A Quest for Tickets, a Look at the History
Buying tickets for concerts has become easier in the digital age. This is a fact that’s so obvious, yet something we take for granted. You don’t have to get dressed, and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your couch to get tickets to your upcoming shows. But have you ever wondered what buying tickets in the pre-digital age was like? What was the process to get us to the current age of ticket buying? And is digital ticket-buying always as so easy? Let’s dive in.
For those who have been around long enough to see the ticket market grow, you don’t have to wonder what the beginning was like. You lived it! But for many of the younger generations, all they’ve ever known is digital. We hope this helps you learn something new or take you down memory lane.
Let’s go back to the 1970s and '80s before the digital age and business moved to the internet. If you wanted to go to a concert, you had to get up off your couch, drive or walk to your nearest ticket retailer (usually a record store, box office, or department store), and buy a physical ticket. Seems simple enough right? Well, much like buying tickets in the digital age, it isn’t always as simple as it seems.
Sure, if a small or local band played in your city, picking up a ticket at the box office or venue door was typically no problem. But what about for bigger bands, the powerhouses who filled stadiums? How did you guarantee a ticket back then? The short answer is you couldn’t. It was a matter of time, devotion, and tenacity.
Much like today, when bands like The Who or Pink Floyd came to town, one often couldn’t just arrive an hour before the show and grab a ticket. There were a couple of ways to get tickets for big concerts rolling into town.
One popular way was through a sort of mail-order lottery system. You could send money for a ticket and a return envelope to your local ticket retailer and pray to the heavens that you were one of the lucky orders chosen. While it was likely done in the spirit of fairness, the uncertainty of if you’d get the tickets or not was nerve-wracking. Music fans would check their mailbox every day, hoping that they’d get their metaphorical golden ticket.
Another way was to wait in line at the box office in hopes of snagging a ticket before they sell out. At face value, it doesn’t sound so bad. But sometimes, it wasn’t a couple-hour affair. Sometimes, the line lasted for days. Have you ever been to a concert where it’s standing room only, and everyone’s queued up outside hours before the show to ensure they have a good spot? It’s exactly like that, except no one has their hands on a ticket yet. And being in line doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get one. If tickets ran out while you were in line, you were out of luck.
At first, many tickets didn't guarantee specific seats. It was a free-for-all. The music industry soon figured out that was a big mistake at a concert for The Who. When the doors opened, there was a mad dash to get the best seats first. People were trampled and killed. This led to big venues making tickets guarantee the seat as opposed to festival seating to keep that sort of chaos under control. Yet moving to seated tickets brought on other unexpected issues.
Scott Hudson, a Bruce Springsteen fan, talked about the grueling process of buying tickets for Springsteen’s show in the ‘80s and how despite only being number 1,800 in line out of thousands, the queue took forever. “The line moved at a snail's pace. The clock seemed to move even slower, as ten o'clock opening of the ticket counter turned to noon, then mid-afternoon without offering us any sight of our destination,” (Hudson, source). It was like this for a couple of days until Hudson reached the box office only to see why it was taking so long. There were only 10 clerks and they were letting people choose and re-choose sections until they were satisfied. Hudson’s experience is like many others for the time. People would camp out for days just for the chance to buy a ticket to a concert coming up in a couple of weeks. Depending on where you were in the line, you could find decent seats. But if you ended up in the back end of the line, usually all that was left were crappy nosebleed seats. That was how it worked. Yet people still waited. It was the only way back then so, of course they would!
The Start of Digital
Ticketmaster, the giant corporation that controls much of the ticketing in the industry today, was formed back in the ‘70s and really hit their stride and began marking up ticket prices in the ‘80s. They also began selling tickets over the phone. By the ‘90s, they were reimagining how to sell tickets. Instead of just selling tickets in person or over the phone, why not go a step further? Why not see if we can use this new thing called “the internet” to sell tickets?
