A Quest for Tickets, a Look at the History



Buying tickets for concerts has become easier in the digital age. This is a fact that’s so obvious, yet something we take for granted. You don’t have to get dressed, and you don’t have to leave the comfort of your couch to get tickets to your upcoming shows. But have you ever wondered what buying tickets in the pre-digital age was like? What was the process to get us to the current age of ticket buying? And is digital ticket-buying always as so easy? Let’s dive in.

For those who have been around long enough to see the ticket market grow, you don’t have to wonder what the beginning was like. You lived it! But for many of the younger generations, all they’ve ever known is digital. We hope this helps you learn something new or take you down memory lane.

Pre-Digital

Let’s go back to the 1970s and '80s before the digital age and business moved to the internet. If you wanted to go to a concert, you had to get up off your couch, drive or walk to your nearest ticket retailer (usually a record store, box office, or department store), and buy a physical ticket. Seems simple enough right? Well, much like buying tickets in the digital age, it isn’t always as simple as it seems.

Sure, if a small or local band played in your city, picking up a ticket at the box office or venue door was typically no problem. But what about for bigger bands, the powerhouses who filled stadiums? How did you guarantee a ticket back then? The short answer is you couldn’t. It was a matter of time, devotion, and tenacity.

Much like today, when bands like The Who or Pink Floyd came to town, one often couldn’t just arrive an hour before the show and grab a ticket. There were a couple of ways to get tickets for big concerts rolling into town.

One popular way was through a sort of mail-order lottery system. You could send money for a ticket and a return envelope to your local ticket retailer and pray to the heavens that you were one of the lucky orders chosen. While it was likely done in the spirit of fairness, the uncertainty of if you’d get the tickets or not was nerve-wracking. Music fans would check their mailbox every day, hoping that they’d get their metaphorical golden ticket.

Another way was to wait in line at the box office in hopes of snagging a ticket before they sell out. At face value, it doesn’t sound so bad. But sometimes, it wasn’t a couple-hour affair. Sometimes, the line lasted for days. Have you ever been to a concert where it’s standing room only, and everyone’s queued up outside hours before the show to ensure they have a good spot? It’s exactly like that, except no one has their hands on a ticket yet. And being in line doesn’t guarantee you’re going to get one. If tickets ran out while you were in line, you were out of luck.

At first, many tickets didn't guarantee specific seats. It was a free-for-all. The music industry soon figured out that was a big mistake at a concert for The Who. When the doors opened, there was a mad dash to get the best seats first. People were trampled and killed. This led to big venues making tickets guarantee the seat as opposed to festival seating to keep that sort of chaos under control. Yet moving to seated tickets brought on other unexpected issues.

Scott Hudson, a Bruce Springsteen fan, talked about the grueling process of buying tickets for Springsteen’s show in the ‘80s and how despite only being number 1,800 in line out of thousands, the queue took forever. “The line moved at a snail's pace. The clock seemed to move even slower, as ten o'clock opening of the ticket counter turned to noon, then mid-afternoon without offering us any sight of our destination,” (Hudson, source). It was like this for a couple of days until Hudson reached the box office only to see why it was taking so long. There were only 10 clerks and they were letting people choose and re-choose sections until they were satisfied. Hudson’s experience is like many others for the time. People would camp out for days just for the chance to buy a ticket to a concert coming up in a couple of weeks. Depending on where you were in the line, you could find decent seats. But if you ended up in the back end of the line, usually all that was left were crappy nosebleed seats. That was how it worked. Yet people still waited. It was the only way back then so, of course they would!

The Start of Digital

Ticketmaster, the giant corporation that controls much of the ticketing in the industry today, was formed back in the ‘70s and really hit their stride and began marking up ticket prices in the ‘80s. They also began selling tickets over the phone. By the ‘90s, they were reimagining how to sell tickets. Instead of just selling tickets in person or over the phone, why not go a step further? Why not see if we can use this new thing called “the internet” to sell tickets?

At first, tickets were still being sent through the mail or held at the box office if bought online. Then, in 2000, digital ticketing started to truly pick up with Ticketmaster’s announcement of fans being able to buy, download, and print their concert tickets from their own PCs. No more waiting on hold or in line, no more waiting for tickets to arrive in the mail. You could now buy your tickets and print them yourself. With this new development came the hardware and software system that would work with barcodes printed on the tickets. So not only were they making it easier to access tickets, but they were also making it easier to admit fans into concerts. Beyond that, it was much easier to buy tickets. You didn’t have to take a day off work to have a chance to buy tickets to a show anymore. All you needed was internet access and your credit card in hand.

Modern Digital

From the print-from-home feature, other new features began to roll out such as picking your own seat instead of being randomly assigned one and adding a word or picture verification to prevent easy access for bots. You could still get physical tickets sent in the mail if you liked the aesthetic, but for the most part, people were printing their tickets from home, eliminating the extra costs to have them mailed. Print-from-home tickets eventually turned into e-tickets, where you no longer needed a physical copy. All you needed was a working smartphone and the ticket’s barcode to be admitted.