Fans of Taylor Swift (a part-time resident of Watch Hill, R.I.) should prepare themselves for despair. In youthful vernacular, Hundo P will dissolve to Sus and Salty AF. Girls will cry. Fingers will point. Ticketmaster will shrug … And Taylor Swift will need a bigger bank. A databank.
In early November, Swift, America’s biggest and most influential pop sensation, announced a massive new world tour beginning next May (stopping at Foxboro’s Gillette Stadium on July 28). She is employing Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan, a new process to purchase tickets, where Swift and Ticketmaster are committed “to getting tickets in the hands of fans. Not scalpers or bots.” Their collaboration, they say, will help fans — mostly teenage girls — get the best access to tickets “in a really fun way.”
Those efforts will fail. Badly.
On Dec. 5, many Swift fans felt Swiftboated. That date marked the beginning of her Presale (a ticket-buying window usually limited to fan clubs and corporate sponsor clients, but prone to ticket-buying bots masquerading as humans). The date also marks the time when young fans will learn a bitter lesson in economics and literature that no school can teach. A date — an early Pearl Harbor Day for “Tay” fanatics — when dollars, disappointment, and Orwell collide. Even non-fans should take notice.
Ticketmaster, America’s largest primary ticket distributor, conceived Verified Fan last year after Adele’s 2016 world tour.
When tickets first went on sale, in December 2015, 10 million people initially attempted to purchase 750,000 tickets. The market acted supremely efficiently with this vicious demand-supply imbalance: Prices rose dramatically (face value is not necessarily indicative of market value). Conveniently, though, Ticketmaster and ticketless fans blamed high-speed computer programs (called bots) and scalpers for market disruptions (price gouging). So, Ticketmaster created Verified Fan with this noble goal: ensuring more so-called “true fans” secure valid tickets at reasonable prices.
But Verified Fan is troubling on a practical and philosophical level.
Just ask U2 and Bruce Springsteen fans.
Last August, Springsteen on Broadway, a limited engagement, used the new system that, in the words of observer.com, “wasn’t born to run properly.” Fans were subjected to a “confusing” and “complicated” process. To make matters worse, “Verified Fan didn’t stop bots and scalpers from reselling tickets.” In fact, seats were “listed on StubHub for $2,500 before tickets even went on sale to the general public.”
More recently, U2 fans (for whom, or perhaps against whom, Verified Fan is being used for the first time on a full-scale arena tour) expressed loud Irish stage whispers over the new process anticipating the band’s 2018 tour. Malfunctioning codes (read on) and miscommunication, among other problems, greeted Presale and General Sale participants seeking tickets for next year. So bad was the global reaction that U2’s manager felt compelled to respond to numerous fan sites. On Twitter, there is a thread #Verified Scam. It is sure to grow more active.
But Taylor Swift and Ticketmaster take “Taylor Swift Tix Powered by Ticketmaster Verified Fan” to a whole new devious and disingenuous level.
Unlike hyperventilating analog Beatles fans in 1964, hyperactive digital Swift fans in 2017 had to register on her official Web site and further register (linking) on Ticketmaster’s website to become a “verified fan” (and further register with a given concert venue).
It sounds simple enough. However, unlike U2 and Springsteen fans, Swift fans were encouraged to participate in “unique activities” to bolster their verified fan status. For unsuspecting young people, the euphemistic and purposely vague phrase “unique activities” (which sounds like it came straight out of a Cold War-era espionage enterprise) means, in ticket industry parlance, “boosting.”
This disturbing practice was explained on Swift’s Ticketmaster FAQ site. Boost activities “come in all shapes and sizes.” Her fans were implored to “watch the latest music video on the portal, purchase the album, post photos, and engage on social media to boost your opportunity to unlock access to tickets.”
Even before boosting began, there was reasonable skepticism about the entire initiative. Some accused the entertainer of scamming her most dedicated fans. Those sentiments gain credible strength given the preposterous activities fans were instructed to indulge.