At first, tickets were still being sent through the mail or held at the box office if bought online. Then, in 2000, digital ticketing started to truly pick up with Ticketmaster’s announcement of fans being able to buy, download, and print their concert tickets from their own PCs. No more waiting on hold or in line, no more waiting for tickets to arrive in the mail. You could now buy your tickets and print them yourself. With this new development came the hardware and software system that would work with barcodes printed on the tickets. So not only were they making it easier to access tickets, but they were also making it easier to admit fans into concerts. Beyond that, it was much easier to buy tickets. You didn’t have to take a day off work to have a chance to buy tickets to a show anymore. All you needed was internet access and your credit card in hand.
From the print-from-home feature, other new features began to roll out such as picking your own seat instead of being randomly assigned one and adding a word or picture verification to prevent easy access for bots. You could still get physical tickets sent in the mail if you liked the aesthetic, but for the most part, people were printing their tickets from home, eliminating the extra costs to have them mailed. Print-from-home tickets eventually turned into e-tickets, where you no longer needed a physical copy. All you needed was a working smartphone and the ticket’s barcode to be admitted.
Many concerts today have completely moved to digital for the convenience of both the consumer and seller. One can still go to a venue box office and pick up tickets, but it’s not very common anymore. We’ve come a long way from waiting in line just for a ticket to being able to buy a ticket within 30 seconds. However, while a lot is more convenient, there are still flaws to the upgraded system when it comes to big concerts.
With the cross to the digital age, the number of ticket scalpers and resellers quadrupled. No longer needing to wait to buy tickets in person, scalpers could pick up tickets online and hike up the prices depending on demand. It was getting to a point where fans had trouble buying the tickets at face value from public on-sale.
One solution was to bring in presale, so that true fans could buy tickets as an attempt to shake off some scalpers. While it worked for some, scalpers always adapted. Not to mention people flooding the site to try to get tickets first. Presale became even more intricate for bigger shows, providing special presale codes only offered to fans in a mailing list or fan club. Yet then came the problem of overloading the site. To combat that, in the last five years, some ticketing sites have even gone to create online queues to buy tickets. Yet even then, the program isn’t flawless. It still carries inconvenience for fans.
With online purchasing becoming more convenient and live performances becoming more popular with each passing year (minus 2020 because of COVID, of course), more people are logging on to snag tickets for their favorite artists. Presale has become a time when the best tickets are available. For vastly popular artists like Twenty One Pilots and Taylor Swift, if you want to get tickets, it’s not enough to log on as soon as they go on sale. You have to set aside time, get in the virtual line immediately, and pray that you clicked faster than someone across the country so you could be further up in line.
Funny how history repeats itself. We started by waiting in line and now we’ve retreated to lines in the virtual space.
In the early days, the quest for tickets could last days. Now, the quest can last anywhere from a minute to hours. But that doesn’t make it any less of a high-stake situation. Any avid concert-goer knows the adrenaline rush that comes from buying tickets in the present day. If presale begins at 10 AM, you have to be on the site and ready by 9:45. Sometimes, you can join the queue early, but you must make sure all your info is ready because once you start the process, you’re timed. Every second is precious.
If you make it to be an early bird, you must be ready to click as soon as the link is live. From there, it can vary by venue. Sometimes, you can choose seats yourself. Other times, they’re generated for you based on availability. The latter is often the worse of the two. Being given seats can be good or bad. If the seats aren’t as close as you want, you can refresh, but you also run the risk of getting offered worse seats as other people snag the better tickets in the seconds it takes to refresh. You must make impulse decisions and work fast. If you take too long to think about it, sometimes, it’s too late, and all that’s left are crappy seats far away from the stage.
Sometimes, the best seats aren’t even available despite you being early. You may want a floor seat, but the ticketing site won’t give you that option. You may wonder, how are they all already gone? My theory? They aren’t. I think that venues set aside certain seats for investors or club members, but that’s a rabbit hole we won’t dive into. The bottom line is that ticket buying may have become more convenient compared to the 70s and 80s, but it has not gotten much easier when it comes to big artists. With scalpers and resellers always finding a way to get tickets despite implemented systems meant to keep them out, it seems that the quest for tickets still remains a journey with no guarantee of success.
And yet, we still try. Because live entertainment is a staple in our society that not only brings people together but also reminds us that the world still has light even in the darkest moments. We may not have that light at the moment, but it will shine again one day.