May 25, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic shut down live music. Now fans just want their money back.


All my concerts were postponed by the coronavirus, so why can’t I get a refund? It’s complicated.

When Jess Noé logged on early one February morning to buy tickets to a highly anticipated My Chemical Romance reunion show, she was prepared to pay up. My Chemical Romance, a band deified by lovers of 2000s emo, hadn’t played live since its breakup in 2013, and there was no promise that the band would play any more shows after the select dates it announced as part of its short 2020 reunion tour. Jess had to see MCR, and she had to see them from the best seats possible.

What Jess hadn’t prepared for was just how much she’d end up paying for those tickets: around $700, after taxes and fees.

“I’ve still got more than eight months until the show itself,” she wrote for the music blog Stars and Scars, where she sometimes contributes, in a post about her ticket-buying experience. “Until then, I’m paying off my tickets, over $100 a month at a time, praying to find somebody who can take the other one off my hands, figuring out if my ticket insurance can do me any good here, and just hoping to god I still have a good time — or at least $700’s worth of fun.”

She dropped all that money on a pair of tickets that, she said, weren’t even the best of the best — all because of Ticketmaster’s notoriously byzantine dynamic pricing system and unpredictable online ticketing queues. As a recent college graduate, Jess chose not to pay upfront but instead in monthly installments Ticketmaster offered through the online financial service Klarna. She would now be adding $126 to her monthly budget to pay off her MCR tickets.

In February, this experience was unexpected and frustrating and not ideal. At least she still had the show to look forward to in September.

And then March happened. Stay-at-home orders shut down live music venues and any chance that performances could happen soon. Artists abruptly stopped touring, forced to postpone their shows to some unspecified later dates. Meanwhile, the economy took a huge hit as business-as-usual stopped being so usual, or even stopped being business. Jess had been job hunting since December without much luck. Now, prospects were much more limited than they had been pre-Covid-19. Jess pivoted away from what felt like a futile search and instead, like more than 33 million Americans nationwide, subjected herself to the whims of a suddenly overwhelmed unemployment office. Cash was even more of a luxury than before, and now was the time to prune any extraneous bills and costs. But those MCR ticket payments? Those had sunk their hooks in deep, and they weren’t coming out that easily. THE COMPANY HAS MADE ITS STANCE PRETTY CLEAR: NO CANCELLATION, NO REFUND.

“I messaged Klarna to see if I could defer my monthly payment or pay on my credit card,” Jess said. “It was a no [for] both.” Klarna’s customer service representatives told Jess that they had zero information on refunds, deferring instead to Ticketmaster before the company was able to help her change her payments.

Jess doesn’t plan to press her luck with Ticketmaster. The company has made its stance pretty clear: No cancellation, no refund. My Chemical Romance hasn’t announced the status of its US tour dates yet, but its international shows have been postponed. The prognosis for Jess’s September show isn’t looking good. (Reached for this story, Ticketmaster declined to comment on the record.)

During the coronavirus pandemic, when concerts are being rescheduled or postponed left and right, Ticketmaster and other ticket sellers have refused to budge. Which has left music fans like Jess in a financially uncomfortable, even dire position: They’re out — or even still paying down — all this money for shows they may never get to see, and that cash isn’t coming back to them any time soon.

If bands don’t cancel shows, ticket sellers won’t refund tickets

For fans, buying concert tickets is serious business. They’ll seek out presale codes, or sit refreshing the purchasing page the hour before tickets go on sale to make sure they get good seats — or even tickets at all. They’ll scroll through StubHub, a third-party platform where ticket holders can resell their own tickets, to buy second-hand tickets for concerts that sold out too quickly through official means. (It’s known as a safe haven for scalpers.) And when those tickets are secured, whatever channel they came from, fans will post excitedly about it and count down on social media until the day of the show.

Buying concert tickets is also serious business for the companies that sell them, to the tune of $8 billion in annual profits. Ticketmaster and Eventbrite are among several outlets that organize ticket sales with artists and venues. Although they’ve gained their detractors for tacking on myriad additional fees to the base cost of the tickets, they’re a necessary evil, the toll booth you have to pay in order to pass and keep driving down the highway. These are the faceless capitalists who can make or break your hopes to see your favorite band, in an economic system that also has to factor in venues and artists.

