The Record
5:55 pm
Mon June 4, 2012

There's No Such Thing As A Sold Out Concert (Even For Justin Bieber)

Originally published on Tue September 18, 2012 7:44 pm

This weekend, as Billboard has reported, tickets for Justin Bieber's tour of the United States and Canada sold out in an hour. Not just one venue. The whole tour. All of the tickets. Completely.

Except, not completely. In today's ticket market, selling out a show, or a tour, doesn't mean what we expect it means. There are a number of reasons, and they can get complicated. Robots are involved. And superfans. And credit card companies. To help untangle exactly how 48 shows of tickets could vanish in 60 minutes, All Things Considered called Gary Bongiovanni, the editor in chief of Pollstar, a magazine that covers the concert touring industry.

Let's take as an example one venue, Madison Square Garden, which, as Billboard also reported, sold out its run of Bieber tickets in 30 SECONDS. MSG can accommodate 20,000 fans at concerts and Bieber is playing two dates (Nov. 28 and 29), which suggests that more than 1,000 tickets disappeared every second after the starting bell rang. Robert Siegel asked Bongiovanni how this could possibly happen. He says there are a couple of big reasons.

Reason No. 1: It didn't really.

"A lot of those tickets were already sold in the days leading up to that one public onsale," Bongiovanni says. "There was probably an American Express presale. Certainly the Justin Bieber fan club had a presale. And then there are a fair number of tickets that get held back for the record company, media and so on. ... It wouldn't surprise me if more than half of them were already accounted for before the public onsale."

A few years ago, an investigative team in Nashville unearthed the "holds" list for a Taylor Swift show at the Sommet Center (now known as the Bridgestone Arena), a venue that held 13,330 fans. After Swift's fan club, management, agents, record label and opening acts got ticket allotments; after a radio-sponsored presale; and after, yes, American Express card members had access to a presale, only 1,591 tickets were actually available to the public.

Reason No. 2: Scalpers are out there, and they're better at buying the remaining tickets than you are.

"You also have to remember," Bongiovanni says, "that the secondary market, the ticket brokers, are actively trying to get as many of those good seats as they can, and they're professionals. That's how they make their living. There are artists — I don't think Justin Bieber is necessarily one of them — who will divert directly some of their inventory of tickets to the secondary market and make some of that money themselves."

How are these professionals able to get in line in front of everyday fans? They've got banks of computers with programs called "bots" that are set up to maneuver around the safeguards (like CAPTCHA logins) set up by ticket sellers, and they can tie up a huge portion of the available ticket stock within seconds, then cherry pick the best seats available.

This is not to say that the secondary market is a surefire moneymaker. Just because a broker on the secondary market can get his hands on hundreds of tickets doesn't mean it's a good idea.

"It's not a science. It's really a kind of voodoo art in terms of ticket demand," Bongiovanni says.

In this way, as Siegel says, a pop concert can be kind of like an IPO: venues, artists and ticket brokers (both primary and secondary market) place bets on whether the right number of tickets are on sale at the right price. If they bet wrong, they can lose a bunch of money.

"Sometimes, you get a Facebook," Bongiovanni says, referring to the social media company's disappointing stock sales.

That's not likely with Bieber's shows. There are currently more than 2,000 tickets for sale on StubHub for his first Madison Square Garden date, on Nov. 28. The face value of the cheapest ticket is $49.50. Tickets on StubHub start at $122 and top out at $4,500.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

If you leave this program with one math problem in your head today, let it be this: 40,000 tickets sold in 30 seconds. How many of them did real concertgoers buy? Yes, we're talking about Justin Bieber concert tickets - tickets for the pop star's two shows at Madison Square Garden sold out in a half minute on Saturday. Even for a squealing, pre-teen fan base trembling with Bieber fever, 40,000 tickets in 30 seconds seems just incredible. So, how did this happen?

We turn now to Gary Bongiovanni who is editor-in-chief of Pollstar. That's a concert industry publication. Welcome to the program.

GARY BONGIOVANNI: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And tell us how did this happen.

BONGIOVANNI: The truth is that 40,000 tickets didn't sell in that first few seconds. A lot of those tickets were already sold in the days leading up to that one public on-sale. There was probably an American Express presale, certainly the Justin Bieber fan club had a presale. And then there are a fair number of tickets that get held back for record company, media and so on.

SIEGEL: Well, is it a tightly held secret or do we have some sense of the 40,000? Do we think most actually were sold before this magical 30-second window?

BONGIOVANNI: It wouldn't surprise if more than half of them were already accounted for before the public on-sale. You also have to remember that the secondary market, the ticket brokers, are actively trying to get as many of those good seats as they can. And they're professionals. That's how they make their living.

SIEGEL: The secondary market is what we used it impolitely refer to just as ticket scalping. That's what we called it.

BONGIOVANNI: Ticket scalping, ticket brokers - yeah. Call it what you want. It's a little more respectable than it used to be. You now have companies like eBay and StubHub and even Ticketmaster has its own secondary markets. In fact, there are artists - I don't think Justin Bieber's necessarily one of them - who actually defer directly some of their inventory of tickets to the secondary market and make some of that profit themselves.

SIEGEL: Now, those people who are just trying to get a shot at, you know, a dozen tickets, let's say, are they - do they have to be technologically savvy to have a chance of getting in there in that very small window?

BONGIOVANNI: I don't know about technologically savvy. They have to be lucky basically. With the Internet, you can have thousands of transactions occurring all at the same time. And that really makes it very difficult for the average fan to get a seat at all at a really high-demand show.

SIEGEL: When ticket brokers see a huge concert tour opening up and tickets coming online for sale, do they gear up their robotic computers? What do they do?

BONGIOVANNI: I don't know that gear is necessarily the right word to use because they have the computers available to them. The question is how many do they really want to try and resell on the secondary market. It's not a science. It's really kind of a voodoo art in terms of ticket demand.

SIEGEL: A pop concert is like an IPO is what you're describing here.

BONGIOVANNI: Yeah. You know, and sometimes you get a Facebook.

SIEGEL: Has anyone tried to see how big the secondary market is? That is, how many tickets are available for Justin Bieber's Madison Square Garden concerts over the next couple of days?

BONGIOVANNI: The question, I guess, is how many times will they be resold? And the truth is that no show ever really sells out because you can almost always get tickets at the last minute.

SIEGEL: As long as there's a guy mumbling out in front the Garden (unintelligible) a ticket, then the show isn't sold out technically.

BONGIOVANNI: Or on Craigslist or any of the more established broker sites. You can always get tickets. It's just a matter of how much are you willing to pay.

SIEGEL: Gary Bongiovanni, thanks a lot for talking with us.

BONGIOVANNI: You're welcome, Robert. Have a good day.

SIEGEL: Mr. Bongiovanni is the editor-in-chief of Pollstar, a publication which covers the concert industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYFRIEND")

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) I'd like to be everything you want. Hey, girl, let me talk to you. If I was your boyfriend, never let you go, keep you on my arm, girl. You'll never be alone. I can be a gentleman, anything you want. If I was your boyfriend, never let you go...

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.