"If you look at music as emotion, then I think you'll connect us to the ballad tradition, to the wailing and keening of the old music."
Column: off the record ... vol. 17-766
November 26, 2017
As a standard practice for columns like OTR, we have a footer that states, “Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.” For this OTR, I want to start with that statement.
I have been a non-lapsing member of U2’s official fan club since 1989. I’ve met some very dear friends through Propaganda’s “Grapevine” section. It was through the many fanzines listed in the back of Propaganda that I discovered the reach of U2’s music and message. Those fanzines served as my first foray into writing for publication, which ultimately led to my choice of a journalism major in college. When the shift from print to the web happened for the official fan club, I mourned the passing of receiving my quarterly publication (which, let’s face it, never was quarterly). I knew that by going online we were losing a tactile connection with the band that many felt passionately enough to pay money for to be connected in an official way.
I became aware of U2’s fan club through the liner notes of The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum. Those were the first U2 albums I purchased. The dates: Dec. 15 and 16, 1988. I’ve shared how I came to U2 many years ago, and over the years I’ve had the privilege of hearing stories from scores of fans about how they came to be members of U2’s official fan club. The underlying sentiment of those connected through Propaganda was a desire to be connected to the band, the music and each other.
The one benefit that has been available continuously for the past few decades is access to tickets when U2 goes on tour. It was the only way I was able to see U2 in Boston in 1992. You might recall that the demand for ZooTV was such that phone lines were jammed. In Los Angeles, Pacific Bell received 54 million calls for tickets in four hours. I discovered then just how important being a member of the official U2 fan club was, and the experience cemented in my mind the care the band takes to ensure their fans are able to see them.
Over the years, tour after tour, the Propaganda mailer would arrive with an order form and I’d eagerly fill it out. For ZooTV US leg 1 in 1992, fans were allowed four tickets – two tickets for two shows. For ZooTV leg 2 in Europe, the limit was two. For US leg 3 of ZooTV (Outside Broadcast), there was a four-ticket limit as well, but you could choose four tickets for one show. For 1997’s PopMart tour, fans were allowed six tickets for any one concert (or split between any two concerts). For the Elevation tour, fans could also get four tickets. I wrote in my choice of cities with the hope my first pick would be honored. Usually, tour personnel assigned the city closest to you. It was all done by hand in those days. Very time consuming, but the level of detail and attention was heartfelt and greatly appreciated.
It should be noted that in June 1997, U2 began their online presence with u2popmart.msn.com, a website dedicated to following the PopMart tour. Not long after, U2Propaganda.com launched and after a few years transformed into U2.com. It should be noted that U2.com officially launched in September 2000 ahead of All That You Can’t Leave Behind. At that time fan club ticketing for the Elevation tour was still done by mail as it always had been. The last print issue of Propaganda was Autumn 2002.
When the decision was made in 2004 to formally move the paid fan club online to U2.com, the fan club ticket offer originally changed to two tickets for one arena show, four tickets for one stadium show, with all ticket sales online via Ticketmaster. The fan club code was sent around Jan. 22, 2005, with the onsale on Jan. 25, 2005. However, when the band announced their return to the US for fall shows in 2005, U2.com offered another set of tickets. Fans were told by email on March 30, 2005, “If you are a Propaganda subscriber who has already bought two tickets with your presale code for the tour, you can buy TWO tickets for ONE of these shows.”
As you know, the majority of first leg Vertigo tour fan club tickets was bought by a ticket scalper, and from then on, U2 has attempted to thwart the practice, with little success. During those tour years, members of the fan club continued to receive access to ticket sales with varying levels of success. The bots and scalpers were still obtaining the tickets, shutting out fans. In 2015, the Innocence + Experience tour was cited as an example for the successful passing of the BOTS Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2016.
Five tours and 12 years since the switch to online ticketing for the fan club, U2 was presented with the option of using a relatively new product from Ticketmaster called Verified Fan. This ticket-sale method aimed to achieve the goal U2 has been striving for over the past decade: get as many tickets as possible into the hands of fans at face value. I can understand why U2 decided to use Verified Fan for the entire North American leg of the Experience + Innocence tour. However, what might have been lost in the discussion with the band was the impact on loyal fans. U2 and Maverick apparently placed enormous trust in the data scientists at Ticketmaster to ensure that the Verified Fan algorithm would be correct – that the fans who fit the parameters (i.e., not a bot, not a scalper) would receive a presale code after going through the verification process. Unfortunately, that did not happen. U2’s manager, Guy Oseary said, “This was down to an algorithm error and as soon as it was discovered these names were researched individually, multiple known brokers removed and then the text message with presale code was sent to this group. Unfortunately because of the time this took, they received their code later and their choice of ticket was reduced in some venues.”
