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Taylor Swift and Verified Fan: A heavenly match for her fans or a crass money grab?

When the news broke that Taylor Swift would perform at Arrowhead Stadium in September, Rebekah Schouten of Kansas City moved swiftly.

“I registered as soon as the tour dates were announced,” she said of the Verified Fan program, which aims to get tickets in the hands of artists’ biggest fans. “I’ve never been to a Taylor Swift concert — it has been on my bucket list for years.”

But the way Swift is using the Verified Fan program ignited some outrage.

In August she announced she was doing Verified Fan her own way: by encouraging fans to spend money on her merchandise as a means to “boost” their chance of getting tickets.

“Taylor Swift fans are furious,” wrote Business Insider, which included tweets from several angry and dubious fans.

“It’s a naked dash for cash,” said music industry commentator and gadfly Bob Lefsetz in his Lefsetz Letter, “an effort to sell albums so she can publicize how successful she is.”

Swift’s camp dismissed the backlash. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, they defended the program as a way to identify and benefit the most loyal of fans: “If these same tickets were offered on the open market, scalpers would snatch them up and fans would be paying thousands of dollars for them.”

Ticketmaster program

Ticketmaster launched Verified Fan in 2016 as a way to get prime concert tickets directly in the hands of fans and keep them away from ticket brokers and the high-speed, automated ‘bot’ programs that scoop up tickets and resell them on the secondary market for double or triple the face value (or more).

Swift isn’t the only superstar artist to employ the program. Ed Sheeran, Pink, Adele and Bruce Springsteen have used it. U2 is doing it and taking it to another level.

Verified Fan works much like a ticket presale: Fans register weeks before tickets go on sale. Using an algorithm that analyzes each registrant’s social media, previous ticket purchases and other information, Ticketmaster verifies the registrant is a real person and that person is a music fan.

If they get “verified,” fans get a text message with a code, which allows them to enter a presale to try to buy from a limited number of tickets before the regular, general public sale.

Swift’s three-day Verified Fan program starts Tuesday, Dec. 5. Verified Fan registration has already closed for the Kansas City show.

Successes and failures

The Verified Fan program has worked just fine for fans who registered for other tours.

Angela Lupton of Kansas City has been buying tickets to Sprint Center concerts for years, often with some dissatisfaction.

“I generally settled for whatever popped up,” she said, “or else I worried about (tickets) being gone and ending up with nothing.”

In October, when tickets went on sale to the March 2018 Pink concert at the Sprint Center, Lupton went through Pink’s Verified Fan platform.

Lupton said her experience was easy and successful. “I sent my seat requests through the system a few times and ended up with seats I am happy about,” she said. “The experience was good — very simple and easy to use.”

Music promoter Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster, has reported that Verified Fan has increased the chances of fans like Lupton getting good tickets by reducing the chances of tickets ending up in the resale market by 90 percent.

In August, Springsteen used the system for his “Springsteen on Broadway” tour, which comprises dozens of shows at a small venue in New York. According to Rolling Stone magazine, citing the website Ticket IQ, only about 3 percent of the Springsteen tickets made it into the secondary market, compared to 7 to 20 percent for Springsteen’s previous tour.

But the Verified Fan system does not always guarantee success. Nor is it foolproof. John Bonazzo, a writer at the Observer website, described his experience trying to get Springsteen tickets through Verified Fan.

Bonazzo registered but was put on standby and was ultimately shut out from buying tickets.

“Most people who registered never got upgraded from the standby line,” he wrote. He also noted that after the sale, there were plenty of tickets on sale at StubHub and other secondary sites, some for as much as $12,000.

That’s no surprise, said Sean Burn, editor of Ticket News. “If one thing’s for certain, (brokers and bots) are pretty crafty and have shown all the creativity in the world to get inventory at face value,” he said.

Also, the platform can verify all the fans it wants, but it cannot guarantee anyone a ticket, especially for the big shows.

Hundreds of thousands of fans of former One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles were upset after many of them who had registered as Verified Fans were not able to get tickets to his brief North American tour, which stops at 13 theaters.

The concert-industry website Amplify estimated that only 1 in 28 people attempting to get Styles tickets were successful.

And as for tickets that ended up in the hands of brokers and resale sites, Ticketmaster wrote: “We have only seen about 2,000 tickets posted for resale. That means less than 5 percent of all tickets are posted on resale sites.”

In a letter to Styles’ fans, Ticketmaster explained that most fans were left out due to excessive demand — something the Verified Fan program can’t control.

“That means most of you did not successfully get tickets,” Ticketmaster wrote. “Even if you did everything right and pushed the button exactly at 10 a.m., so did hundreds of thousands of other fans.”

Burns said therein lies one inherent problem with Verified Fan: the perception of a promise broken.

