Chris Howard had a plan. The 24-year-old knew that scoring tickets to the Gorillaz show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre would be difficult, so he planned accordingly. On April 20, the day of the pre-sale, he obtained approval from his supervisor at a plastics manufacturing plant in Denver to take a shift break right before tickets would become available at AXS.com, the online ticketing service used by Red Rocks.
Seeing Gorillaz was no ordinary event for Howard, who calls the experimental collective led by Damon Albarn one of his “favorite bands of all time. Period.” The group doesn’t tour often, and Howard grew up in small towns in Illinois and Wisconsin that were hours away from the types of large venues that Gorillaz typically packs for its over-the-top audio-visual spectacles, which occasionally include hologram performers.
The September 26 concert in Colorado would be Howard’s first opportunity to see the group, and he was excited that Gorillaz was performing at the iconic Red Rocks. What better place to experience a band he’d been obsessed with since he was a teenager, buying Gorillaz music videos on VHS of early classics like “Clint Eastwood”?
Right on schedule, Howard brought up the AXS site on his iPhone and loaded in a pre-sale code, which entered him into a virtual waiting room. He watched nervously as the clock ticked down from fifteen minutes before the pre-sale, which went live a day before general tickets would become available. When it finally came time for those in the waiting room to be randomly selected to buy tickets, Howard’s nervousness gave way to desperation as he prayed with each passing second that he’d be put through to checkout.
Another eight minutes passed before his screen flashed this message: “No tickets available.”
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No! That can’t be right, Howard thought. He tried reloading the web browser on his phone two or three more times, but got the same result.
Dismayed but not totally defeated, Howard elected to try again the next day, April 21, when general admission tickets would become available to the public.
“But it was just the same thing,” he recalls. All of the tickets were sold out within minutes. Adding insult to injury, Howard was reprimanded by his supervisor for taking too long of a shift break.
Incensed, he sent a text message to his girlfriend: “We’re not going to get to go to this.” Then, on a Facebook event page for the concert, he wrote, “Absolute horse shit. I got in line right at 10 a.m. on the dot waited in the damn cue for 15 mins and they were all gone already. I’ve been waiting to see them live since I was a little kid, and was ready right on time for a ticket. Now I have to hunt down two at a bullshit scalped price.... I have never been so upset over not getting a ticket to a show.”
In follow-up comments, Howard espoused a theory as to why he was stiffed: that most of the tickets went to ticket brokers or automated ticket-buying programs known colloquially as “bots.”
Such bruised reactions on social media and claims about rampant scalping by brokers and bots are common whenever high-demand shows at Red Rocks sell out, and this summer has been no exception, with the most prominent example being two sold-out Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers shows that fueled enough outrage to get the attention of both 9NEWS and the Denver Post, the latter of which called Red Rocks a “scalper’s delight.”
Westword also heard from disaffected Red Rocks concert-goers, who asked us to peer into the murky world of scalping. Following a deep dive into the inner workings of Denver Arts & Venues, which operates Red Rocks, and AXS, its online ticketing service, we found that ticketing for Red Rocks shows is far more nuanced than a diametric battle between fans and scalpers.
There’s no doubt that scalping occurs regularly and that automated bots are an ever-present threat. But another reality is that many Red Rocks shows do not sell out, in which case there is less of a scalping problem, because face-value tickets remain available at the box office. In order to find out what happens with high-demand shows like Tom Petty and Gorillaz, we set out to examine every aspect of the ticketing process, from the way that such shows come to fruition to the way that AXS’s waiting rooms work and the number of tickets that might end up in scalpers’ hands.
Below, you’ll find everything you’ve ever wanted to know (and more) about ticketing at Red Rocks — in particular, just how elusive those tickets to marquee concerts really are.
Topping the list of reasons that tickets for Red Rocks can be so hard to get is that, contrary to its expansive feel, the outdoor amphitheater is only considered a “medium-capacity” venue by industry authorities like Pollstar.
The amphitheater, which opened as a performance venue in 1941, seats between 9,000 and 9,100 fans per show. Denver Arts & Venues, the city branch that oversees Red Rocks (which sits on land that has been owned by the City and County of Denver since 1927), says that the concert schedule is now so packed that as many as 1.25 million people see shows each year.