For the first time ever, some fan club members were not allowed to access a fan club presale. For many loyal legacy members of the fan club (Experience group), this was a stark contrast to past fan club ticket-buying experiences. For passionate, loyal members of the U2 tribe to be treated this way due to a computer algorithm was more than cold — it sent the message that the band didn’t value them anymore. More than that, the process removed value from being a paid member of the official fan club, striking at the very heart of the U2 community. And the problem didn’t just stop there; it happened to new members of the U2 tribe, too. Innocence group members were also denied access.
It is universally understood that tickets are never a guarantee in a fan club presale; however, for more than 30 years, access to purchase those tickets did seem to be guaranteed. A faulty computer algorithm caused many to become angry at the system, the band and management. Complicating matters, fans who contacted customer service spent hours trying to resolve the problem, only to be told that Ticketmaster considered them scalpers. Another punch in the gut to legacy fans.
During the process, I felt like I needed to do something — anything — to right this wrong. I reached out to whomever I could in my Rolodex to try to get to the bottom of the problem. That’s how I found myself connecting with about three dozen others to compose a unified letter to the band and management. As one of the biggest cheerleaders for the official fan club, I felt a responsibility to try to make this right for those who were affected.
I also reached out to fans through Twitter to learn about their experiences. One fan, Katina Forte, shared hers. Forte has been a U2 fan since 1981 and never let her fan club membership lapse. She told me earlier this week, “I want to tell U2 and all of the above that my heart was broken when I didn’t receive a code. I have been a fan since I was 15. I’ve been to every tour since Boy. I’ve attended 66 concerts all over the world including Europe and Australia. My husband and I even made sure we went to the Paris concert after the attacks to show support. I feel so betrayed by them. They are usually the one thing I can always count on (including family sometimes) to always be there and make me feel good. The system is rigged. There were tickets on StubHub right after they went on sale for 4 times the face value. So obviously non-fans were buying them. I try to go to at least four shows a tour and usually get GA. Unfortunately, I can’t go to any this tour and it breaks my heart.”
Their stories mirrored many others. Beside not feeling valued, they felt misled. Official communication from U2 and Live Nation about the tour ticketing process clearly stated, “In keeping with their commitment to ensure tickets get into the hands of fans, not scalpers or bots, U2 has partnered with Ticketmaster to use its Verified Fan platform. Verified Fan will power all ticket sales, providing fans who truly want to attend the show with the best opportunity to get great tickets.”
It’s safe to say that members of the fan club would qualify as “fans who truly want to attend the show.” On top of that, emails to paid members of U2.com stated, “You know how U2.com Subscribers are first in line when it comes to ticketing presales for upcoming shows?” People who should have been weren’t.
Meanwhile, U2’s noble quest to ensure tickets were in the hands of fans was not wholly successful. Scalpers still managed to get tickets, albeit in fewer numbers based on casual observation of the unofficial resale sites and comparing it to 2015. Adding insult to injury, “Verified Resale” tickets began popping on Ticketmaster at scalper prices. The hypocrisy of the band’s stance on scalping rubbed salt in the wound: The ticketing platform designed to eliminate scalping from the sales process was now promoting it. “Don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining,” was brought up in a conversation I had with a long-time subscriber who was shut out of the presale process due to the algorithm error. Verified Resale at prices above face value is scalping. Wordsmithing and semantics be damned; call it what it is. That added to the anger U2 fans were feeling. Furthermore, fans without Verified Fan status are still shut out of paying face value for remaining tickets. For example, U2’s show in Boston on June 21 still shows face value tickets as of this OTR publication, however without your Verified Fan code, the only tickets you’re able to purchase are Verified Resale at inflated prices. It also appears Ticketmaster does not allow resellers to list the tickets to its Verified Resale platform for face value (or below). Those not Verified are forced with no other choice than to pay scalper prices.
