Last week, a Slate reader told the Explainer that, despite using multiple telephones and computers, he was unable to buy tickets to an upcoming Radiohead concert—10 minutes after tickets went on sale, the Ticketmaster Web site told him the show had sold out. According to news reports last month, tickets to two Madonna shows at Madison Square Garden sold out in 10 minutes. A promoter also recently claimed that two Bruce Springsteen shows in the United Kingdom sold out in 10 minutes. Can a show really sell out in a few minutes?
Yes, thanks to the Internet. Ticketmaster, the ticket agent for pretty much every big concert in America, sells tickets on its Web site, over the phone (via 19 international call centers), at 6,500 domestic retail outlets, and through arena box offices. According to Ticketmaster, Internet orders now make up 60 percent of sales. Tickets used to be allotted to retail sellers in paper form, ensuring that regional outlets had at least some tickets available. But phone, Internet, and in-person ticket buyers now purchase seats from a single pool. When a fan in Detroit buys a ticket on the Web, that’s one less ticket available to the guy at the retail store in New Jersey. If you’re first in line at the box office, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a seat.
Popular shows sell out quickly because many seats are already spoken for. Pre-sales for fan clubs and venue season-ticket holders take up a chunk. Event sponsors get tickets for their clients, radio stations get tickets for giveaways, and the band and the promoters will hold seats for family and VIPs. Event organizers may cut the number of available seats due to space requirements for equipment and stage placement. According to USA Today, just 10,000 of the 20,000 seats at Madison Square Garden were made available to the general public for Coldplay’s two concerts in September 2004.
Individual ticket buyers must also compete with professional ticket brokers who have the know-how and manpower to snap up tickets quickly. Event organizers set limits on how many tickets a buyer can purchase at once, but brokers and scalpers hire people to call and surf for tickets continually. Auto-dialing telephones and automated computer programs can also flood Ticketmaster with requests, increasing a broker’s chance of getting through to busy phone lines and Web pages.
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