"[I]f something goes completely wrong I can just phone Bono and find, again, that he's probably one of the best psychologists I know."
Worst U2 Ticket Sales Ever? A Fan's Perspective
November 25, 2017
As the Experience + Innocence ticket pre-sales approached, a few of us on the @U2 crew chatted informally about what to expect. We talked about ticket demand, how Ticketmaster's Verified Fan system would work, whether U2 would add more shows to the original 15 ... stuff like that. We debated how smoothly the pre-sales would go -- what might go wrong, what would probably go right, and so forth. None of us guessed what I think actually happened:
In my opinion, the Experience + Innocence ticket sales -- both pre-sales and public sales -- have been worse than what happened in 2005.
Never would I have imagined a scenario worse than the pre-sale crapfest that happened before the Vertigo tour. That was when both U2's and Ticketmaster's websites crashed; when pre-sale passwords didn't work; when very few GAs were available in the pre-sale and the vast majority of fan club tickets were upper level and/or behind the stage. And talk about bad timing: All of that happened during the first tour cycle in which U2.com memberships required a payment.
It was picked up by traditional press outlets like Billboard, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, among others. An Irish tabloid ran a story under the headline U2.CON, and it was even discussed on Dave Fanning's 2FM radio show. Many U2 fan sites, including this one, ran articles and opinion pieces decrying what happened, and the online forums were filled with fans venting their frustration. U2 eventually apologized on U2.com and at the Grammy Awards that year, and changes were put in place that improved future fan club pre-sales. (Thank you, Larry.)
Since then, every time U2 goes on tour, little tweaks have been made to how the fan club pre-sales work. For example, the dividing line between who qualifies as a longtime fan vs. a new subscriber gets shorter every tour. And then this year came the biggest change since the fan club started to charge for membership: the Verified Fan program, which Ticketmaster pitches as an attempt to separate real fans from bots and scalpers, but also serves as a great tool for Ticketmaster to get more personal data from fans, like the cell phone number we're required to give if we want to participate, and which Ticketmaster will also use for future sales pitches to us.
Verified Fan has been used by other artists before U2, but never on the scale that it's being used now: It applies to all (initial) ticket sales for all U2 shows in North America. And it was nothing short of a disaster. It made what happened in 2005 pale in comparison.
Making U2 fans and U2's tour the guinea pigs for such a grand rollout was clearly a mistake. You probably know the problems by now, but if you missed it all these past couple weeks, many of the issues were documented in a letter that some three dozen U2 fans worldwide wrote collectively and sent to U2 and its manager, Guy Oseary, which you can read here. In a nutshell:
That's just the most egregious stuff -- there are countless more problems raised in our Facebook thread and in the tweets sent to @atu2.
I've never seen so much confusion about a U2 ticket sale ... well, about anything U2 has ever done, for that matter. We always do our best to help our readers by answering questions sent to us on Twitter or Facebook, via the #askatu2 hashtag on our podcast or via emails that you send in. But these ticket sales were the first time in our 20+ years that I ever recall specifically asking our crew not to answer some of your questions. We were as confused as you about how it all was supposed to work, and I was afraid that we'd make things worse by giving you the wrong information. So we stuck to answering only the easiest questions we saw; I apologize to all of you whom we were unable to help. We didn't have any answers.
The Fan Collective & Why We Didn't Say Anything Sooner
While all this was going on, I got an email from fellow U2 fan John Noble, AKA "Bigwave" and the manager of the Zootopia message boards on U2.com, inviting me to join a group of U2 fans around the world who were gathering together to share what we were seeing, hearing, experiencing, etc., about the pre-sales. The group grew to ~40 of us, many of whom are involved in fan sites.
As we shared stories, the group agreed that we should draft a letter to send to U2 and its management to make sure they were aware of what was going on. We all agreed on the importance of presenting a unified front and a firm-but-respectful tone in our letter. I think we accomplished that. It was a real joy to be part of that group, and to see how eagerly we worked together across the divides of language and culture. I'm proud to have played a part in such a cool effort by the online U2 fan community.
(Before I continue with some thoughts on Guy Oseary's reply to our letter, I want to address a common question I saw online: Why didn't @U2 say anything about the pre-sales as things went south? Other fan sites were getting the same question, too, from their readers. The answer is simple: The group agreed that once our letter was sent, we'd give U2/management time to digest our concerns and send a reply -- and that none of us would post any new articles on our sites while we waited. We felt that venting our frustrations in public or sharing the text of our letter before management had a chance to reply would make it easier for them to ignore the letter and dismiss fans' concerns. And to the fans who accused @U2 of not posting anything because we're afraid of rocking the boat and upsetting the band, I have two words for you....)
I don't know if I speak for anyone but myself when I say this: I'm pleased that the group got a reply from Guy Oseary, but not entirely pleased with what he said. Let me explain:
On the bright side, he explained that there's no lottery system in place to determine which U2.com members get pre-sale codes -- instead, he said, the reason some didn't get a pre-sale code is that Ticketmaster had "an algorithm error" and some real fans were "caught up with the emails of some bad actors." In other words, it wasn't random choice that determined who got a pre-sale code and who didn't; instead, the system misidentified some real fans as brokers/scalpers and didn't send them a code. Further positive news is when Oseary says that Ticketmaster has already started changing the algorithm for identifying bots/brokers, and that they're putting more time into the process for human review when the algorithm flags these accounts. These are necessary steps, because too many legitimate fans were wrongly flagged as bots/scalpers. Let's hope those changes will be in place and be effective for the next round of ticket sales. I thought another positive was his offer to have a more open line of communication with fans to discuss future ideas; that's something I remember suggesting after the Vertigo pre-sales mess 12 years ago, and something I think would be wise to do now. I hope he was serious about that offer.