Further complicating the sales process was the introduction of the Citi credit card presale. Fan club members were upset that if the band was so committed to “their commitment to ensure tickets get into the hands of fans,” why would Citibank card members get a limit of four tickets while the fan club members only got two. What U2 fans might not have realized is that Citibank partnered with Live Nation to be the “official card” of Live Nation in 2008. In 2010, the presale for U2.com members and Citi card holders happened at the same time. I don’t recall Citibank offering a presale for 2015’s Innocence + Experience tour, so it was a bit of a surprise to see Live Nation offer one for the 2018 tour. It should be noted that some U2 fans were successful being verified and could access both the fan club presale and the Citibank presale. The experience, however, meant more verification hoops to jump through and more time devoted to making a ticket purchase.
After getting through the days of fan club and credit card presales, fans were then subjected to another round of verification processes, waiting for confirmation emails, codes, etc., for the general Verified Fan onsale. We asked on Twitter how many Experience and Innocence group members registered for the general onsale received codes. Of the 425 people who voted in the Experience group poll, 12% were waitlisted and 21% did not receive a code. Of the 373 people who voted in the Innocence group poll, 11% were waitlisted and 31% did not receive a code. Those who were waitlisted were never moved off the waitlist. That percentage of the fan club who did not have access to the general Verified Fan onsale is not insignificant. This did not bode well for fan club families who wanted to go to the concert together as a family of four.
For me, the joy was sucked out of the process due to the effort it took to get tickets for the 2018 tour. Excitement about the tour and new album has been muted by a computer algorithm gone bad, silence from the band, and a manager’s response that felt muted because of potential legal implications. It was little solace to have Oseary state, “a series of second dates in many North American cities were announced earlier today and any verified subscribers who've not yet used their presale codes will be able to enter presales for those shows. More than a few people were frustrated with their experience last week and ended up with no tickets - this is a small compensation, a second chance to enter the presale.” Fan trust in the system has been broken, with many questioning how future sales will go.
I’ll be honest — Larry’s 2005 reaction to the ticketing issues with the fan club should have been reprised here. The silence from U2 themselves about their legacy members’ experience (regarding a tour about experience) is disappointing. The onsale of second nights in select cities was likely going to happen regardless, so offering a consolation to fans who had issues in the first round of sales feels shallow.
With that, Live Nation has really done some damage. The corporation has convinced one of the biggest cheerleaders of U2 that the band is nothing more than a commodity that needs to produce a profit for the parent corporation in order to be relevant. To me, Live Nation has taken the “music” out of the “business.” Live Nation’s CEO, Michael Rapino, told Charlie Rose recently, “The DNA of Live Nation that wakes up and says ‘we work for the artist’ – so think about it, that manager has to say to his artist ‘I’m gonna do a deal with Rapino and Live Nation.’ That artist is gonna say, ‘But is that the guy who writes the check for the tour, or is that a conflict, or is that good for us?’ … But that manager, when we sit down and I explain how we can help him grow his management business, help the manager do a better job for him, and ultimately that artist got to do the right thing for his business of live.” Rapino goes on to say that his two artist mentors are Bono and Jay-Z.
As a dedicated fan of U2, this has me conflicted. U2 has worked hard for decades to cultivate an activist audience dedicated to fairness. U2 has taken care of its audience the best it can. I feel the band’s hands are tied in being able to provide that level of dedication to its official fan club because the corporation that partners with them currently doesn’t place a that same value or dedication to the audience. If Live Nation’s DNA is truly working for the artist, then the corporation needs to better understand that without the audience, the artist has no value. Live Nation must do a better job at cultivating audiences, the same way it’s cultivated artists through its Artist Nation division. At the moment, the audience has to do too many things to gain access to their favorite acts. I’m grateful that U2 isn’t forcing us to do a “boost” program like Taylor Swift is forcing her fans to do through Verified Fan. I think we’ve been put through enough hassle as it is.
In the end, I’ve discovered a few things. As much as I love this band, love the tribe and love the music, I agree with many who feel it’s too much work to be a U2 fan right now. As you may know, we all volunteer our time here at @U2. The hours spent over the past week by myself and many others to defend the official fan club, support its membership and provide comfort to the collective who felt betrayed by a corporation and its faulty algorithm was time stolen from our lives, careers and families. At the end of the day, I agree with M2’s view that this whole Experience + Innocence tour onsale is a #FirstWorldProblem. Far greater issues are going on globally, and in reality, we’re looking at 15 rock concerts (with more being added) in North America by a band that really needs to tour Australia and New Zealand. Surely there are more important things than U2 at the moment.
Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.