Taylor Swift is making a big splash on stages this year, and also in state legislatures. That's because ticket sales devolved into online chaos, highlighting the problem of bots buying up tickets faster than humanly possible and putting them up for resale at exorbitant prices. The snafu became the catalyst for 24 states and Puerto Rico to consider 70 bills addressing ticket sales and fees. In this episode we look at how Texas came up with a bipartisan solution.
This is Across the Aisle, a podcast about bipartisanship from the National Conference of State Legislatures. I’m Kelley Griffin
Taylor Swift has been quite the force to be reckoned with this year.
Sound of concert . . . .
No, no, no (concert sound comes to a halt)
I’m not talking about on the stage. I’m talking about in state legislatures.
Swift’s wildly popular “Eras” tour had a wildly unpopular beginning in November last year. Ticketmaster’s system for selling tickets performed so badly that Swift even apologized on Instagram, saying it was “excruciating” to see her fans facing so much difficulty when she had been assured it would go smoothly.
The system kept crashing, and Ticketmaster said that was because it got 14 million hits, when the presale was only supposed to be available to 1.5 million fans. It seemed computer automated bots had invaded. They snatch up tickets faster than humanly possible and sell them way over face value - often thousands of dollars over. This presale was intended to weed bots out, but it didn’t work. The final day of sales - meant for the general public - was cancelled.
Bots aren’t even legal under a federal law passed in 2016, but they are hard to control. In fact, the federal government has enforced the law only once since it was enacted. But this year—call it the “Swift effect.” 24 states and Puerto Rico considered more than 70 bills to address the bots and other ticketing problems.
So far, Texas is the first state to pass bipartisan legislation making it illegal to do mass ticket purchases with bots.
Here’s how it came about.
Karissa Thimesch and her college friends had it all mapped out. They got access to the first day of “pre-sales” by registering as Ticketmaster “verified fans.” That’s what was supposed to keep bots out of it.
Karissa Thimesch - “We left class early to get back to the house, and we had three computers open and when we were in line, and then once, we were probably in the virtual queue for, I don't know, two-ish hours. And then finally when we got in, you can select how many tickets you wanted. So I was looking for four, and I said, anywhere, it didn't really matter where we were trying to sit. And then they'd pop up and I'd click on it and I'd say Add to cart. But then it was, sorry, another fan beat you to it. And that happened probably a hundred times because you refresh and then be like, oh, there's someone you tried to grab it. Oh. So it ended up being a four or five hour ordeal of that.
After all that, by the end of the sale that day, she and her friends had no tickets.
She had one more chance the next day to go through a pre-sale offered to customers of Capital One, which sponsored Swift’s US tour.
Karissa Thimesch - So we went through the same thing and it's just the same thing. Sorry, another fan beat you to it. Sorry, another fan beat you to it because it'd get your hopes up. You'd like, oh, I got 'em. And then it's like, oh, no, I didn't.
Many, many fans were in the same situation as Thimesch and came up empty handed. But Thimesch had one thing the other fans didn’t. A mom who had just been elected for the first time to serve as a Republican member of the Texas State Legislature. Kronda Thimesch remembers when her daughter shared her frustration about failing to get tickets.
Kronda Thimesch - And she said, well, I wish there was something that you could actually do about this. I mean, this is such a travesty. And I said, well, actually, I've just been elected a state rep. There is very likely something that we can do to fix this problem.
It was too late to change things for the disappointed fans, but Thimesch was determined to take aim at the bots to avoid this with future ticket sales. She notes the artists are certainly not happy when fans get gouged; they’ve been calling out the practice for years.
Kronda Thimesch - We were hearing of tickets. We had one in Arlington, which is part of Dallas-Fort Worth area, went for $17,000, very common for tickets to go for $10,000. And so you're talking $250, $300 $500 tickets that were going for well above, and we're not even talking on the floor or suites, I mean nosebleed tickets.
Thimesch says she wanted the state to have enforcement power against the bots—and not just for ticket sales to concerts and sporting events, but also for those popular retail items like tennis shoes or holiday toys. She ended up crafting two bills: one targeting bots for ticket sales—informally called “Save our Swifties”—and one tackling bots that buy up retail products, dubbed the “Grinch” bill.