The process of organizing that schedule, which currently includes 135 or more events per year, has changed from years past. The city used to allow promoters who rented the space to choose their own ticketing service to handle their events. That option went away in 2014, when Denver City Council decided to standardize ticketing at Red Rocks by contracting with an exclusive provider. Denver received competitive bids from AXS (owned by Phil Anschutz’s entertainment giant, AEG Live), Ticketmaster (owned by Live Nation) and Altitude Tickets (a Stan Kroenke property).
AXS came out on top. A five-year contract guarantees Denver and AXS at least $4 million in revenue each through the contract’s term. Until that agreement comes up for renewal in 2020, all promoters, including AEG business rival Live Nation, have to use the AXS platform to sell tickets to their shows.
Brian Kitts, marketing director at Denver Arts & Venues, says that having a single ticketing service streamlines the way Red Rocks is rented out for shows.
On a recent morning, Kitts and Brian Brodbeck, who acts as ticketing liaison for Arts & Venues, take me through a mock presentation as though I am a first-time promoter who wants to book a show at Red Rocks.
Right off the bat, Kitts and Brodbeck make it clear that Denver Arts & Venues has no say in ticket prices; that’s all up to the promoter. The only money that ends up in the city’s pockets is a venue rental fee that the promoter pays, which is kept in a special revenue fund separate from Denver’s general budget so that concert-goers, rather than all taxpayers, support operational costs at Red Rocks.
Those one-off rental payments — typically $15,000 — are flat fees that are agreed upon before the event and cover things like fire safety, security and cleaning, depending on production needs.
“For instance, if it’s a show that uses a confetti cannon, you’re going to have to pay more for cleaning,” Kitts says. “It all factors into nickel-and-dime calculations.
“It’s like you’re throwing your own party,” he continues. “And setting the number of pre-sale tickets and stuff like that, that’s not us, that’s all part of your party.... It’s your show, it’s your economics, and most important, it’s your risk. You’re taking all of the financial risk to book the show, to book the artist, to sign the rental contract for the venue and to pay all those ancillary costs like hiring stagehands. You are taking 100 percent of the risk, so you need to look at how you’re pricing the tickets on a financial-analysis basis.”
And there’s another cost consideration when it comes to popular summer dates: inter-promoter competition.
Just about anyone with a cool fifteen grand can afford to book Red Rocks for a night, but a recent story in Variety revealed that deposits that can amount to many times that number are required to hold certain dates. That’s because promoters like AEG and Live Nation sometimes engage in a complicated date-challenging procedure wherein they force one another to deposit extra money in order to secure a specific date on the calendar. As a result, promoters sometimes book shows as early as five years in advance for peak summer dates, and the larger the deposit a promoter is forced to put up, the greater the financial risk.
Before a promoter sets the price on tickets, a few fees are already built into their face value. One of those costs, which is listed on the front of every Red Rocks ticket, is the FDA (Facilities, Development and Admissions) tax.
Kitts explains that the FDA tax is 10 percent of the ticket’s face value and goes toward paying off voter-approved bonds that have been issued for things like investments in the Denver Performing Arts Complex and repairs at Red Rocks.
Aside from the FDA tax, AXS automatically gets $3 for every ticket sold — a number that was agreed upon in AXS’s contract with Denver City Council in 2014. Those who use a credit card during purchase may also be charged between two and three dollars at checkout. So for a ticket that costs $50, $5 of it will go toward the FDA tax, and $3 plus a credit-card fee will go to AXS.
“It’s one of those misconceptions that the venue or AXS is monkeying around with those individual fees,” Kitts explains. “Those are locked in. It doesn’t vary day by day or show by show.”
The city council mandated a fee-free option when it signed on with AXS, through which fans can still buy tickets at the Denver Coliseum on Saturdays or at the Red Rocks box office without having to fork over a $3 fee per ticket to AXS. Unfortunately, says Kitts, for high-demand shows that sell out quickly, there’s no advantage to buying the tickets in person: Once the tickets sell out online, they’re sold out at the box office, too.
After fees, the rest of the revenue from each ticket goes directly to promoters, who are trying to maintain a profit while recouping their out-of-pocket expenses, like booking the performer and renting the venue.