If, god forbid, that band cancels or has to reschedule due to unforeseen circumstances? Well, ticket buyers can take heart that they’ll get all of that money back. It’s the pact that buyers and sellers make to maintain trust. Short of cancellation, however, it’s difficult for a fan to get a refund for other reasons.

The novel coronavirus pandemic has tossed all status quo to the wind. Social distancing and face masks — none of those recommended measures to minimize the virus’s health risks really jibe with live performances. Bars and theaters and concert venues are shut down, which sent touring artists home early and grounded those preparing to head out. No promises of an end date came with those shutdowns, or if they did, they were pushed back later and later.

Artists are now forced to choose: They have to postpone, reschedule, or cancel their shows outright. With how unpredictable everything is right now, who’s to say what the best option is?

According to a number of artists, the answer is “postpone.” And according to a number of fans, therein lies the problem: Postponing a show adds more unknowns into an already unknowable situation.

Laura, a college student who had tickets to see BTS on the West Coast leg of the K-pop superstars’ American tour this spring, says she’d planned to meet up with friends at the LA concert. Her trip wasn’t as simple as missing a show — it involved coordinating schedules and flights and hotel stays, bringing together far-flung members of the fandom. “Now, I’m not sure when I’ll see them again,” she says of her friends.

Laura also doesn’t know when she’ll see her $375 back. BTS’s tour promoter, Big Hit Entertainment, said it will honor Laura’s ticket for a future BTS show — but who’s to say when that will even be? Regardless, the BTS tour hasn’t been canceled yet, so a refund isn’t on the table.

Sellers almost always guarantee refunds automatically for cancellations unless explicitly stated otherwise. Typical reasons for canceling, like a hurricane or a sick drummer, are different from an ongoing global health crisis, however. For artists who make money from touring, canceling — and forfeiting months of income — may not be an appealing option. Postponing instead could allow them a financial safety cushion, as refund policies become more and more tangled during the pandemic.

“If an event has been postponed, it means the event organizer is still working to determine whether the event will be rescheduled or canceled; in the meantime, your tickets are still valid,” goes Ticketmaster’s policy. Any possible refund is dependent on what the band, venue, or both ends up doing — whenever they make that decision — and if they simply reschedule, it is again up to them if those who can’t make the new dates will be offered any compensation.

LiveNation, another company that handles ticket sales, has an even more frustrating policy regarding postponed shows. “If 60 days has passed since a show was postponed and no rescheduled dates have been announced, the 30-day window for refunds will open at that time,” according to the company’s updated Covid-19 refund policy. “There will only be one refund window offered per show. If the refund window is activated after 60 days, there will not be another window once the new date is set.” (LiveNation did not return a request for comment on this story.)

Limiting refunds to a specific window puts the onus on buyers to decide whether or not they have faith in their show being rescheduled and if they’ll be able to attend it when it is. Meanwhile, StubHub doesn’t obligate its sellers to offer refunds at any point. Right now, that even includes cancellations. More than 50,000 shows worldwide have been impacted by the pandemic in some way, according to a StubHub spokesperson, leaving the company to reconsider their usual automatic refunds for cancellations.

“Historically, we’ve absorbed the risk when an event is canceled, refunding the buyer before collecting money from the seller,” the spokesperson told Vox, “but at the scale of cancellations we’re seeing due to Covid, that model doesn’t work, which is why we are offering [a 120 percent credit coupon].” StubHub is, in essence, locking buyers’ money into the platform’s ecosystem no matter what happens. (On April 6, StubHub was reportedly hit with a class action lawsuit over this policy, with defendants arguing that buyers deserve refunds, but the company has yet to comment.)

The live music industry shake-ups put everyone involved with these shows in a precarious position. For one, all of these policies seem to leave the buyers on the hook, their spending money in furlough during a time when they could use it for other things. But potentially refunding tickets for 50,000 different shows also presents a financial burden for ticket sellers, event organizers, and, in a huge way, venues.

