Illustration: Eddie Guy
By David Z. Morris
June 4, 2016

On May 30th, early tickets went on sale for what is likely the final tour of Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip. The iconic band’s lead singer, Gord Downie, recently revealed that he has terminal brain cancer.

The CBC reports that those tickets were sold out within minutes on Monday morning. But most did not, it seems, go to eager fans. Instead, they were scooped up en masse by ticket resellers—a.k.a. scalpers—using high-speed automated programs. Within minutes, the tickets were appearing on resale sites like StubHub, for up to nearly twenty times their original price.

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It’s the rawest display yet of the collision of art, technology, and the free market in the world of live-event ticketing. So-called scalper bots have become a constant headache for music fans over the last decade, with the New York Times reporting in 2013 that bots were being used to buy up to 60% of prime tickets.

These scalper bot programs can reportedly now be had for as little as $1,000. They range in nefariousness, from those that simply circumvent per-customer purchase limits to some that reportedly actively block real fans from accessing ticket vendors. Vendors like Ticketmaster have made efforts to stop the programs, only to be met with ever-more-sophisticated workarounds.

For fans, it may seem that resellers are artificially driving up prices, but opinions among economists and lawmakers are more divided. When resellers cross certain lines, they do risk prosecution, as in a 2010 FBI wire fraud and hacking case against a group of resellers known as the Wise Guys. Ontario’s Attorney General has already called for an investigation of the Tragically Hip situation.

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But some free-market champions caution against any more sweeping legislation, describing resellers and their bots as a “blessing”, because they shoulder risk for bands and promoters. And to the degree that fans are willing to pay a markup on the secondary market, they’re demonstrating that bands may actually be undercharging for tickets. That would mean scalpers aren’t so much exploiting technology as leveraging a deeper mismatch between supply and demand—one the music industry hasn’t been willing to tackle by raising prices directly, perhaps for fear of alienating fans.

Some bands have tried to actively undercut these next-generation scalpers by adding extra shows. But so far, the Tragically Hip do not seem to have weighed in on how, if at all, they’ll respond to the situation.

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