In the last week of August, Taylor Swift broke the internet upwards of a dozen times. First, she wiped her social media accounts clean. Then, she started sharing seemingly random video clips of a heavily pixelated snake, which looked like it belonged in a 1990s arcade game. Next, she dropped the polarizing cover art to her forthcoming sixth LP, Reputation, due in November. And then she finally released its even more polarizing first single “Look What You Made Me Do,” which smashed streaming records. The conversation-starting video smashed records, too.
Amidst all of this was a mix of hyperbolic “worst song ever” takes from music critics and conspiracy theories about how Swift was purposefully releasing her album on the 10-year anniversary of Kanye West’s mother’s death. (Really, people?) But there was also the live music side of the equation. On the same day “Look What You Made Me Do” launched a billion hot takes, Swift announced a new promo with Ticketmaster called Taylor Swift Tix.
“Taylor Swift is committed to getting tickets into the hands of fans… NOT scalpers or bots,” read the announcement on Taylor Swift’s official website. “So she’s collaborating with Ticketmaster #VerifiedFan to create an exclusive program to help YOU get the best access to tickets in North America, in a really fun way.”
Other than suggesting Ticketmaster is capable of doing something positive for live music, that all sounds pretty appealing. Beating scalpers and bots to the punch? Great! Giving true fans a better chance at getting the best seats? Terrific! A fun way to buy concert tickets? Well… I don’t know if the actual act of purchasing tickets has ever been “fun,” but sure!
Here’s how it works: If you are at all interested in catching Taylor Swift on the upcoming Reputation Tour, you visit tickets.taylorswift.com and sign in with your Ticketmaster account. From there, you join the digital line for the concert city you wish to attend. The twist is Taylor Swift Tix is giving fans the opportunity to “boost” their position in line by participating in one or more “fan engagement options.”
For instance, you jump the line by purchasing merch or preordering Reputation through the official Taylor Swift webstore. You get extra boosts by buying Reputation through other retailers (including iTunes, Walmart and Target), by watching special Taylor Swift videos, by posting pictures of custom UPS Taylor Swift trucks, or by creating a personalized referral link and encouraging friends to register for Taylor Swift Tix themselves.
That’s an awful lot to unpack, so let’s start with the good. No doubt about it, scalpers and bots are bad for live events. If you’ve tried to buy tickets for multiple in-demand concerts in the past five years, you’ve probably missed out at least once because you weren’t lucky enough to get through before it sold out. Of course, there are always plenty of tickets on the secondary market—if you’re willing to pay over face value.
At the very least, Swift’s method of prioritizing ticket buyers based on boosts will force scalpers to jump through several hoops before they can flip tickets for $900. And frankly, it’s hilarious to think of a scalper having to buy six copies of Reputation and a Taylor Swift sweatshirt to get his grubby fingers on tickets. I have a sneaking suspicion those things will be harder to hock for a substantial gain.
The plan is also objectively genius from a marketing standpoint. Fans get up to 13 boosts simply by pre-ordering or purchasing the new album from participating retailers. In other words, Swift has given her biggest fans unprecedented incentive to buy her record—and not just once.
By no metric does Swift actually need a boost. Her past three records—2010’s Speak Now, 2012’s Red and 2014’s 1989—all moved more than a million units in their opening weeks. For reference, only two other albums this decade, Adele’s 25 and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, have done more than a million in a week. (Adele did it three times in fact, in the first, second, and fifth weeks of her release, while Gaga’s was heavily discounted on Amazon.)
1989 gave Swift her largest sales week ever, a debut of 1.287 million. That’s obviously a terrific number, but it pales in comparison to 25’s, which gave Adele the all-time opening week record with 3.38 million sold. Swift topping that figure, given how it outstrips her peak by more than two million, seems unlikely. However, if there’s a way to make it happen, mobilizing fans to buy your record 13 times is a solid strategy.
Of course, as you would expect, Swift’s Ticketmaster promotion has been controversial as well. Consequence of Sound called the strategy “nefarious” and “ultra-capitalist,” suggesting Swift “should be ashamed of herself for being involved.” Mashable dubbed it a “scam.” And plenty of others have accused Swift of creating a system where only the wealthy will be able to buy tickets to her shows.
