Ticketmaster’s Reckless, Privacy-Shredding Covid Plan to Get You in Their Seats

Conservatives of the paranoid bent sometimes try to depict Covid-19 as wildly exaggerated threat so the government can take away their freedumbs.1 But as we’ll see, the government should be the least of their worries. The big threat is private sector actors like Ticketmaster, with bright ideas about get back their old normal economics, in partnership with companies like IBM who already want to get their hands on your health data.

And to make matters worse, the Ticketmaster scheme, at least in its early iteration in an exclusive story in Billboard, looks unsound from a public health perspective.

Recall that Ticketmaster takes a cut for handling the booking of tickets to live performances sold by “event owners”. Google being Google, I didn’t have much success in trying to find the which types of events are most important to Ticketmaster’s total sales. However, its online ads say “Buy verified tickets for concerts, sports, theater, family and other events near you.” So we’ll assume that concerts, sporting matches, and theater are their big sellers, and likely in that order.

Now most of those gatherings would seem to be plenty risky from a Covid perspective: people sitting closer than “social distancing” norms and for many events, like rock performances, lots of yelling or loud talking. There appears to have been only one study so far, not peer reviewed, on what to do to make live performances safer. This one took 1400 volunteers at a rock concert in Germany. It concluded it was possible to make these gatherings “low risk” provided a lot of protective measures were taken, including of course mask wearing. From Rolling Stone:

Researchers offered a handful of recommendations for Covid-19 safe concerts: Installing new ventilation systems that more effectively refreshes the air in the venue; implementing seated food and drink breaks; mandating masks; and ensuring attendees can get into the venue through multiple entrances.

As the article continues, other groups in Europe are investigating the effectiveness of other approaches to making indoor shows safer.

But instead of a data-driven approach, Ticketmaster appears to be relying on hopium and snooping. The write-up in Billboard stresses that the Ticketmaster scheme is still very much on the drawing board. The only mention of masks is that “event owners” might require them:

Event organizers also have the ability to set their own prevention protocols, like sanitation, mask compliance and social distancing.

Now admittedly, states and municipalities are likely to set their own rules regarding mask wearing and the maximum capacity of events; right now, in most of the US, there are already strict limits for how many people may gather indoors, and in some states, even outside. However, “mask compliance” is a subtle point. Even if a municipality mandates mask wearing at, do you think a stadium owner will have mask bouncers? And what happens if you go to a basketball game and find that the people on one side of you all strip their masks off? By contrast, airlines are banning passengers who defy mask protocols from future flights and Delta even once had a plane turn around so that two uncooperative passengers could be removed.

The Ticketmaster scheme, “a framework for post-pandemic fan safety,” relies on tests and vaccines to make congregating an acceptable risk so that live events “can start mounting a return in 2021”. The outline:

Many details of the plan, which is still in development phase, will rely on three separate components — the Ticketmaster digital ticket app, third party health information companies like CLEAR Health Pass or IBM’s Digital Health Pass and testing and vaccine distribution providers like Labcorp and the CVS Minute Clinic.

Here’s how it would work, if approved: After purchasing a ticket for a concert, fans would need to verify that they have already been vaccinated (which would provide approximately one year of COVID-19 protection) or test negative for coronavirus approximately 24 to 72 hours prior to the concert. The length of coverage a test would provide would be governed by regional health authorities — if attendees of a Friday night concert had to be tested 48 hours in advance, most could start the testing process the day before the event. If it was a 24-hour window, most people would likely be tested the same day of the event at a lab or a health clinic.

Once the test was complete, the fan would instruct the lab to deliver the results to their health pass company, like CLEAR or IBM. If the tests were negative, or the fan was vaccinated, the health pass company would verify the attendee’s COVID-19 status to Ticketmaster, which would then issue the fan the credentials needed to access the event. If a fan tested positive or didn’t take a test to verify their status, they would not be granted access to the event.

Overconfidence in protective measures like vaccines could produce net negative outcomes, by encouraging citizens to become less vigilant about other measures, like masks.

The Ticketmaster plan looks to fall prey to this sort of thinking by signaling too much faith in a vaccine. As we pointed out yesterday, it’s unlikely that a Covid vaccine (or any vaccine for a respiratory disease) will achieve the gold standard of “sterilizing immunity” meaning people who are vaccinated are safe to others. A vaccine (if effective on you) will keep you from getting the disease because your immune system will go out and vanquish it, or at least hopefully beat it back enough so that you don’t get as sick as you would otherwise have. But you will have the virus in your system as you are mounting the immune response, not unlike someone with an asymptomatic case. In the absence of data, experts believe those who were vaccinated can still spread Covid, but to a lesser degree than symptomatic cases, since their viral load would be lower and they would not have a Covid cough.

And that’s before getting to the fact that even the much-hyped Pfizer mRNA vaccine is expected to have 90% efficacy….assuming it doesn’t become deactivated due to cold chain lapses. Recall that Dr. Fauci depicted the odds of “highly effective” vaccine, as in 98%+ efficacy, as slim, and that even though he would prefer a vaccine with over 70% efficacy, 50% to 60% would do. We have yet to see performance data from conventional vaccine candidates in the pipeline.

Now if having had a vaccine were the only criterion for being allowed to attend a event, one could argue that concerns about vaccinated people possibly infecting others would be greatly reduced, since a vaccine would presumably offer some protection. But the Ticketmaster scheme is designed to get attendees in seats in 2021. There’s no way most would be vaccinated even by year end, charitably assuming full compliance. Hence Ticketmaster also allowing those with fresh negative Covid tests to be waved in.