Kitts says that promoters generally set ticket prices between $35 and $50 — a price range that has stayed consistent during the past few years and appears to be palatable to fans. The promoter can also designate different ticket prices and number of seats within various sections of the venue, such as general admission, reserved seating and, in some cases, VIP areas.
“So next you want to play around with scaling,” Brodbeck explains during our mock presentation. On a projector, he pulls up an Excel spreadsheet where he can change the numbers and prices of seats in each section, like general admission and reserved seating. With each adjustment, the spreadsheet automatically calculates new figures for potential revenue.
“After that, you have ticket holds,” he continues.
By ticket holds, he means tickets that are removed from the ticket roster, which include those sold directly through artist fan clubs (usually limited to 10 percent of all tickets), as well as seats reserved for the performers and any of their production needs, like lights or video cameras, and media.
After excluding those ticket holds, the rest, including pre-sale tickets, are sold through AXS, which, as a middleman, handles the money and reimburses the promoter. “This really standardizes things and allows for a clean transfer of funds,” Kitts says. “Ten years ago, it would not be unusual for a promoter to come into town the night of a show with a big suitcase full of cash. It could get messy.”
Finally, the promoter gets to choose when to sell the tickets. Kitts and Brodbeck say that for big shows, it’s typical to see pre-sales on Wednesdays or Thursdays, followed by the general on-sale beginning on Fridays or Saturdays.
Just how many tickets are sold during a pre-sale, which usually requires purchasers to enter a code that they’ve gotten through avenues like an artist’s social-media pages or record stores, depends on the promoter. But a pre-sale can represent a significant number of seats. Originally designed to favor ardent fans who’d done their homework and obtained a code, as well as to provide promoters and venues with preliminary data about the demand for tickets, pre-sales can sometimes account for more than half of the seating at Red Rocks.
Of course, scalpers can, and do, obtain pre-sale codes, too. And by the time a pre-sale is over, fans trying to buy tickets during the general sale may find themselves competing for only a small fraction of the total seats.
In the case of the Gorillaz show, promoter AEG told the Denver Post that fewer than 50 percent of the seats were sold as pre-sale tickets. (AEG referred Westword to AXS for this story.)
After Howard’s failed attempts to buy Gorillaz tickets, he began asking friends whether they’d had any success. Their answers only infuriated him more.
“I don’t know anyone who got tickets out of the ten to fifteen friends and a co-worker who tried, including the ones who used multiple devices,” Howard says.
The possibility of using multiple devices — like computers, smartphones or tablets — to enter the waiting rooms on the AXS website before a pre-sale or general sale was news to Howard. There are even web-browser extensions, such as Insomniac, that allow people to have multiple sessions going on the same computer at the same time. And while he felt a little embarrassed about not knowing about such things, he stuck by his theory that bots and scalpers got most of the tickets, since using those techniques hadn’t made any difference for his friends.
Dean DeWulf, senior vice president of music at AXS, says that using multiple devices for AXS’s virtual waiting rooms is allowed and fairly common, though AXS also employs technology that limits the number of tickets sold to a single household or address (which artists sometimes request).
AXS has rapidly expanded since it debuted in 2011, now selling up to 20 million tickets a year from offices in four countries. “We do thousands of on-sales in a given week,” says DeWulf. “And in Denver alone, we may do 100 on-sales in a week.”
DeWulf says that the first thing to know is that for shows like Gorillaz or Tom Petty, demand for tickets far outstrips supply. Because of the unique beauty and character of Red Rocks, people often travel to Denver specifically to see shows there.
According to Denver Arts & Venues, there were 22,000 people in the waiting room for the first Tom Petty on-sale. DeWulf says that it would not be out of the question to see 30,000 sessions (some of those representing people using multiple devices) open in a waiting room before a Red Rocks sale.
Citing a hypothetical scenario in which 9,000 seats become available during a single on-sale and there are 30,000 active sessions in a waiting room, DeWulf presents some sobering math. “Say it’s an average of three tickets per person per order. That basically means that 3,000 people of the 30,000 are going to get tickets,” he explains. “So the larger story is that 27,000 of the 30,000 aren’t going to get tickets and are going to be disappointed. That’s just supply and demand.”
