Whether or not Robert Smith intended it, the Cure’s ticketing on-sale this week became a worthy case study for anyone to learn about all the efforts, and the complications, that come with making the ticketing marketplace a more equitable experience for fans.
Readying its first U.S. tour in seven years, the English goth rockers had established what many live music experts would say were the ideal measures for a fan-centered experience to keep tickets at face value even as demand is higher than supply. The Cure likely left some money on the table when they declined to use dynamic pricing that now often accompanies high-profile arena shows, and they kept tickets non-transferable to make it harder for scalpers to sell tickets at hefty premiums.
Despite those efforts, by the time the sale started on Wednesday, Ticketmaster and its parent company Live Nation were once again facing the vitriol of fans, this time over fees that in some cases amounted to more than the price of the ticket itself, alongside the more common tech issues that hold buyers in line for long periods of time or prevent them from purchasing tickets after selecting them.
But for two days, Smith had been vocal about the band’s intent to ensure fans only bought tickets at face value, calling out everything from scalpers to platinum tickets to the fees themselves, and by Thursday evening, he’d announced a rare move in which customers would get a small refund from Ticketmaster over the fees, stating that the company “agreed the fees were unduly high.”
Here’s how it happened, what it means in theticketing world, and what to watch for next.
March 10: The Cure announces fan-friendly restrictions alongside U.S. Tour
From the start, Smith and The Cure had drawn a clear line in the sand for what they intended for their ticket sales, which was for fans to pay no more than the original face value asking price they set. “We want the tour to be affordable for all fans, and we have a very wide (and we think very fair) range of pricing at every show,” the band said with their announcement that their tickets would be non-transferable.
Along with limiting transferability to try and stop scalpers from heavily marking up tickets on the secondary market, the Cure also placed heavier restrictions on their own sale. Whereas more artists are embracing “dynamic pricing” — a strategy that modifies ticket prices based on demand and can lead to heavy price hikes on seats — The Cure kept that option off, with Smith later calling it a “greedy scam” and noting that artists have a choice on whether or not to participate in it.
“This shows the contours of agency that this particular group has. They had the agency to make some of these asks, and in some ways they made meaningful advances that resulted in some real successes for their fans, says Kevin Erickson, director of the Future of Music Coalition.
As Erickson notes, the policies didn’t completely stop some of the more structural problems like fees or resale (more on that below), but it does give some credence to a common critique among ticketing experts that larger, established artists whose tours have the most demand do exert some level of control over their on-sales.
To some extent, the way Smith and the Cure handled their on-sale this week could establish a new benchmark ticket-buyers can hold up to other artists who have a similar level of pull. The next time an on-sale has $2,000 platinum or scalped tickets, fans could consider what measures the artist actually took against it.
Still, as Erickson says, those looking for change shouldn’t look only to musicians to step up, whether that’s on primary or resale ticketing.
“It shouldn’t be artists’ job to figure out how to solve every problem, and it shouldn’t be fans’ jobs to understand how to reform everything that’s broken in the industry,” he says. “These are jobs for policy makers, and a huge part of the problem is that before now, policy makers haven’t done a nearly good enough job of centering the experiences of artists in these debates.”
March 15: The fee-asco
Early into the on-sale on Wednesday, some customers shared screenshots online revealing that the cheap $20 tickets they’d purchased were met with as much as $27 in ticket fees alone, eclipsing the band’s efforts as customers once again aired the same frustration they’ve had with Ticketmaster for years.
The fees were a combination of both service fees from Ticketmaster and facility charges from the venue. Regarding the latter charge, unless Live Nation owns and operates the venue, they don’t set the fee. In the case of the viral ticket screenshot, Live Nation didn’t own nor operate the venue. Still, fans were understandably frustrated as they questioned how the system could justify fees being worth more than the actual product they bought. No level of effort from an artist could stop that. Smith said the fees had him “sickened.”
“It’s not going to be perfect,” Erickson says. “These are structural and systemic and regulatory problems that put hard boundaries on the degree to which even the most well-intentioned artist can succeed in changing the system.”
Erickson and the Future of Music Coalition have been outspoken, in recent months helping spearhead the BreakupTicketmaster campaign.
Ticketmaster itself has been battered over the past several months since the infamous Taylor Swift ticketing controversy put the company back in the crosshairs, with customers and regulators questioning if Live Nation exerts monopolistic power over live music. Live Nation faces a Department of Justice investigation, and in January took on heavy criticism during a Senate Judiciary hearing on competition in ticketing.
Live Nation has denied the monopoly claims and has grown active in pushing for more legislation it says would empower artists to make their own decisions on how to handle their tickets. Among the policies it’s called for, the company advocated to ban speculative ticketing, where resellers try to hawk tickets they don’t actually own yet, and it encouraged to pass laws protecting non-transferability of tickets and to strengthen previously passed legislation to crack down on bots used to unfairly purchase tickets.
Even Erickson and The Future of Music Coalition has advocated for such calls, noting that advocates for change don’t have to choose between Live Nation or brokers.
“One of the issues is that there are so many problems with ticketing, it’s easy for them to get aggregated into one problem that ticketing just sucks,” Erickson says. “To solve problems, we have to look at the individual problems in their systemic context. From a consumer side it makes sense to get rolled into general frustration, but if we want to craft policy solutions, we have to slow down and look closer.”
The system the Cure is intent on circumventing as best as they can goes beyond Ticketmaster into resale. Such a strategy has its limitations; New York, Colorado and Illinois all have laws in place that prevent the band from limiting transferability for their shows in those states. Everywhere else, tickets can’t be put up for sale outside of Ticketmaster’s face value ticket exchange. Upon announcing the tour, the Cure particularly requested for resale sites not to resell tickets for their shows
But that hasn’t stopped some brokers from looking to sell anyways. As of publication, several larger scale resale sites like VividSeats and Tickpick along with other broker sites have listings at venues across the country beyond the markets where non-transferability isn’t legal. Some of those listings are classified as speculative “zone seats,” meaning the seller doesn’t actually have the tickets yet, while others have instructions in fine print to meet the seller outside of the venue on show day, or note that they will be given a Ticketmaster account with the tickets.
SeatGeek, which had listed resale tickets for the Cure earlier this week, didn’t respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment when asked about the listings, but within a few hours of outreach, the tickets were removed from the site.
VividSeats didn’t respond to request for comment regarding its ticket listings, which remain listed for every city the Cure is playing as of publication.
StubHub, the industry’s largest resale site, has somewhat complied with the Cure’s asks, listing tickets only in New York, Colorado and Illinois where transferability is required. When asked for comment about the listings, the company said it was “disappointed in the use of ticket restrictions,” which they said limits fan choice.
“StubHub will continue to fight for choice and competition and we encourage artists to do the same by keeping ticket transferability open and encouraging tickets to be distributed across multiple marketplaces,” StubHub said in a statement. “We believe this benefits fans by allowing them to use the platforms they trust, makes pricing and quality service more competitive, and because they deserve the right to do whatever they want with the tickets they have purchased.”
The Cure took extraordinary measures to help get reasonably priced tickets to as many fans as they could, and even in an unlikely event where the ticketing business could somehow be perfected overnight, the perpetual issue that will always leave a certain amount of fans disappointed comes down to way more demand for tickets than supply at a venue. Great musicians will always have that problem. There aren’t that many ways around it, Smith acknowledged that and tried anyways, and that’s to be admired.
“The reality is that if there aren’t enough tickets on sale, a number of fans are going to miss out whatever system we use,” Smith tweeted the day before tickets went on sale. “At least this one tries to get tickets into the hands of fans at a fair price.”