On the one hand, there is some truth to these accusations. Fans with money could feasibly buy their way to the front of the line by picking up a ton of merch and maxing out album pre-orders. But that’s basically how it is on the secondary market already, plus the system could also backfire. After all, getting boosts in line offers no guarantee of actual tickets.
Taylor Swift Tix is powered by Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program, which uses “a really big robot” to separate real life fans from bots. These so-called “Verified Fans” are then electronically sent codes, which can be used to unlock the opportunity to buy tickets. So far, several high-profile events—including Hamilton and Springsteen on Broadway—have used Verified Fan. (Based on the number of high-priced Springsteen tickets on StubHub, it could use some fine-tuning.)
Taylor Swift Tix adds the element of boosts, however even if you win an opportunity to buy tickets, you still have to pay the ticket price, not to mention Ticketmaster’s devilish fees, to actually get into a show. Depending on how much extra you spend to improve your odds, you could feasibly end up paying scalper-level prices just to buy face value tickets. Cynically, it’s possible to predict a dystopian live event future where the only way to get in is to buy a bunch of junk you don’t need.
On the other hand, there is hyperbole in most of the coverage surrounding this promotion. Right now, we have entertainment writers criticizing a pop star for being a capitalist, which is like criticizing water for being wet. We also have plenty of people decrying Swift for “forcing” her poor fans to shell out money for merch and records, as if she is holding a gun to their heads and saying “buy or die.” (Hilariously, the Taylor Swift Tix program terms outright states fan engagement actions and boosts are optional, with “OPTIONAL” in all caps.) As with any high-demand occasion, people need to decide how much they are willing to spend and what they are willing to do to get tickets.
The fact is that, for the biggest diehard Taylor Swift fans out there, this strategy probably IS worth it. They improve the chances of getting tickets, support an artist they worship and get merch they were probably going to buy anyway. And if you don’t think Taylor Swift superfans (known as Swifties, which Swift herself trademarked earlier this year) buy multiple copies of her albums, I’d suggest reading up on the polaroid photo marketing scheme from 1989. Each physical copy of that album came with 13 collectable polaroids. There were 65 polaroids total, split into five different sets, and some Swifties bought the album repeatedly until they had full collections. They weren’t forced to do it. They wanted to.
As we speak, Swift fans are figuring out ways to make this strategy work for them. On Tumblr, some are organizing giveaways for the merch they bought to get boosts, while others are offering to share Ticketmaster Verified Fan codes for different cities and dates. If anything, the system seems to be bringing together the Taylor Swift community, instead of segmenting them into the haves and have-nots like some in the music journalism community would have you believe.
Ultimately, Taylor Swift Tix is an experiment. Ticketmaster Verified Fan is a flawed system, because even if you shut out the bots, there are still flesh-and-blood scalpers the computers can’t filter out. If Taylor Swift Tix works, it will block all but the most determined scalpers and get tickets into the hands of Taylor’s devoted fan base. If it doesn’t, scalpers will find a way through, Swifties who buy truckloads of merch will end up without Verified Fan codes, and Swift will face a storm of intense backlash that could theoretically crash the entire album cycle. Critics may write her strategy off as a shameless ploy to make more money, but they fail to recognize how easily everything could fall apart.
Zoom out to the larger picture and Swift currently finds her career at a crossroads. For years she’s ridden the waves of girl-next-door charm and full-blown poptimism to widespread adoration, or at the very least, grudging respect. But between her creatively lackluster new singles and revamped “bad girl” image, her feud with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian that refuses to end, and her (perfectly valid) choice to remain apolitical in an increasingly political time, Swift is at risk of losing the appeal which has always been crucial to her success.
Her team, in other words, as calculatingly deliberate as they come, has a vested interest in making sure Taylor Swift Tix works as it’s supposed to. If it doesn’t, it could contribute to the end of Swift’s reign as the modern queen of pop. If it does, it could change the way major artists sell tickets. Either way, the stakes are high, and the world is watching.