On the other hand, I'm not happy at all that Oseary ignored the bullet item in our letter asking how and why Citi card pre-sale members were able to buy more tickets than U2.com members, and why the Citi pre-sale had GA tickets available for the same shows that had none a day before during the "Innocence" group pre-sale. That's a real slap in the face and it's completely unacceptable for paying U2.com members to play second fiddle like that. Surely a band like U2 should be able to guarantee that its own fan club will have a chance to buy more and better tickets than random consumers who happen to own a certain credit card! Also, Oseary's suggestion that the second shows added in some cities are a "small compensation" to fans who had a bad experience with the first pre-sales is disingenuous; those shows were going to be added no matter what. I hope he meant to say "consolation" instead of "compensation," but my gut feeling is that the affected fans aren't in the mood to discuss the semantics of his word choice.
In the end, his reply was pretty much what I expected -- a mixed bag of some good and some bad replies to our concerns. For those of you who expected more or different from Oseary's reply, I'd remind you that when he took over as U2's manager in 2013, he also sold his management company to Live Nation. So we're not just hearing from U2's manager; we're hearing from part of Ticketmaster's team, and he likely has a fine line to walk in how he communicates about these kinds of issues. (I, for one, was pleasantly surprised at his willingness and ability to discuss in some detail how Ticketmaster's algorithm screwed up in flagging some fans as bots/scalpers. We need more transparency like that.)
Think about this: If future E+I tour pre-sales are handled with a similar process, are you confident that things will be better? I'm not. I want to believe that Ticketmaster will do a better job of identifying bots and scalpers -- a noble cause, I think we can all agree -- but considering the mess they created these past couple weeks, I'm doubtful. And that's the most disappointing thing of all for me. As one of our staffers said while all this was happening, it's amazing that a company whose sole purpose is to sell tickets can be so bad at selling tickets.
One of the things U2 fans have been saying for years is that we wish U2 wasn't partnered up with Live Nation and Ticketmaster, and I think a lot of us feel more strongly about that now than ever. Many fans remember that U2 and Live Nation signed a 12-year contract back in 2008, and wonder if U2 will let it expire in 2020 and consider continuing on without Live Nation/Ticketmaster's involvement.
Well ... not so fast. We also have to remember what happened in 2013: When Paul McGuinness stepped away as U2's manager and Oseary took over as manager, U2 signed a new contract with Live Nation. I've never seen any details about the new deal; it could still end in 2020 like the previous agreement, or it could last longer. We don't know. (I'd be shocked if it ended sooner than the previous deal.) All of which is to say that it looks like the U2/Live Nation/Ticketmaster relationship isn't going to change anytime soon.
There's another issue that I wonder about when considering what's next: Over the past couple weeks, I've seen and heard an unusual number of longtime fans saying that they're losing interest in U2 because of this ticketing hassle. A look through our Twitter mentions or our Facebook comments will lead you to plenty of comments like, "I'm over it," "It's time for me to move on," "I'll just go see other bands play" and "I'm done with U2." Perhaps a bit of melodrama in the heat of the moment? Sure. But with all the added hoops that we were made to jump through to buy tickets -- connect this account, connect that account, register here, register there, etc. -- and to then deal with all of the other issues, it's become more difficult than ever to see a U2 show, perhaps more difficult than some fans are willing to accept. I can't help but wonder if these ticket sales have done permanent damage to the fan base.
Ticket Sales Have Been Terrible, But...
I'm going to wrap up with a couple paragraphs that will probably piss off a lot of you. But I think it needs to be said.
While many of us are angry, upset and frustrated, let's also recognize what we're talking about here: a $50 fan club membership and our struggles to buy tickets to see a rock band perform. In the grand scheme of things, this is incredibly unimportant. It's the very definition of a #firstworldproblem. There's a lot of bad s**t happening in the world right now that we should be outraged about, and U2's ticket pre-sales aren't one of them. Sure, we all love U2 and we love seeing them live. Their music makes our hearts sing. Their shows are like church for many of us. The thought of them throwing in the towel and calling it quits sends shivers down our spines. But at the end of the day, we're still talking about troubles trying to buy tickets to a rock concert. Nothing more. (And let's not forget our fellow fans in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and other areas where U2 hasn't played recently. I bet they'd love to have the troubles we're having lately here in North America.)
That's not to excuse U2, Live Nation, Ticketmaster, etc., for the mess they've thrust on us -- not at all. I'm a firm believer that companies who sell a product or service should deliver what they promise and be held accountable when they don't. So let's do that: Let's hold them accountable and let's work together to make things better while keeping it all in perspective at the same time.
And finally, one last thought.... I started this article with a comparison between this year's ticket sales and those of 2005. I'm reminded that we were all really angry then, and how that anger was tempered when we learned that, while the ticket sale problems were going on, Edge and his family were dealing with the news that their daughter, Sian, had recently been diagnosed with leukemia. (You may recall that the Vertigo tour announcement had been delayed and Edge went to court to protect his family's privacy.)
This year, we keep hearing hints about Bono's recent "brush with mortality" -- but just like in 2005, we don't know what's really going behind the scenes. (And an important point: It's none of our business and we should respect their desire for privacy.) Edge recently told the Sunday Times that Bono went through "trauma that could've been fatal." Stop for a minute. Read those five words again, and then again if you need to. That's obviously really serious stuff, whatever it was. Bono (and the others) keep declining to talk about it in any detail, which is their right. But I can't help wondering if, even though we're angry and frustrated now, the truth will eventually come out (as it did where Edge's daughter was concerned), our anger will be tempered and we'll need to remind ourselves to be grateful that U2 is still together and still able to play live for us.
Any opinions expressed in this column are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of @U2 as a whole.
(c) @U2, 2017.