Mount Pleasant native Lauren Courtney was devastated when tickets to Hootie & the Blowfish at Volvo Car Stadium sold out in less than a minute online this year. She's been trying to snag tickets to the annual Homegrown Concert for three years now, with no luck.
"It’s really disappointing not being able to get tickets for Hootie each year," she says. "As much as I want to go, I can’t justify paying close to $200 a ticket."
That speedy sell-out — and the quick push by ticket resell sites offering concert seats at prices much higher than originally advertised — has affected thousands of fans with fingers poised on the mouse. It's hard to compete against online bots — the likely culprits that are snagging them in seconds.
"It's near impossible," Courtney says.
She's talking about ticket scalping, a resounding problem that pre-dates the internet age but has been made especially troublesome by modern technology.
It's when third-parties buy up a large number of venue tickets and then resell them for double, triple, sometimes 10 times face value, driven by the law of supply and demand. Many of those secondary sources illegally use online bots to assist them in snatching up tickets before individual patrons can, and several buy ads on Google so their sites appear before official venue websites.
Charleston venues and eventgoers aren't safe from this practice, despite a South Carolina law that prohibits anyone from reselling a ticket for more than $1 above face value.
Charleston Music Hall Director Charles Carmody says that law doesn't apply to out-of-state scalping websites. He's called federal and state legislators and even the ticket scalping websites themselves to lodge protests against a problem that consistently affects his patrons to no avail.
"When I went to state legislature, they told us to call the cops," he says, amused. "Yeah, I’m going to call the internet cops to go arrest someone in Florida who’s buying my tickets. We want to be doing creative programming and doing good things in the community, not fighting with some ticketing website over the phone."
Though a 2016 federal law made ticket scalping bots illegal, the Federal Trade Commission says regulating those sites has been challenging.
In 2017, Ticketmaster, the country’s largest ticketing company, blocked 5 billion bot attempts. But just this year, Ticketmaster was exposed by a CBC News and Toronto Star undercover investigation as assisting scalpers with buying and reselling tickets via a secret program.
Ticketmaster is the platform used by the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center, the area's largest stadium with 13,295 seats in the Coliseum and 2,300 seats in the Performing Arts Center.
Other ticket retailers, like VividSeats and StubHub, which often buy up huge numbers of tickets and resell them at higher prices, are not authorized by the venue.
That means you shouldn't be going to those sites, or any others, to get tickets for North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center shows, officials say. The safest way to avoid scams and protect the venue's business interests is to buy direct.
"We’ve seen different types of scalping issues over the years, including guests with counterfeit tickets, bait and switch (scalpers promising tickets in one seating location but providing tickets for a less desirable section) and, of course, paying much more than necessary for tickets," says Alan Coker, spokesman for the North Charleston Coliseum. "I’ve seen online scalpers trying to sell tickets for sections and rows that don’t exist in our buildings."
Scalpers reselling tickets at a higher price is a troublesome concern also for loyal showgoers trying to see their favorite performers at local venues. Kenzie Mackenzie ran into that issue when trying to get tickets for the Oct. 27 Shovels & Rope concert at The Royal American.
The downtown music venue usually only allows entry to shows by paying cash at the door, a requirement meant to avoid issues like scalping and service fees. But for larger parking lot events, online tickets often are part of the equation — and that can mean complications.
While tickets were $30 at face value, some people were reselling them for up to $100. Mackenzie was offered that price and declined, outraged.
"I've also sold tickets quite a bit," Mackenzie adds. "I usually buy too early and sometimes can't go, especially to out-of-town shows."
She always sells those tickets to shows she won't be able to attend at face value though, and makes sure she sends the ticket QR code or a direct link so that the buyer can get into the venue without any issues.
No federal or South Carolina state laws prohibit reselling tickets at face value. The practice becomes illegal when profits accrue that are not going to the host venues or performing artists.
"The real issue is all of these shows that we’re losing money on because we haven’t sold enough tickets but people are still buying scalped tickets because they don’t know," Carmody says. "Instead of getting tickets from a primary ticket seller, not only is that patron paying triple, sometimes 10 times the ticket value, but the artist sees none of that."
Yet, according to one economics expert, University of Michigan professor Mark J. Perry, artists are partially to blame for scalping.
By under-pricing their tickets, they provide an opportunity for scalpers to come in and jack up the prices. If the fans will buy tickets at higher prices, Perry asks, why aren't artists charging more in the first place?
When on Nov. 4 the Charleston Music Hall hosted "Guys & Gillian Welch," a local tribute show, tickets were scalped.
"I think the scalpers thought Gillian Welch was actually playing," Carmody says. In turn, so did several of the scammed patrons, who paid upwards of $100 for tickets, while the Music Hall still had official $15 tickets for sale on their website. Both the venue and patrons suffered.
"It's just mayhem," Carmody adds.
One solution that some local venues have turned to is creating and managing their own ticketing systems. Though it can be expensive and time-consuming, those ticketing systems cut out scalping completely. The Gaillard Center and Charleston Stage are among those that have taken this approach. Spoleto Festival USA also has its own system.
Though avoiding scalpers might be a benefit of proprietary ticketing systems, Charleston Stage founder and producing artistic director Julian Wiles says that the main reason the theater uses its own system is to better track and manage sales. Ticketmaster, Ticketfly and other larger services can't offer arts groups direct access to the data.
Though deterrents seem to be few, Carmody says scalping can be avoided if patrons reach out directly to the venue.
"We want you to call, we want you to come down, we want to have that personal experience with you," says Carmody. "We want you to have a good time at a show and not have to worry about this."