“If people who get tickets are ‘verified fans,’ what happens to those who don’t get tickets?” he said. “In the past, they’d get pissed at Ticketmaster … and go on with their days or spend big (bucks) on the secondary market. But now you see people feeling judged by a process that doesn’t deem them fans to the level where they get a ticket.” 

Boosts not bots

If any fans are going to be mad, it could be Swift’s.

She has turbo-charged her Verified Fan experience to her own benefit, financially and otherwise.

At her website fans are advised how to move up in line: “Participating in boost activities will build your activity status and boost your opportunity to unlock ticket access: Boost activities will come in all shapes and sizes. Watch the latest music video on the portal, purchase the album, post photos and engage on social media. Visit your Taylor Swift Tix portal for the newest boosts and activities you can do every day.”

In addition to her new “Reputation” CD ($15) released Nov. 10, her online store offers $125 hoodies, $60 snake rings, $45 short-sleeved T-shirts and $45 baseball caps.

Fans who don’t have the money for merch can get boosts by watching her videos online and posting photos on social media that promote Swift, her music and tour and her partnership with UPS.

Schouten, a devout fan of Swift who owns all of her albums, has been playing the game, though she has kept her purchases to a minimum: a digital and physical copy of “Reputation.”

“I’d rather save for a ticket to see her show,” she said.

Instead, she became, essentially, an unpaid member of Swift’s marketing army.

“I used the Taylor Swift Facebook filter, followed her on all social media platforms and watched every video that was available to watch as a boost … multiple times,” she said.

Because Swift is performing in an NFL football stadium with a concert capacity of more than 55,000, it’s unlikely Verified Fans will be denied a ticket. However, it’s likely some could end up not with prime seats but with tickets they could have otherwise purchased during the sale to the general public on Dec. 13, Swift’s birthday.

“It’s almost a Ponzi scheme,” Lefsetz said, “but in this case you buy stuff you don’t really want for a chance to get what you do want, tickets.”

Despite the backlash from some fans and the media, Burns said, Swift’s tactic is more likely to become the rule and not the exception.

“You’re going to see plenty more stuff like what (she) is doing,” he said. “She monetized the hell out of the process.”

Secondary markets and brokers, however, remain unfazed. In September, a broker with ticket agencies in Las Vegas and Los Angeles told the Wall Street Journal that businesses like his will always find a way around the barriers, like Verified Fan. For the Springsteen tour, he said, “reputable brokers bought enough to satisfy the initial demand of their clients.”

Tickets aren’t the only thing brokers and the secondary market are going after.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Verified Fan has spawned another resale market in the ticket industry: Brokers and scalpers are offering money for the special presale codes — as much as $1,000 was offered for one code for Springsteen tickets. Codes for other, smaller tours were going for $30 to $50.

Gaining steam

Nonetheless, more bands are turning to the platform to give their best fans a shot at the best tickets. U2 recently announced it had partnered with CitiBank and Verified Fan to sell every ticket on its 15-city 2018 tour. They are the first band/artist to use the platform for all tickets on a tour. It was also the band’s first-ever brand-sponsored presale.

Alice Edwards of Kansas City registered with the U2 Verified Fan program to get seats to the show in St. Louis in May.

Edwards, a longtime member of the U2 fan club, said she had no trouble getting seats she wanted — “It took all of two minutes” — but saw complaints from fans who wanted the best tickets.

“I noticed many people were complaining they could not get GA or Red Zone … the most sought-after tickets … and we were supposed to be the ‘first’ fans as older fan club members,” she said.

The other “cost” of Verified Fan: It requires registrants to relinquish access to a “huge cross-section of your data, which on Facebook is a staggering amount of information,” Burns said, “(which) means you just gave Live Nation a massive trove of marketing data to use on you in perpetuity.”

Regardless, most diehard fans say any presale, Verified Fan included, is the best way to get the best seats possible.

“I buy tickets for most of the major shows,” said Leslie Ann Rimmer of Lee’s Summit. “I most often get the seats I want from a presale. I do not use ticket brokers.”

Rimmer used Verified Fan for the Pink show at Sprint Center and Evanescence at the Music Hall.

“The experience overall was fine but not much different from any other presale with a general code.”

The process is worth it, though, Rimmer said, to get the tickets you want at face value.

Schouten agrees, even when it comes to pandering for “boosts,” as Swift is doing.

Late Saturday night, she got an email from Swift’s Verified Fan program: “We will send you a text message with your unique presale access code on Wednesday, Dec. 6, between 6-7 p.m. CST,” which puts her in the second half of the three-day presale. She also received an accounting of her activity: 20 boosts, two albums, no friend referrals, no merchandise purchased.

“I still think it’s a good idea,” she said. “ I didn’t do as much as I could have and I’m not trying to get super-close seats anyway. I’m still in the presale group and within the first two days, which wouldn’t have happened without the program.

“At least I know anyone ahead of me in line earned it and is likely also an actual fan.”

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain