A quick YouTube search for "Justin Bieber tickets" will turn up videos spanning a range of emotions—overjoyed teenagers who scored tickets to a show, crestfallen parents who disappointed their pre-teens, plenty of tantrums, and even a group of nine-year-olds excitedly singing an original song begging the Biebs for tickets to his upcoming "Believe" tour.
But mostly, you'll find anger, and much of it is directed at one group—ticket scalpers.
Holly Wickline of Fredericksburg, Va., knows that better than anyone. She's the president and founder of Moms 4 Bieber, a fan club that's gained nonprofit status and tries to secure tickets for kids whose parents can't afford it. Since Bieber tickets went on sale earlier this month, she's heard from dozens of heartbroken parents who couldn't get tickets for their kids.
"I was so let down by the entire experience and the worst part was having to tell my son … that I failed him again," writes a Canadian parent in E-mails Wickline shared with U.S. News. Another parent said she was "tearing up" when she was unable to get tickets and another says she took up extra work shifts, only to be shut out at the box office.
"You want to make your kids so happy—granted, they don't have to have everything, and they'll be OK if they don't go to the concert," says Wickline, who was able to get tickets in Washington, D.C., for her two "Bieber aged" children. "But you picture that smile on your kid's face and it's hard to not want to put it there for something as little as a concert ticket with their idol."
In those E-mails, parents seemed to blame one group of people more than any other: Ticket brokers, more commonly known as scalpers. But much of that blame might be misguided.The rise of a secondary ticket market, which has moved off the street corner in the hours before the show and onto legitimate sites such as StubHub, has undoubtedly had a huge impact on ticket sales—but often, artists themselves are complicit in the ticket resale process. The economics and distribution of concert tickets is one of the least transparent processes in entertainment, and a litany of factors can make a show sell out in seconds.
"There's such a profound misunderstanding amongst the general public, who go to maybe two shows a year, who don't participate in the process regularly," says Josh Baron, co-author of Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped. "They have no idea what exactly they're facing—they're only seeing part of the iceberg."
One of the concert industry's worst-kept secrets, according to Baron and his coauthor, Dean Budnick, is the fact that many artists sell tickets directly on the secondary market or at least make deals with large scale brokers to sell their tickets at marked up prices.
"There's no question that for decades, artists have been one of the primary contributing suppliers of tickets to the secondary market," Budnick says.
In a plot uncovered by the Wall Street Journal in 2009, Van Halen and Ticketmaster's then-CEO Irving Azoff, spearheaded a deal with brokers to sell 500 of the best seats from as many as 20 concerts directly to brokers. Those brokers kept 30 percent of the profits, the remainder was split between Ticketmaster, the band, and its management, to the tune of $1 million. More recently, leaked documents from Katy Perry's management company show that the artist reserved the right to hold back tickets from each concert to sell directly on StubHub or another ticket reselling avenues.
Attempts by U.S. News to reach Justin Bieber's management team were unsuccessful, and there's no evidence to suggest the artist is holding back tickets to sell on third party sites. Bieber's concerts were going to sell out in minutes regardless of whether he's holding back tickets or not.
It has been nearly two years since Justin Bieber toured the United States. Since then, the teen heartthrob has become perhaps the most popular man in the world.
If Bieber's 23.5 million Twitter followers each wanted to see him play Madison Square Garden, where he'll play two shows in November, he could sell out the 20,000 capacity arena for 1,175 shows—or more than three years straight. His latest album, Believe, finally came out Tuesday after months of anticipation from his fans.
Even Ticketmaster admits that, scalpers or not, Bieber would have likely sold out every show on the tour in a couple minutes.
"If he performed every night of his life, tickets would still sell out. I think people lost sight of how many people really want to go," says Jacqueline Peterson, a Ticketmaster spokesperson.
Then consider that when the clock struck 10 a.m. on Saturday, June 2—the so-called public on-sale for Madison Square Garden—only a fraction of the 20,000 seats were available.
Before that, thousands of tickets had been sold to members of Justin Bieber's fan club and to American Express card holders. Many other artists sell presale tickets to Citi credit card holders. The terms of these deals are also industry secrets and vary widely between artists. Budnick and Baron suggest that for an average concert, about 10 percent of tickets are sold through fanclub presales, but for artists such as Phish and Dave Matthews Band, it can be closer to 50 percent of all sales.
An investigation into Taylor Swift's September 2009 concert at Bridgestone Arena (then known as the Sommet Center) in Nashville, Tenn., found that of the 13,330 seats in the venue, more than 11,720 were already accounted for before the public sale. Exactly 5,000 of those went to American Express cardholders, double the number that went to Taylor Swift's fanclub. Others went to sponsors, producers, and marketers.
"Artists are incentivized to do these credit card deals—I haven't heard a number, but it's clearly being made worth their while," says Baron.
David Kells, who manages booking for Bridgestone Arena, where Bieber will play a (sold out) show in January, says each artist and artist management team, along with the arena, which is often owned by Live Nation-Ticketmaster, decides how many tickets will go on sale to the public.
"It completely varies," says Kells, who wouldn't comment on how many Bieber tickets went on sale to the general public. "Some do no presales at all, some do [American Express] and radio station presales, it's always different percentages. If [the arena] has an interest, we'll raise our hands and say we want to do one for our mailing list."
