At this Saturday’s Bruno Mars concert at the Scotiabank Arena, eight lucky fans will have a close-up view of the show from the second row of section 118 — seats they landed for $546 apiece.
Sixteen seats away, in the same row, will be another Bruno Mars fan who paid only $191 for a nearly identical view of the show — an eight-metre gap that comes with a $350 discount.
A seven-month Toronto Star/CBC analysis of box office sales for the show, part of Mars’s 24K Magic world tour, reveals the hidden tricks of the ticketing trade that allow manipulation of seat prices, create the appearance of scarcity and maximize revenues.
The effect: fans pay more — or get left out entirely.
The mysterious world of concert ticketing in the 21st century is dominated by Ticketmaster, which has a near-monopoly on major event ticketing and an expanding tool kit of sales techniques that have changed everything you thought you knew about getting in to your favourite show.
Face value isn’t a fixed number — it’s a price that rises and falls with demand. Sold out doesn’t necessarily mean sold out. And the guy sitting beside you may have paid hundreds of dollars less than you did — even though you both bought your tickets from the box office.
Reporters monitored online seat sales for the Bruno Mars concert between February and September and watched the quantity of seats available and their prices change. The data did not capture every ticket sold — especially early in the buying frenzy — but still provides unprecedented detail on ticket sales.
Ticketmaster didn’t disclose how many seats were put on sale when the box office opened at noon on Feb. 16. The investigation, which analyzed the box office seven times in the first hour of sales, found fewer than half of the seats in the arena for sale.
In eight sections, not a single ticket was put on sale. But 90 minutes later, these tickets trickled out in pairs and rows.
These seats are known as “hold-backs” and effectively throttle the supply of tickets in the opening moments when demand is highest.
It’s the digital equivalent of security staff keeping a long line of partygoers outside a nightclub to create the illusion of popularity and mask the reality that there’s plenty of room inside.
“They do this for most shows. It’s standard practice,” said Ervil DiGiusto, a professional ticket broker who closely monitors the sales on Ticketmaster’s website.
“They have complete rows but they don’t put them up all at once,” he said. “If (a fan) only sees a few pairs for sale, they’re going to jump on them.”
Hold-backs don’t just occur in the opening hours. Months after the box office opened, more blocks of tickets were released for the Bruno Mars show. On June 14 — four months after tickets initially went on sale — 72 premium seats on the floor and in the lower bowl appeared on the Ticketmaster site. On Aug. 7, another 144 tickets were released.
Had those tickets been released earlier, fans who purchased more expensive seats might have opted for cheaper tickets.
“They’re artificially driving the price up. They’re artificially giving the impression of high demand,” said class action lawyer Tony Merchant, who launched a lawsuit against Ticketmaster in January after Canada’s Competition Bureau accused the company of price-gouging.
He said Ticketmaster is making it impossible for consumers to make informed choices about their ticket purchases.
“I think government ought to be looking into it.”
Ticketmaster refused multiple requests for an interview to respond to the investigation’s findings. Instead, spokesperson Catherine Martin provided an emailed statement.
“Ticketmaster is a technology platform that helps artists and teams connect with their fans. We do not own the tickets sold on our platform nor do we have any control over ticket pricing,” she wrote. “We also do not determine when tickets are available for purchase or how they are allocated — those decisions are communicated to us by our client, the venue, after consultation with the event presenter.”
Bruno Mars did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Scotiabank Arena, referred comment to the concert’s promoters. The 24K Magic tour is promoted by Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster.
Ticket prices for Mars’s show were a moving target. The investigation found 152 seats had a face price that changed without notice, some by hundreds of dollars.
For example, six seats in section 118 went on sale for $799 each. Ninety minutes later, their price jumped to $895. They were bought, and one was posted for resale at $1,400.
Changing the face price of a ticket is a technique the ticket industry calls “dynamic pricing.” It’s been compared to the variable prices of a plane ticket or hotel room. Unlike airlines and hotels, however, there’s a very limited number of Bruno Mars concerts, so a customer can’t simply opt for a cheaper show.
A pop-up window on Ticketmaster.com informs buyers that “Platinum Tickets are tickets that are dynamically priced up and down based on demand.” But the investigation found the face price changed on far more standard tickets (120) than on platinum seats (32).
While it can drive prices up, dynamic pricing can also result in cheaper tickets.
In section 109, for example, four tickets were initially priced at $750. The price jumped to $895 a little more than an hour later. Two were bought the next day, but the other pair sat unsold for four months. In June, Ticketmaster cut their price to $595 and the pair finally sold.
“When a show is really popular, (dynamic pricing) works,” said ticket broker DiGiusto. “But when it doesn’t sell out, the prices come back down again.”
Ticketmaster has another way to increase its take from every concert — the resale market. The Star/CBC analysis found that fees on resale tickets stood to nearly double Ticketmaster’s revenues for the show.
In recent years, Ticketmaster has moved into the lucrative scalping market, allowing people to re-post tickets for sale through its website. These “verified resale” tickets appear as pink dots alongside the blue dots marking box office tickets on Ticketmaster’s map of the arena. Ticketmaster collects a second fee on every pink seat sold.
For example, Ticketmaster collected a $25.75 fee on a $209.50 ticket sold through the box office. When the buyer posted the ticket for resale at $400, the company stood to collect an another $76 fee on the same ticket.
Total box office fees for the 17,308 seats in the Scotiabank Arena would amount to $350,000. If all 4,500 verified resale tickets posted for the show sold, Ticketmaster would gain an additional $308,000 in fees, the investigation found.
Ticketmaster would not disclose what proportion of its fees — primary and secondary — it passes along to the artist and venue.
This practice of “double dipping” on commissions “is just plain wrong,” said Richard Powers, an associate professor and sports marketing specialist at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Business.
“They know that the vast majority of these tickets will end up for resale on the secondary market, where they will likely collect a second commission. That is misleading and unethical,” Powers said. “In a monopolistic environment, fans have little choice.”
As enticement to prospective ticket buyers, Ticketmaster promoted seats for the Bruno Mars show priced as low as $56.
The investigation found only 20 seats available at that price. While the analysis likely missed some of those cheap seats, it’s safe to say they still made up less than 1 per cent of the tickets to the show.
Even with decades of experience, DiGiusto says it has become much more difficult for anyone to procure good seats for shows.
“They have all the power to do whatever they want — hold back, change the price, do anything. Regular people have no chance.”
Data collection and analysis by the CBC’s William Wolfe-Wylie and Valérie Ouellet
With files from the CBC’s Rachel Houlihan and Dave Seglins