Some artists like Tom Petty do add second or third dates at Red Rocks when tickets sell out immediately, says DeWulf. “But there’s also a common misconception that artists should do thirty dates in a row. Well, they’re busy people!” he continues. “Beyoncé is a busy woman, and then you think about their voice and tour logistics and all the other cities they’re trying to get to in the world....”
DeWulf says AXS’s virtual waiting rooms offer fans a fair shot at getting tickets. The concept behind the waiting rooms is hardly new, and actually has roots in the way that some record stores in the pre-Internet era sold concert tickets when they discovered that too many fans were waiting or camping outside the store for days before tickets to big shows went on sale. In that case, they would give everyone who showed up a number, and then they would hold a drawing to randomly select the lucky fans who would get to buy tickets.
“The [AXS] waiting room is sort of a digitized version of that. It’s a similar concept in that it’s designed to level the playing field for the on-sale,” says DeWulf.
AXS’s waiting rooms, which typically open up fifteen to thirty minutes before a sale, give each person (or device) that enters a statistically equal chance of being put through to checkout, according to DeWulf.
“And if an on-sale happens at 10 a.m. and you get [in the waiting room] when it opens at 9:30, you don’t have any advantage over the person who gets in there at 9:59,” he says. Random selection is used instead of a queue so that one person with three or four devices open at the same time doesn’t get ahead of all of the other individuals behind them.
“The waiting-room concept is [designed] to bring order and fairness to what could be chaos,” DeWulf explains. Also ensuring against that chaos are a number of AXS employees who watch the on-sales occur in real time.
DeWulf says that there might be up to fifteen pairs of eyeballs observing a rollout, even though only a handful of employees located in Los Angeles or Denver are actually adjusting or doing anything during a Red Rocks sale, as most of the system is automated.
Behind the scenes, AXS operators look at a dashboard on their computers that displays the in-flow rate of customers, the out-flow to checkout, the average wait time, and the number of locked tickets — or “conversions,” as DeWulf puts it —that fans are in the process of buying at checkout.
For higher-demand shows that utilize waiting rooms, the process gets technical, but essentially, AXS tries to find an efficient conversion rate — not letting too many people into checkout at the same time, but not making customers wait too long, either.
“The operator might say, ‘Let’s get more aggressive’ or ‘Let’s pull back,’” says DeWulf. “For instance, there might be people who are on both their desktops and phones, and they are let in on their phone but don’t notice. That’d hurt the [checkout] rate. So we can adjust to let more people into checkout.”
And with shows that are clearly going to sell out, DeWulf says, AXS wants to notify those who don’t luck out with tickets with the bad news as soon as possible. That’s why fans like Howard can wait eight minutes and suddenly receive a message telling them that tickets are no longer available.
This system is different than what’s used at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which rents other Denver Arts & Venues locations like the Buell Theatre. DCPA has recently faced its own concerns from fans over availability of tickets to popular shows like Frozen and Hamilton.
DeWulf says that one of the hardest jobs at AXS is managing customer expectations. “Unfortunately, anytime you tell someone that no tickets are available, the knee-jerk reaction is to think that something’s wrong, and that’s just not true,” he notes. “We wake up every day, and all day are trying to ensure that we sell as many tickets as possible to the fans of the artists. We all want the same thing.”
DeWulf says that it’s the fans who don’t get tickets to shows, rather than the ones who do, who are loudest on Twitter and Facebook. After the Gorillaz on-sale, Howard’s comment calling the on-sale process “horse shit” was just one such message among many, many others. And a common suspicion is that bots — automated programs that search for and buy specific seats — are snagging most of the tickets.
“I knew something was not right when I tried to buy my tickets this morning… that’s soooo ironic that is called The Humanz tour and bots got all the tickets,” wrote one user named Mara on Facebook.
“Did any actual human beings get tickets today?” asked Ashley.
“It’s a common misconception to say that the bots are getting everything,” DeWulf says. “That’s just false. The truth is that we’re winning the arms race, but it requires us to invest heavily to protect fans with technology and keep bots off the inventory.
“These guys aren’t your locals selling tickets out of a truck,” he continues. “They’re sophisticated companies based all over the world — like in China and Russia — and they have developers on staff, and they’re investing in the arms race to illegally get inventory.”