There were music boosts, merchandise boosts, UPS boosts (where fans could spot and track — Seriously! — the exclusive Taylor Swift UPS Truck), friends and family boosts, video boosts, and social media boosts. Theoretically, more activity meant more opportunity to move up the virtual electronic line to get tickets. “While boosts are optional, we hope you’ll play along with the Taylor community and to help you unlock the best opportunity to access tickets!”
Ticketmaster isn’t Sesame Street. But it still wanted you to “come on down …” A series of Swift-sanctioned YouTube videos — examples of strategic marketing — targeted her young fan base with animated kitten cartoons. One tells fans Ticketmaster’s new approach is “better” and “fun.” In another, the female announcer says, “you’re the best fans” “doing the best things” “to get the best seats possible.” And, the voice continues with sinister serenity, “it was easy to do, because who doesn’t love boosting their faith?”
Place not your faith in boosts.
Throughout the entire marketing campaign Swift and Ticketmaster strongly implied that all the boosting aerobics would result in true fans actually purchasing face value tickets. They won’t. And many fail to understand this crucial point. Just like popsugar.com. It mistakenly asserted on a Nov. 18 posting, “dedicated fans will be able to purchase tickets in advance through the Ticketmaster …” Potentially millions won’t. Simply registering for Verified Fan guaranteed fans absolutely nothing. Fans only had the opportunity for access. They are guaranteed neither access nor tickets.
This all smacks of false advertising. And pay to play. Or, more precisely, pay to prey.
More dangerous is that while fans are paying Swift for swag, they are also unwittingly paying both Ticketmaster and Swift for the privilege of obtaining lots of their personal information (cell phone, email, credit card, and social media — Twitter and Facebook). They are not only custodians of this information, but they actively monitor and track that sensitive information. And they determine if you are a true fan or even a living human.
Even if this strategy is a “brilliant scheme,” Elana Fishman writes in racked.com, “challenging fans (and their parents) to assert their loyalty by spending the most money possible feels problematic, particularly considering how expensive concert tickets are in the first place.”
For Ticketmaster and Swift, Big Brother and Big Sister, the new thought police of entertainment, big fan data collection is more important than ticket distribution and fan satisfaction. What happens to all this data? Who will have access to this data, after the last song is sung? Will tracking continue indefinitely? The tour begins in Arizona but will likely end in Oceania.
For now, though, Ticketmaster will use “data science technology,” a software program, to determine winners and losers. Boosting activities for the Swift tour closed on Nov. 28, the last day for fans to register as Verified Fans. Afterwards, recode.com explains, “Ticketmaster [will] take time to figure out if [you’re] human, looking for clues like past ticket-buying history and social posts, and lets ticket-buyers know if they’ve made the cut.”
After all this, inquisitive young minds will be asking this question: “When will I know my final spot in line?”
The answer is inadequate: Sometime after the 28th. Certain fans (not all) who are certified as “verified” will receive an email message with further instructions about the Presale. Early on Tuesday, Dec. 5 (the start of the Presale, “T-Day”), verified fans got a text message with a link to search for tickets and a second text message with a unique code to access tickets. Even with access, tickets are not guaranteed. Remember, fans will never be told where their final spot in line lies. If anyone knows, it’s Ticketmaster.
Verified Fan and boosting have never been used in tandem on something as big as Swift’s new stadium tour. Dave Brooks, executive editor of the concert-industry trade magazine Amplify, estimated in August that demand for Swift tickets is at five to 10 times the amount of available seats. And boosting probably created added levels of artificial demand. December 5 promises mountainous chaos.
All entertainers want to capture hearts and minds. Now they want to capture data.
Swift’s cuddly embrace of Verified Fan and Boosting means she has shed her quirky, feel-good, girl-power persona. In its place is a new calculating capitalist and tenacious technologist. A cold character.
Legions of disappointed fans will learn a painful lesson. At school, everyone gets an award. At Taylor Swift Presale, not everyone gets a ticket. Ticketmaster and Swift will eventually learn a lesson, too. Passion is an emotion, not a metric, and devotion can not be measured by bits and bytes. True fans are humans, not data points.
This piece first appeared in The New Boston Post. James P. Freeman, a former banker, is a New England-based writer and a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. His wortk