The Evolution of Touting: The Rise of The Machines

Pick any match or concert and amidst the loud calling of “Hats and scarves, get your hats and scarves!” and there is always a familiar echo of “Tickets, tickets, anyone need tickets?”.

For decades, the ticket tout — also known as a ‘ticket scalper’ — has frequented live events looking to make money buying and selling tickets at the last minute. However, although these ‘ticket scalpers’ or ‘touts’ would appear to operate under the same business model that has existed for centuries, professional touts have begun to emerge behind the scenes, purchasing tickets on an industrial scale.

In the last few decades, as technology has evolved and opportunities for profit have expanded, there have been huge developments in this phenomenon. But to truly understand the extent of this development, we need to look at how touting has evolved over time.

Touting: The early days
The advent of ticket booking over the phone presented the first opportunity for touting on a large scale. In the late nineties, companies such as Wiseguy had teams of people working the Ticketmaster phone lines. Often doing multiple calls simultaneously, the ‘ticket pullers’ would memorise the optimal route through the phone trees and persuade ticket agents to reserve the best tickets seconds after they went on sale.

As ticket sales began to move online, tickets became more difficult to buy quickly and in bulk due to the inability for individuals to fill in forms fast enough. Touts quickly looked at ways of automating the ticket buying process and this led to the next evolution of touting… the ‘Bots’.

“Bots”
The introduction of high-speed purchasing bots meant that touts were no longer limited by the number of callers at their disposal, nor were they restricted by a human lack of speed. Initial algorithms were not even that complex — they were simply faster, and enabled touts to remove humans from the equation. Suddenly entire payment forms could be filled in automatically and instantly.

Over time the algorithms became more complex, enabling them to simultaneously make thousands of purchase requests from thousands of IP addresses around the world, placing them miles ahead of any human operator.

But surely CAPTCHAs could stop them?
Well, only to begin with. In the early days of online ticket selling, touts realised that companies such as Ticketmaster only posessed a finite number of unique CAPTCHA images to its database. Touts quickly downloaded every possible image and taught their bots how to respond. The result? Being able to simultaneously look at over 200 sets of seats on one screen.

This approach was so efficient that Wiseguy alone managed to purchase over 95% of tickets for the New York, LA and Boston performances of U2’s Vertigo Tour in 2005. The operation was so profitable that touts began to invest and expand, with Wiseguy leasing 30 servers and thousand of IP addresses across America in order to maximise the chance of nabbing the best tickets.

At one stage, bots were so good that ticket brokers who bought tickets from the touts were putting in orders before the event had event gone on sale.

The Reality Check
In 2016, bots attempted to purchase a total of 5 billion tickets from Ticketmaster. To put that in perspective, this equates to nearly 10,000 attempts each minute for an entire year.

Over time, CAPTCHAs have advanced significantly. However, bots continue to thrive. In 2016, Ticketmaster reported that over 60% of tickets for high demand events were purchased by bots, and that even tickets for free events are not safe. Tickets for Pope Francis’ visit to New York in 2015 were harvested by bots and resold for thousands of dollars online.

It seems the pace at which bots innovate continues to exceed that of the ticket companies themselves; in 2014, there was a recorded case of a single tout using a bot, that purchased 1,012 tickets in under a minute. Incidences such as this appear to be common place in today’s society, with scandals such as Hamilton and Ed Sheeran regularly making front page news.

Hamilton

Regulators to the rescue… or not?
Legislators have begun to react with anti-touting legislation in the US and multiple European countries such as Ireland and the UK. However, whether or not this will have a significant impact on the industry remains to be seen.

Anti-touting legislation has been attempted in the past but its effectiveness has been questionable; any effort to ban ‘bots’ does not seem feasible given the ability of the programmers to design the bots in a different way. Additionally, economists and experts warn of the dangers of over-regulating the secondary market, arguing that in many cases this could lead to higher ticket prices in the primary market.

How can you compete?
The truth of the matter is, you can’t compete. Touts are creating bots far quicker and more efficiently than the average fumbling debit card user forgetting their verified by visa password…! In fact, the only way to compete is to remove the competition.

By removing the incentives for a tout to act, only then will they truly be eliminated from the industry. Legislation regarding ticket resale will help,but only to an extent. However, eliminating the margins of ticket touts is one of the few ways to ensure their investments are focused elsewhere.

Enforcing single seller price-capped ticket sale on a completely digital platform means price inflation cannot occur and ticket duplication is a concept of the past.

This archaic industry needs a shake up to disrupt the larger parties capitalising on online touts margins via commissions. Alas, in some cases these ‘legitimate’ incumbents are fuelling the fire, as seen in a Channel Four Dispatches documentary from 2012 which shows the undercover operations of Viagogo and their active participation in touting.

Ticket wars, a new hope?
The unjustness of the situation has caught the eye of entrepreneurs, with a flurry of activity occurring in the ticket sector, and many focusing on anti-touting endeavours. By utilising modern technologies and novel approaches such as digital tickets, startups such as Evopass are creating new and innovative ways of adding extra layers of security to ticket purchases and resale to ensure that tickets can only be resold at face value.

We are also seeing more artist activism, with artists such as Adele, Ed Sheeran, Rag ’n’ Bone Man, Mumford & Sons and many others taking a stance against touting and looking to form relationships with startups to ensure that their tickets are resold in a safe environment.

The next few years represent a crucial period for both legislators and artists; if policies are implemented incorrectly or are poorly thought out, then they risk having little to no impact at all. However, if approached correctly with collaboration from all stakeholders, we could see a fundamental shift in the relationship between touts, artists and fans.