DeWulf will only say so much about the specific technology AXS has developed to combat bots — he doesn’t want to give away any defense secrets or show AXS’s hand — but he did say that the company prevents bots from even entering a sale or waiting room. Having customers check off CAPTCHAs — a Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart — is only one part of those defenses.
That’s because, once granted access to a sale, a bot can do thousands of searches for specific seats in a second — often holding on to and then releasing multiple seats within seconds until the program finds and purchases the specific tickets it’s been programmed to buy.
“With a venue like Red Rocks, it’s significant,” says DeWulf. “Across a life cycle of an on-sale, there might be hundreds of thousands to millions of searches from bots that we’re not letting in.”
DeWulf admits that AXS can’t block 100 percent of bots. “But I can say that it is the exception when we deal with a bot, and every time we see something, we address our protections.”
So far, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is one of the only prosecutors — at the state or federal level — who has successfully gone after ticket scalpers that use bots: In April 2016, Schneiderman settled a case against six companies including TicketToad.com and Just in Time Tickets and made them stop using bots and pay a collective $4 million in damages.
Kitts of Arts & Venues would like to see the Colorado Attorney General’s Office do the same against bots here. “It’s time to start taking action against those electronic bots, which are illegal at both the state and federal level,” he says.
Much of what people call “scalping” involves customers who legally sell tickets on the secondary market, including on StubHub.com and TicketsNow.com. With shows like Tom Petty, where you would be lucky to be randomly selected in the AXS waiting room and make it to checkout, some customers who plan on attending the show will buy the maximum number of tickets allowed (typically four to eight) and will keep one or two tickets for themselves and sell the rest on StubHub at a markup to cover the costs of attending the show.
“I know people who do that,” says DeWulf, “and it’s not illegal for them to do it.”
Just two hours after the Gorillaz show sold out, Howard looked on StubHub and saw at least 200 tickets listed for sale — none of them for under $200 (the original face value for general admission tickets was $52.75). In mid-July, the number of tickets available on StubHub had grown to 658, ranging in price from $169 to $1,100. Twenty-six of those tickets, all over $450 each, were for wheelchair-accessible seats in row one, which has played a role in a class action lawsuit by disability activists against the City of Denver over the lack of availability of disabled seating at Red Rocks — a suit that Kitts says will be settled soon.
The way that StubHub works is that users with verified tickets can sell them through the platform to other customers at whatever price they want, often listing them for higher prices at first and dropping the price until they find a buyer.
StubHub has a deal with AXS to be its preferred secondhand-market retailer, which guarantees that tickets bought on StubHub are legitimate and allows AXS and Denver to audit how many times Red Rocks tickets are resold. As part of the deal, StubHub pays the City of Denver $250,000 per year.
Ticketmaster, which is owned by Live Nation, has its own agreement with TicketsNow. But because of Denver’s deal with AXS, Live Nation has to use AXS and StubHub even when it puts on shows at Red Rocks.
Whenever lots of tickets are listed on secondary-market sites — which in the past have included speculative listings by brokers who didn’t actually have tickets in hand, a practice that StubHub has claimed to have since clamped down on — it can seem like scalpers have the upper hand.
Kitts says that after the Denver Post called Red Rocks a “scalper’s delight” earlier this summer, Arts & Venues did some calculations based on the assumption that 1.25 million people are seeing shows at Red Rocks each year.
“We looked at how many tickets were available on StubHub — which is the best indicator, because I never trust a ticket that’s on Craigslist — and we found that for sold-out shows, you’re looking at a hundred available tickets on average,” he explains. “If you spread that out over the entire season and assume that half of our shows sell out and half don’t, it ended up being about 7,000 tickets that were on StubHub. That ends up being 0.6 percent of the entire pool of paid tickets that go through Red Rocks.
“That 0.6 percent doesn’t feel like a scalper’s delight,” he concludes.
What’s hard to know, though, is what percentage of those secondary-market tickets are being sold by brokers who, as DeWulf points out, could be located anywhere in the world and might be trying to employ bots.
StubHub did not respond to Westword’s multiple requests for comment.
But we were able to solve one final part of the scalping equation: how scalpers who set up near the entrance of Red Rocks on concert nights operate.
