for staff. Whilst oft failing to adequately pay a living wage for its junior personnel.

The industry messages that those working in ticketing are helping to drive audience development and engagement for the art form.

That ticketing is the passport to the spectacle and somehow that association imbues the day-to-day operations with some special quality. What some North American peers have referred to, in their uniquely folksy way, as the ‘magic behind the button’. (See various Op-Ed over the years from INTIX ACCESS).

All of the leading ticketing industry personalities stress the loving character of its participants. How caring and supportive they are to both client, consumers, and colleagues.

How ticketing is therefore helping to nourish the soul – which is great because it often doesn’t support the body.

Ticketing is an occupation that for junior and mid-management levels routinely pays poorly when compared to other professions, and entry-point is often zero-hours contracts with little or no employment rights.

A proficiency in ticket sales, e-commerce, financial reporting, event management, and customer service, is usually taught ad-hoc in-post, and there is a constant churn-rate of disaffected professionals who drift away because of the lack of career development, and/or compensation.

The cap on personnel compensation is a by-product of the wider diminution of the role and central importance of ticketing.

No-one values ticketing, because ticketing companies don’t own anything, other than market-share contracts against other ticketing companies. The core technologies don’t fundamentally differ from one supplier to another. Thus, no-one values ticketing professionals because they don’t value … blah, blah, blah.

For example, in a recent (2023) advertisement by an international events promoter & ticketing conglom, they were seeking a manager to be ‘the sole point of contact for XXXXX at greenfield, stadium and arena level shows’.

The advert further stated the requirement to ‘prepare events for on-sale through co-ordination regarding price scaling; collation and distribution of event information; Fanclub and agent’s pre-sales, and notification to all box offices; manage of all agent allocations, focusing inventory to agents to maximise sales and revenue and represent Ticketing within the business, advising other departments and promoters on best practice and ensure we are working in the most efficient way’.

In this environment the individual might therefore be responsible for a single one-day event driving approx. 2M of ticketing revenues with an annual salary of 35K, for a post located in a major global city with net-of-tax and therefore before rent, transport, food and any after-work life, of approx. 500 weekly. Cheers!

Is it any wonder that the ‘great resignation’ has impacted the ticketing industry more than others? The drift away of ticketing expertise to communications / journalism, digital commerce, fintech, marketing or other service industries has been notable. The industry wide pandemic-driven redundancies forced many to seek a more lucrative, or stable line of work.

So, how to develop an appropriate compensation methodology for ticketing personnel?

The start surely has to be better understand the central importance of ticketing, and to establish new codes of behaviour and commercial practises between clients and consumers.

Then to support, train and provide pathways for advancement for ticketing personnel. Compensation needs to not just compare favourably with other industries but exceed them.

Ticketing needs to attract the best and the brightest, whom will not be afraid to then re-image the industry and its oft fossilised (‘that’s how it is’) practises.

But will the industry want to start this process?


About the author: Tim Chambers draws on over thirty years of experience within the international ticketing and live entertainment sectors, leading corporate growth initiatives including sales and business development, strategic aggregation and operational consolidation. Comments (and shares) welcomed via the usual channels.