Kells says the presales "give fans more than one opportunity to get in line. They can sign up for a fan club or be part of the newsletter, so there's multiple opportunities."
Ticketmaster's Peterson admits that, "historically, this company and industry hasn't been that open," and it's trying to shed more light on ticket fees—but not necessarily ticket availabilities.
"In giving that number, that's information scalpers can use to assess demand … it almost provides too much of a blueprint for those scalpers," she says.
Regardless, fans are sick of being shut out from attending concerts for face value. Ticketmaster's new CEO, Nathan Hubbard, has said the company wants to be more transparent with fans, but Baron says that's unlikely to come anytime soon.
"I know [Hubbard] thinks something has to be done, and we're heading in that direction," he says. "But it's transparency versus greed, and greed often ends up winning out."
A move towards transparency won't help the thousands of shut out Bieber fans, many of whom appear to be clueless about individual Bieber presales.
One guy who wasn't clueless? Blake Lawrence, a 27-year-old ticket broker living in Sacramento, Calif., who snagged hundreds of Bieber tickets across his 49 scheduled North American shows.
Far from a sketchy guy standing on a street corner, Lawrence's one-man shop is an incorporated business. He pays taxes and spends up to 60 hours a week working on his company.
A tour as hot as Bieber's is rare—Lawrence says less than 1 percent of concerts that go on sale by Ticketmaster will yield profits.
"I was buying in every presale. That's what a lot of people missed on—I was buying tickets an hour and a half into the fan club presale, in every spot of every arena," he says. "I could have bought 40 lower-level tickets per show."
His take on Bieber? Most of the tickets were gone during presales, and brokers like him are the ones that benefitted.
"I bought in every presale," he says. "During the public onsale, you were lucky to get one or two pairs in the upper level. It seems like 90 percent of the tickets on the market were purchased during the presales."
Bieber announced his tour and put fan club tickets on sale the next day, giving fans little time to learn about the first presale. Lawrence believes Bieber's management did that so that scalpers wouldn't have enough time to prepare, but says management miscalculated.
"It was a surprise. I think a good percentage of brokers didn't know about it in time, but they did a lot better job of keeping the normal fans out of the presale," he says.
Brokers like Lawrence subscribe to websites that will, for a fee, divulge ticket onsale times, presale passwords, and even offer buying recommendations. To bypass strict ticket limits, brokers create multiple Ticketmaster accounts, using credit cards linked to relatives' addresses, post office boxes, or buy prepaid cards that can be registered to any address.
Budnick and Baron says the way Lawrence got his start—by selling for a few popular shows in college—is becoming more common as it becomes easier to buy tickets online. Brokers who buy up hundreds of tickets still exist, but a bigger problem, for the casual fan, is the fact that they're now competing against thousands of casual scalpers. Known in the broker industry as "beer money brokers" or "soccer moms," they're out to make a quick buck on more popular shows.
"Individuals see an opportunity to make quick money on shows like Justin Bieber—maybe they want to go with their best friend, so they'll buy four and then flip two, trying to subsidize their trip," Baron says. "These are moms and dads and college students from around the country, so there's more competition for good seats."
Joellen Ferrer, head of U.S. communications for StubHub, agrees.
"The majority of the sellers on our site are not brokers, the majority are individual fans," she says.
One thing that's overplayed in the scalping world, according to many in the industry, is the use of automated bots that can scoop up hundreds of tickets at a time. That's not to say bots don't exist—in 2010, the operators of Wiseguy Tickets pled guilty to counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and hacking after using bots for seven years to buy more than 1 million concert and sporting event tickets.
Ticketmaster won't say whether they saw an increased level of bot activity during Justin Bieber's onsales, but Peterson says that they "thwart thousands of [bot] requests" during every popular onsale.
Ferrer says the company overplays the bot card.
"A lot of Ticketmaster's argument is that scalpers are using bots to buy tickets," she says. "We get that all the time but I think it's misdirecting people. … If they were really a problem, we'd see way more tickets on our site."
Currently, about a tenth of any given event's tickets end up on StubHub, according to the company.
Ferrer says artist and promoter holdbacks are more to blame. She estimates, given activity on the site, that only about 10 percent of Bieber's Bridgestone Arena's tickets were available during the public sale. She said many people chose to buy tickets on StubHub before they were available to the public "because [fans] realized they didn't have a fair shot during the public sale."
That works out well for the sons and daughters of people with money to spare. While buying tickets from the source can be confusing and frustrating, buying tickets on StubHub is fairly straightforward.
For Bieber's November 28 show at Madison Square Garden, there are about 2,600 available tickets on StubHub. Fans can sit in any section in the arena, in nearly any row. The cheapest tickets start around $135 a piece, barely 30 percent above face value, and fans can get within the first 30 rows for about $700 each (about seven times face value).
Scalpers will make—and pay taxes on—thousands of dollars in profit, and some Bieber fan's day will be made.
"The parents with money will fork over what the scalpers are asking," says Moms 4 Bieber's Wickline. "The rich kids will see Justin and the poor kids won't."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.