On July 26, the night of a sold-out Little Dragon and Glass Animals concert at Red Rocks, they’re there as usual: a few men under a blue tent pitched on a dirt pull-out along Hog Back Road, just before the north entrances that take cars by the Red Rocks box office and to various parking lots.
Three men under the tent initially refuse to talk to me, but then consent once I agree to withhold their names from the story.
“I do want to give you my card, but I really shouldn’t,” one man says with a grin. “You’d like my moniker; it’s very unique.”
It turns out there are four individuals associated with this particular outfit, and they’ve been running their operation for three years. They’re allowed to set up their tent on the dirt pull-out because they’re technically on private property, owned by some family friends.
“The police also know who we are and what we’re doing,” an older man with a mustache says. “We guarantee our tickets and offer a refund if they don’t work.”
As a contrast, he gestures toward a car parked down Hog Back Road with an open trunk and cardboard sign that says “Tickets.”
“The police will shut that guy down,” he says. “We’re more legit.”
Usually, the man goes on, they’ll set up before a show with about ten tickets that they’ve already bought through AXS, like everyone else, or through a friend who’s a ticket broker. Sometimes they come empty-handed, though.
In any case, it’s all about creating a profit margin, however slim.
As we talk, a blue Subaru pulls up, and one of the younger men in the tent trots over to the passenger window.
He comes back waving six general admission tickets, with a face value of $40 each.
“I just bought six tickets for one hundred dollars,” he explains. “And we’ll resell them for $35 to $40...so for those six tickets, we’re making about $150 or so.”
Oftentimes, the scalpers explain, people will sell extra tickets at cheap rates if they can’t find anyone to use them or they’ve had friends cancel at the last minute.
A City and County of Denver ordinance outlaws the reselling of hard tickets at anything above face value. Asked whether they adhere to the ordinance, the older man starts to say “We try to,” but he’s cut off by a third individual who has otherwise been quiet. “No, nothing over face value,” the other man vehemently states.
As for the number of tickets the men are selling, it largely depends on the demand for the show. “If there’s a sold-out show, we’ll get twenty to thirty cars that pull through,” the older man says. “It could be 100 tickets that day.”
Five minutes after the Subaru transaction, a Jeep approaches the tent.
“Hey, you got two GA tickets?” yells a voice from inside the car.
“Yup, we do!”
The scalpers then sell two of the tickets they bought off the Subaru, making roughly $24 in profit for each ticket.
But even if the men resell 100 tickets in a given night, they represent a dribble in the bucket of the total 9,000 to 9,100 seats at a Red Rocks show.
As for scalpers in the online secondary market, some musicians are fighting back themselves. This year, Chance the Rapper — who performed at Red Rocks — bought back about 2,000 tickets from scalpers and sold them to his fans. Odesza has done the same for its Red Rocks shows the past two years. Then there’s Songkick, a platform through which artists can sometimes directly sell tickets to fans — when that’s allowed by the venue.
Other acts, like Eric Church and Louis C.K., have ordered “over the ticket limit” sweeps that can identify individuals who obtained more than the maximum number of tickets allowed per household. Both performers canceled all over-the-limit purchases; in Church’s case, that meant 25,000 tickets in February 2017.
Other artists, like the Lumineers, and ticket-selling platforms like Ticketmaster are trying out paperless programs where buyers can’t easily resell tickets because they’re forced to provide identifying details at the time of purchase and then must show up on the day of the show to actually obtain and use the tickets.
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When it comes to Red Rocks, here’s the sobering reality: There’s not much that can be done to guarantee fans that they’ll get face-value tickets for high-demand shows. Even taking into consideration AXS’s protections from bots and programs for equal chances for everyone in its virtual waiting rooms, 30,000 fans relying on some math equation to randomly select them for a few thousand pre-sale tickets or general-sale tickets means low probabilities for everyone.
It’s likely that the forces of supply and demand worked against Chris Howard more than anything else when he tried to get Gorillaz tickets. With secondary-market tickets for the show still over $140 at their cheapest, he says he probably won’t get to see the group because he’d have a hard time affording anything over $100 a ticket — still nearly double the face value.
“I guess what I’ve learned is that it’s just the luck of the draw,” Howard says. “Load up as many devices as you can and just hope for the best.”