The bills make it illegal to buy tickets using automation that gets around security or purchase limits. Thimesch is aware this is already illegal under federal law.
Kronda Thimesch - I think being from Texas, we tend to not see the federal government as somebody that really helps us as far as getting things done and enforcing it. We like to do our own thing to make sure it gets done. And so we really wanted to put teeth into it. We want to make sure that it stopped.
Thimesch wanted to gain support of Democrats, too, and she started with a colleague who sat just two seats away from her, Rep. Venton Jones.
He too had heard complaints from constituents about the mess around buying tickets.
Jones - I've not only heard about this story when we were working with this bill during the legislative session, but you just hear stories throughout the years around being able to buy tickets and they're selling out within a matter of minutes or people jumping on websites and getting to the point of getting things in a carton and hitting the button to find out that their ticket is sold out. And a lot of these different issues that really culminated with what we saw with the Taylor Swift concert and how so many fans weren't able to get tickets and then the resale price were just astronomical for these tickets.”
Jones experienced the nerve-wracking ticketing process when he sought tickets for Beyonce’s September concert in Dallas, where bots were at play, too. But the system didn’t crash and he was one of the lucky ones who got tickets.
Thimesch and Jones say it was easy to work together on this one.
Jones - so throughout the legislative session we've been able to talk and really find out what are ways that we can work and find common ground, which I think in this political environment is really so important, especially as everything, a lot of other topics and conversations are sometimes exclusively like partisan. And so one thing that's important to me as a freshman legislator coming into the Texas House was being able to come in and be able to work across the aisle and be able to find the best solutions to be able to help Texans right now. And I think that this is one of those bills
The lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate was Democrat Judith Zafirini. When she posted about the bill on Facebook she wrote, “Fans win, scalpers lose!”
And in a hearing on Thimesch’s bill in the House, it was a Democrat on the committee, Representative Victoria Neave Criado, who broke into Taylor Swift lyrics to express her support.
Hearing tape: Are you ready for it? I am ready for it. (laughter) I hear there is some bad blood, don’t blame me, folks are told they should just shake it off,(laughter) but it’s folk’s wildest dreams to see Taylor Swift. Thimesch: well l don’t think there’s going to be any trouble, trouble trouble here today. “
As Thimesch worked to make the bill a law, her family was still shut out of Taylor Swift’s big tour. Then, three days before the Dallas show, a friend had extra tickets for them. Thimesch remembers calling her daughter-in-law to let her know.
Thimesch - she literally started screaming. So my son picks up the phone thinking something bad had happened. She couldn't talk. And my son's immediately on the phone, okay, what's wrong? What happened? And I'm like, Taylor Swift got Taylor Swift tickets in Dallas///. He's like, oh my gosh, I thought somebody had died.
For all the excitement, enforcing this won’t be easy. The Texas attorney general is authorized to pursue those who break the law, and each offense can incur a $10,000 fine. But It would take a lot sleuthing to track down the people behind the bots. Jas Sajjan of Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster, testified in favor of the bill.
Hearing tape - Jas Sajjan - Primary ticket platforms such as ticketmaster make significant investments to combat bots, but in the ever-evolving world of tech and internet, it is a game of whack-a-mole. This bill will not solve all the problems or prevent every bot attack, but it takes a step forward when we are seeing more bot activity than ever.
With so many other states considering measures to rein in bots along with other reforms to make ticket fees more transparent, Thimesch says she’s happy to share what she’s learned. And now there is a bipartisan approach underway in Washington to do many of the same things. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican, is working with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, to write a bill called “Fans First.” Cornyn has praised state efforts but says since the sales cross state lines, it’s important for the federal government to have a role. While Live Nation and Ticketmaster supported the Texas law, they have pushed back on many reforms, so broader changes may not come easy.
For Thimesch the bill was personal. She says she knows every Taylor Swift lyric since she began hearing them years ago when driving her daughters to school starting in second grade. I asked her if she thinks Taylor Swift has learned about her efforts.
Thimesch - We've certainly tagged her to let her know all the great things we're doing here in Texas to fix that problem.
Thanks for listening to Across the Aisle, I’m Kelley Griffin
If you want to follow what other states are doing around ticketing practices, NCSL is tracking it and you can get details at our website, ncsl.org