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Columns > David Steinberg - Some Are Mathematicians

Published: 2011/11/29
by David Steinberg

Scalping Everywhere

The Internet’s power is unpredictable. While most of the biggest influences on the music industry involve taking money out of the system (downloading music for free, inspiring people to stay home and watch streams instead of going out to concerts), one change has made things more expensive. Decentralization has made scalping become a part time job.

For the benefit of younger readers, this is how the ticket buying process used to work. You would get in line at the box office or the outlet a day early. Either the venue would hand out bracelets for a randomizing effect or it would be first come first serve. In those cases there would be a list keeper early on who would set check in times; miss one and you got moved back to the bottom of the line. Tickets by phone existed but they were next to impossible to get. With no Internet, it was a matter of hanging out with people, playing board and card games, listening to music and making friends.

While this wasn’t the most efficient way of getting tickets, it was an equalizer. Scalpers had two techniques to get tickets, either find some sort of backroom deal or hiring people to sit in the same lines as the rest of us. Sure they managed to get some, but it was a tiny fraction. Moreover, buying them was a risk filled endeavor. You had to either buy them off the street (usually from someone who was a lot more street smart than you) or deal with a quasi-legal company that may or may not get you the tickets you wanted. Sure it was easier to sneak in on a fake in the days before bar codes, but the whole thing was so confusing and dangerous that few were willing to risk it. One of the reasons why older fans are so adamant about not scalping is that in this era there really were firm lines drawn. Scalpers were a them, a group of people who didn’t have our interests at heart at all and were more than happy to rip us off.

Now though things are muddled. When fans get together to figure out how to get hard tickets, scalpers are mixed in. Some people buy four tickets to a hard show, use two and put the others on StubHub or buy tickets to sell in order to buy other hard tickets. When more people scalp, there’s a growing acceptance of the behavior, all explained by variants of the sentence, “This is Economics 101: Supply and Demand.” That sounds like an impressive argument but the problem with it is that the study of economics is more than a 3 week course in which people say, “Supply and demand,” and everyone goes home.

A functional economy is so complex that the only way people can really get their heads around the concept is to study simplified models. The problem is that they then confuse the model with reality. Even in a system as watered down as the ticket market, it’s a lot more complex than how people present it. While it’s easy to think that your goal is to maximize the profit of each transaction, that’s short-term thinking. If you’re selling extras for a band that you want to see yourself, you need to remember that this next show will not be the last difficult ticket. You may have this one, but the next time around, you could be the one looking. In the long run reputation does matter. Get known as a scalper and no one is going to help you when you need.

The economy is bleak. If a couple hundred dollars is needed to keep your family from starving or a roof over your head, I don’t think anyone would hold scalping against you. That’s the only case where casual fan scalping really makes sense. Otherwise, the extra money would be spent long before the person who you got in for face would forget that you helped them. Do you have a right to sell your tickets for whatever you want? Sure… well unless if you believe the license restrictions on the back of a ticket are binding. Can anyone stop you from doing so? Probably not. Does it make sense to do it? If you’re a fan who intends to continue to see the band, who hopes to be able to have conversations about them without it always going back to people yelling at you over scalping, I just don’t see how. Cash is fleeting. Reputation lasts.

*****

David Steinberg got his Masters Degree in mathematics from New Mexico State University in 1994. He first discovered the power of live music at the Capital Centre in 1988 and never has been the same. His Phish stats website is at http://www.ihoz.com/PhishStats.html and he’s on the board of directors for The Mockingbird Foundation. He occasionally posts at the Phish.net blog and has a daily update on the Phish Stats Facebook page

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