Venues stand to benefit the most from postponements, said one longtime event organizer.

“With venues, you have to pay a ton in deposits, and unless it’s a center that’s owned by a state or local entity … the chances of [a venue] returning that money [to organizers] is very slight,” said Melissa Anelli, founder and CEO of Mischief Management. Her company puts on fandom conventions like Broadway Con and Leaky Con, a long-running Harry Potter event. Many contracts between artists and venues also incentivize artists postponing concerts; under many agreements, outright cancellation means the venue does not have to pay the performer. Venues also have an easier time invoking a force majeure clause to void their contracts than organizers do. As Anelli explained, organizers depend more on the venue to be able to host a show than vice versa.

“At least with a postponement [an organizer] can apply that money to the future and hope that the venue’s wish to fill their calendar aligns with your need to have an event.”

When it comes to event planning, there’s money entangled among several stakeholders, making it a priority for promoters and artists to maintain their agreement and minimize their potential losses in any way possible. It’s why platforms like Eventbrite are actively encouraging organizers to look at options other than refunds to buyers. The ticketing company has a Covid-19 hub directed at artists that suggests specific alternatives, like asking buyers to donate the cost of their ticket, transfer it to a different event, or accept a gift card in lieu of a refund.

“Whether your event is canceled, postponed, or moving online, it’s important to know what options you and your attendees have outside of ticket refunds,” an Eventbrite document about refund alternatives obtained by Vox reads.

Paging through all these different policies and platform requirements and guidelines and services can make your head spin. The ultimate takeaway remains the same regardless: Refunds are hard to get when your show is postponed. And that is a major pain if you’re a fan, no matter how you shake it.

Leaving ticket buyers in the lurch is shaking fans’ faith

Forfeiting your money to an event that may or may not happen is one frustration. But fans are also losing out on an experience they were looking forward to and there’s an emotional impact. That’s what’s hitting some of us the hardest.

I’m one of those people who finds live music to be energizing and exciting — it’s a huge part of my life. Concerts are places to hang out with friends, ones I don’t get to see much otherwise. They provide the seeds of memories I hold dear to me for a long, long time. And they give me chances to experience music I love in a less lonely, internal way.Ticketmaster told me my event had been postponed almost exactly two months after it was supposed to happen.

I’ve currently got nine shows on hold, which amounts to about $500 worth of tickets. One of them, Billie Eilish, was scheduled for March 20, right around the time New Yorkers were asked to stay at home. But Billie Eilish’s tour wasn’t actually postponed until last week, when a sad email reminder popped up in my inbox.

I’ve been getting emails like that one for two months now, all of them with vague promises to see me “soon.” Nobody knows if that’s a promise or just an empty platitude, including the artists themselves. I open these emails with a twinge of melancholy, forced to reckon with the fact that I have no idea when I’ll be able to go to a packed show again.

The attachments we have to music can leave us with complicated feelings about a postponement. If the show is rescheduled — and assuming it’s safe to do so, which is its own complicated question — we’d still want to go, right? And we want our favorite artists to be able to stay together long enough to afford to tour again when the chance arises, which requires financial support. But ticket sellers informing fans to just “wait and see” isn’t plausible for many people right now as the coronavirus rattles the economy.

It’s why even hardcore music fans like Jess Noé are left with big, frustrated regrets.

“I’m legitimately embarrassed by the amount of money I poured into this one [My Chemical Romance] show,” Jess said. “That money could have gone towards a new computer that I desperately need. If they made the call and I had everything refunded … I could invest in a better computer than my 2012 MacBook, which would open up video editing opportunities for me that I can’t take advantage of right now.

“Ticketmaster is a historically shady company. I believe they can get away with this because concerts are a luxury, and they don’t see themselves as withholding an essential service. But money is essential and scarce right now for a lot of us.”

Live music will always be part of our lives. Hopefully when it returns, whenever it returns, we’ll still be able to afford it — and won’t still be waiting on our money back.

By Allegra Frank 

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