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How Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program toys with the passions of fandom

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‘We hear from incredulous fans all the time. It’s opaque for them’

Taylor Swift '1989' World Tour - Sydney Photo by Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images

Being a fan is a matter of life and death. The day of Ticketmaster’s presale for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Reputation tour, one fan wrote on Tumblr, “When I die[,] I want Ticketmaster Verified Fan to lower me into my grave so they can let me down one last time.” It’s a sentiment that was liked or reblogged by more than 1,000 others.

Verified Fan is a major piece of fandom outreach by Ticketmaster, once one of the most maligned corporations in the world, and this isn’t exactly the sentiment it’s meant to engender.

It’s a recent innovation by the ticket-selling giant, and David Marcus, an executive vice president and the head of music for Ticketmaster, explained it to The Verge in a phone call as “a very simple platform.” Fans register with their email address well in advance of a presale and wait to be offered a code that they can use to get into the sale during a special fans-only window. He calls the engine behind the platform a “behavior predictor,” which offers codes only to people on the list who seem likely to use a ticket rather than resell it. Not everyone who registers is verified as a genuine fan; not everyone who’s verified gets a code; a code doesn’t guarantee a ticket. This internet-age approach is oddly similar to methods used for the first arena shows in the 1970s, when fans mailed in their names to express interest in buying tickets and hoped to be selected via lottery — except there’s a little-understood algorithm involved.

As far as what a fan has to do to come across to the system as a fan, Marcus says, “We don’t disclose that. We don’t talk about that.” If they did, he argues, scalpers would adapt. “We’ve already seen a huge amount of attempted abuse, attempts by bots to create Verified Fan registrations.” (In December of last year, he did tell a PopSugar reporter that her choice to register for a code for every date of Harry Styles’ upcoming arena tour had been a bad idea.)

The basic process of verifying fans and offering them codes is always the same, he explains, but artists can opt to add an engagement layer on top of that, which “takes the undifferentiated pool and makes a queue.” The most elaborate (and controversial) example of this so far was Swift’s choice to offer “boosts” that could be procured by buying her album several times (on her website, from Walmart, from Target, from iTunes), buying merchandise, engaging with sponsors on social media, or watching her music videos. The boosts supplement Verified Fan and sort fans into a line, with the most dedicated — measured both in time and money — bumped to the front. This has led, obviously, to some strange new behaviors and discussions bubbling up on fan spaces like Tumblr and Reddit. This is also how Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan has become a new ritual of fandom.

“I’ve spent $400 on merch and on 14 preordered Reputation albums and all I really want is for Taylor to see this!!” one fan wrote five weeks before the presale. “If you guys could please please please tag Tayor and reblog! I can do a giveaway for 13 of the albums too! I really want Taylor to see all that I’ve done!”

Fans, collaborative even when under duress (one fan wrote a furious open letter to Swift that began, “Dear Taylor, you’ve created the Swiftie hunger games”), shared image macros layering tips and opinions about the new system over pictures of Swift’s face. “I hope others can share their experiences with verified sales through Ticketmaster so we can take everything that people have learned and try to apply it the best we can so we can hopefully all be the lucky ones!” one wrote. Many published email correspondence and transcriptions of phone calls with customer service representatives from Ticketmaster, as well as rumors with notes like “I don’t know how true this is but reblog like crazy.” Once satisfied with their own place in line, some fans saw an opportunity to give away boosts in exchange for follows, likes, and reblogs.

Fandom is an activity, one in which demonstrativeness and superstition are the twin pillars of participation. Being a good fan is something that’s done both internally and externally: by achieving tickets to a stadium tour and by helping others to do so, by winning access to an important experience and by having others see that you’ve done so. You’ll use proven tactics and rumored ones.

Asked about this economy of information, Marcus says he doesn’t really spend time on Tumblr. “But if people are going to be fans, great. The world is a better place for that. That’s the behavior we all should be trying to reward as much as possible.”

Every fan I spoke to for this article shared the same two feelings: that Verified Fan was a great idea (in the end, they all managed to get tickets), and that it was deeply confusing and stressful. “I’ve never really known the program to have any type of methodology aside from choosing people based on dumb luck,” says Ally, a Niall Horan fan who borrowed a code from a friend to get tickets to the former One Direction member’s upcoming tour. But, “I think it’s great that they’ve put forth this initiative, and it’s a great first step.”

Ashley Carncross, a 23-year-old Swift fan from Delaware says, “The information we were given about the Verified Fan process was so confusing and vague and we really had no idea what to expect… Even though my call with [Ticketmaster customer service] was seemingly informative, I came to find out, after taking part in the process, that most of the information was wrong.” Yet, she says, “I love the Verified Fan program though. I feel like the tickets actually get into the right hands!” Simi, 21, says she also received confusing information from customer service agents, with some saying that fans’ places in the line would decide when their purchase windows would open and others saying it didn’t really matter. “That kind of conflicting information is bound to cause mass panic and hysteria,” she says. She adds anyway, “Overall, I love the idea of a verified fan system.”

Heather, a 21-year-old Swift fan, says she saw some fans using the presale as an opportunity. They would buy four tickets when they only needed two, then sell the extras at a huge markup to pay off their own admission. “You notice that the fans become the scalpers.”

Still, she appreciates that Swift’s presale included boosts that were free, which was great for people like her, who couldn’t afford to shell out for merch or extra copies of the album. “Of course,” she adds, “watching 50-plus videos every day can get kind of monotonous. Especially when it sometimes wasn’t clear if my video play boosts were going through.”

