Random Ephemera

The Murky Business of Ticket Reselling

Recently, I began to hear stories of people who were selling tickets to Adele concerts for astronomical prices. I'm not a fan, but the fact that some people felt that they could resell a few tickets for the same price most people would spend on a major home improvement or a good used car boggled my mind. I can't imagine spending $10,000 or more to see anyone perform live, but a few enterprising individuals are reportedly asking that much for good seats to see the popular singer in concert.

Those Adele seats might be the most expensive example, but nearly everyone I know who has wanted to go to a concert by a popular artist or other major event has had to dip into the murky world of ticket resellers at one point or another. It's an often frustrating aspect of getting to attend an event, but seems to have become part of the experience of getting to see our favorite bands. Unless a person is fast (and lucky) enough to get tickets the moment they go on sale, he or she might end up with no other choices than missing the show or paying many times the face value of a ticket.

I've done it, and every time I have, I've wondered, "How is this ticket reselling thing legal"? After all, I grew up thinking that ticket "scalping" was against the law, or at least occupied some gray area of the legal spectrum. It certainly seemed to be looked down upon, and no one I knew wanted to be forced to buy a ticket from a scalper or the slightly more legit-looking "ticket resellers" that began to pop up in strip malls by the time I was in my late teens. In fact, my own first experience with ticket resellers occurred in 1989 when I stood in line for hours in the Astrodome parking lot trying to score tickets for The Rolling Stones. Eventually it became clear I wasn't getting tickets that way, and I left, weighing my options. I had no real interest in seeing that band in 1989, but I was trying to get tickets for my parents, so I ended up at a ticket broker, buying several for about five times their face value. The experience left me feeling grimy and in need of a long shower. That was a long time ago, and ticket reselling is not only still going strong, but seems to be doing better than ever.

So what's the skinny? How is it legal for ticket resellers to operate if scalping is illegal? I decided to look into things a little further, and it turns out things aren't nearly as cut and dried as I thought they might be.

It turns out there is no federal law against scalping, but the legality of the practice depends on where the event is taking place, with 15 states banning or placing limits on scalping in various ways. However, even in the states where reselling tickets is regulated, the actual statutes involved often do next to nothing to prevent it from happening. According to the Legalzoom website, Arizona bans scalping only within 200 feet of the entrance of the venue in which a concert or event is taking place, so tickets can be sold for as much as a scalper can get for them, just so long as the scalper sells them beyond that point. Other states require that a seller have a license to resell tickets, and cap the amount over face value that a reseller may demand, but again, these rules are specific in what they forbid, and often waive any regulation of individuals selling tickets to one another. In some states, the laws about ticket resale are also archaic — Indiana law specifically forbids charging more than face value for tickets to "any sparring match" or "semiprofessional elimination contest." In recent years, some states such as Florida and Minnesota have dumped their older laws against scalping, making ticket reselling completely legal.

So while it's usually called something else by the businesses and individuals who make lucrative livings reselling event tickets, scalping is legal almost everywhere in America, or very slightly regulated. In Texas, unsurprisingly, there's no state law against ticket scalping, and in Houston there is only a city ordinance that makes it illegal to sell them on public property inside city limits without a permit. There's also no limit on the amount of money a person may try to resell a ticket for, so even if you grew up hearing cautionary tales about the shady business of buying tickets from a scalper, there's nothing making that line of work illegal.

To me, ticket resellers feel the same way that pawn shops, certain tow truck companies and a few other businesses do — they provide a service that few people look forward to using but that many will feel compelled to at some time. Sure, buying a ticket for whatever price the market will bear from a reseller isn't the same type of desperation that might compel a person to pawn his or her wedding ring, but for a lot of us it feels as if ridiculous ticket prices are just another way people get gouged these days. It's difficult for me to understand why the practice is allowed to be such a free-for-all with few regulations in place at all. 
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Chris Lane is a contributing writer who enjoys covering art, music, pop culture, and social issues.