Image: Swift Secrets / Tumblr

The Verified Fan system has been effective, according to Ticketmaster, as about 95 percent of tickets purchased through it are not resold. For the recent presale for Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway residency, Marcus says, the number was 97 percent. This isn’t a negligible improvement: usually, about 30 to 50 percent of tickets for a popular artist’s concert end up on the resale market, where they’re hiked up to astronomical prices. Scalpers and their bots are public enemy number one, to hear Marcus tell it, and he talks about battling them as a “constant arms race,” one that Ticketmaster hopes to end by addressing “the root causes” of the predatory resale market: “Anonymous people buying tickets on a first-come-first-serve basis, at below market value.”

It’s the anonymity and website-crashing free-for-all that Verified Fan is mostly meant to address, but the issue of “market value” is a thorny one, too. Many of the early reactions to the Swift presale were outrage at pricing for the available seats. Ticketmaster says it has no control over the price point for tickets, nor does Live Nation (though it was just two years ago that Ticketmaster gave away $5 million in ticket vouchers to settle a class action lawsuit over its aggressive service fees). Regardless, it’s clear that someone, at some point in the process, realized that offering tickets to the people who want them the most first was an opportunity to lightly exploit people who are willing to pay as dearly as they can possibly afford for an experience they want very badly, or even feel they need.

The other elephant in the room is Ticketmaster itself, which merged with Live Nation in 2010 to form Live Nation Entertainment, a corporation that now controls the vast majority of both tickets and venues in the United States.

U2’s long-running management-operated fan club (which has a $40-per-year membership fee) offered special presales to several of its tours, with some seats for 2017’s Joshua Tree Tour going for as little as $70. But for the upcoming Experience + Innocence tour, they became the first act to sell all available tickets through Verified Fan. The existing fan club had to register again through Verified Fan, and upset fans tweeted about the overly complicated process as well as “exorbitant ticket prices.” (Many of the tweets set the price point at around $300.)

Though Ticketmaster has spent years battling bots, it also spent a fair amount of time battling fan clubs. The details of one of these battles became public when fan club ticketing platform Songkick sued Ticketmaster, alleging anti-competitive behavior and antitrust violations, as well as stealing information from company computers. Emails from both companies were made public, revealing a heated conflict around Adele’s 2016 world tour, for which she wanted to reserve batches of tickets to sell through her fan club — in venues owned by Live Nation and in venues with exclusive Ticketmaster contracts. In another spat, Ticketmaster tried to compel Alabama Shakes to reimburse it for fees the company “lost” when the band sold some of its tickets directly to fans through its fan club.

Leading up to the lawsuit, emails obtained by Amplify revealed Live Nation and Ticketmaster executives “raising major alarm bells about the loss of market share to upstart fan club ticketing companies,” and worrying about “possible disruption.” Songkick ceased operations in October 2017, and the case was resolved this January in a $110 million settlement that included Ticketmaster acquiring Songkick’s remaining assets — all those that had not been sold off to Warner Music Group in the midst of the lawsuit.

Charitably, Verified Fan is an obvious move and a win-win for Ticketmaster and for fans. Slightly less charitably, it’s savvy branding ripped off from the smaller businesses Ticketmaster has happily watched die out. Scalpers are a good choice for a public enemy, but fan club ticketing operations are a good source of secret inspiration. “Scalpers completely abuse artists and fans, not to accomplish anything but a profit,” Marcus says. “If you want to build a successful retail brand, you can’t stand by and watch that happen. You have to change the way you do business.” By mimicking the way your competitors used to do business.

Marcus laughs when I ask about the volatility of fandom, how having such a personal stake in something can make people lash out when they’re disappointed. He’s familiar. “We hear from incredulous fans all the time,” he says. “It’s opaque for them. We have to treat people as individual fans and do a better job getting to know them.” But many fans haven’t gotten angry at Ticketmaster, he argues. “We also delighted a lot of people. On Twitter, they were delighted and surprised to be able to pick out the tickets they wanted.” Setting up our interview, his publicist accidentally CC-ed me on an email that said, “I think sending her a variety of positive fan tweets to start would be good.” For the record, it’s true that there are many positive tweets about Verified Fan to be found with a simple search.

Verified Fan is not only a successful integration of fan club ticketing practices, it’s a brilliant branding move for Ticketmaster. “We’re in the fans business,” Marcus says. “This is what we do all day. If there are experts, we are those. We don’t enter that space lightly. This is a big deal for us.”

By speaking to fans in their own language (an email I received while waiting to buy Harry Styles tickets read, “There’s no easy way to say this, tomorrow is going to be tough”) and coming up with dozens of reasons for them to interact with the platform for weeks at a time, Ticketmaster is setting itself up as a new fan object, tied inextricably to the artists that these people love, and demanding a similar intensity of attention. In Superfandom, Zoe Fraade-Blanar and Aaron Glazer’s examination of the commercialization of fandom over the last several decades, they argue that this is not really even “branding,” but rather the providing of “context.” Context is more volatile because fans participate in its creation, but it’s also more durable and ultimately more profitable. “In a sense,” they write, “the purpose of fandom is to project a personal meaning into what would otherwise be a soulless commercial commodity.”

At the end of our call, Marcus gets frank. “Live entertainment, music, is emotional, and it’s supposed to be,” he says. “It’s art. It’s supposed to be challenging.”

It’s a statement with two possible meanings: either buying a ticket is in itself art (and I doubt this is what he means), or the way that some art challenges people is not by temporarily muddying their minds and hearts, but, rather, by putting their purchasing skills to the test.