Another concern is that Ticketmaster is also making assumptions about how long a vaccine would work. Careful readers may have noticed the parenthetical: “(which would provide approximately one year of COVID-19 protection)”. Glad to know that Ticketmaster has either a medical research division or a psychic, since no one knows how long vaccine-conferred immunity lasts, and some experts worry it could be as short as six months.

Needless to say, there’s also a lot not to like about sending personal medical information to the likes of third party vendors like IBM, particularly since most of them have said they are hungry to get in the business of selling medical data for wonderful purposes like personalized advertising. One has to take their claims of caring about patient privacy with a fistful of salt. Not only do their incentives run entirely the other way, but experts have warned that medical data often has enough patient identifying information, like age, race, gender, marital status and ZIP code, to get a considerable way towards deanonymizing it.

Oh, and Ticketmaster also wants to gets its claws into your data:

For Ticketmaster, two new technologies at the companies will help its clients scale the program. The first is digital ticketing that’s linked to a fan’s identity, eliminates paper tickets and can be restricted from being transferred or resold. Ticketmaster also plans to deploy its new SmartEvent system, which helps event organizers and fans manage social distancing, delayed entry and provide possible opportunities for contact tracing.

Count me out. And apparently no one gave the technology team at Ticketmaster the memo that experts around the world have concluded that contact tracing by smartphone doesn’t work. But no doubt it’s a great pretext for getting potential users to cooperate.

Now if America were well run and the sort of place that cared about protecting its citizens, it would be sponsoring and running studies on how to make venues safer, not just for the benefit of the sports and entertainment industry, but also for governments, so they could learn how to make places where people congregate like airports and courthouses safer. And if the Biden Administration were as science-minded as it pretends to be, it could create a safety bureau that would create standards and metrics. Venue owners might even pay a modest fee to have their facility and event procedures reviewed and graded, so members of the public could assess safety risks in advance of booking a seat. And that would create incentives for members of the entertainment industry, broadly defined, to work together to make performances safer.

The one bit of good news is buried in the article: the Ticketmaster plan is vaporware since no one yet has approvals to act as a Covid data broker:

To date, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any third-party companies to provide the complex technology needed to deliver real-time vaccination results, but Ticketmaster president Mark Yovich expects the demand for digital screening services — which will be needed for airline travel, employment verification and theme park entry — will attract a new wave of investors and entrepreneurs to fuel the growth of a new COVID-19 technology sector.

As Lambert said, “It sounds as if they aren’t interested in health.” That looks like an apt take on Ticketmaster’s priorities too.


1 Notice how the formulation parallels that of how the government wants to take away their guns?

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  1. vlade

    All of that vs ticketed-live-stream.

    Here theatres started live-stream plays as a source of income, both on pay-per-event as well as subscription basis.

    While none is a replacement of the live-experience, the market for live-stream/televised sports is order of magnitude larger than live-sports watching, which will be always limited by space.

    Now, the important thing is not to let the likes of Ticketmasters to get their hands on it.. (here’s hoping).

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Agreed, yet I may not have highlighted a key point: the Ticketmaster scheme is the edge of the wedge of an approach to “keep the economy open”. As I indicated, there are better ways to address the problem of how to reduce the risk of large gatherings. But the techno-gee-whizzery of apps and smartphones and getting consumers to hand over their data has so many other potential uses, even if it doesn’t look so hot at addressing the presenting problem.

      1. vlade

        Yes, a lot of startups before the CV hit was built around the idea of “we get people to give us data, and then we’ll work out some magic with it to justify our billion dollar valuation. You mean we’d solve some problem? What for?”

  2. Arizona Slim

    I stopped going to concerts and sporting events years ago. Why? Simple: They’re too darned LOUD!

    Ditto for most restaurants and bars. Also too darned LOUD!

    Yours Truly is hard of hearing. To me, loud environments are highly stressful. I have to strain to hear anything over the din, and that gets tiring in a hurry.

    Give me peace and quiet any day.

    1. vlade

      Amen. In the last few years, pretty much all events I went to were with probably 50 people tops, farily quiet (for a live event). I never understood why having your eardrums blasted in was considered the top indicator of the even enjoyment.

      1. hickory

        Loud music, especially with lots of bass, gets you out of your head. If you want to keep your normal identity and normally-socially-conditioned perspective of your surroundings and self, keep the music down. If you want a more carnal experience, crank the bass. I think it’s kinda like alcohol – it lets out part of you that you normally keep tucked away deep inside.

    2. carl

      I’m sure I have hearing damage from foolishly attending loud concerts as a youth. I really really don’t understand why it’s necessary to blast music so loud that your ears ring for two days afterwards. “Can you turn it up a bit, because I can’t hear you” said no one ever at an Aerosmith concert.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      One of the last concerts I went to pre-pandemic was a band called Sleep. The first note the bass player hit, I think I could feel it before I heard it – a low deep deafening rumble that shook the concrete floor until the sonic vibrations went up through my feet and legs, through my body and into my ears in a tumultuous auditory assault. Glorious!

      Now let me turn up my hearing aid – I didn’t catch all of your last comment ;)

  3. Stephen The Tech Critic

    In related news:

    […Nevada Governor] Sisolak advised not going out to stores, restaurants or gatherings unless essential. He also advised against parties and non-essential meetings, and reminded faith leaders to follow public gathering protocols, and to prevent congregating after in-person services. He said tourists or those wishing to come to Nevada “certainly” should, but they need to wear a mask and follow all COVID-19 protocols. […]


    Some days ago the Links had a paper called “Engines of COVID-19” or some such that discussed the implications of the high dispersion observed in the virus’ transmission. Essentially, the most critical transmission to prevent are those between people that are normally far away from each in the network of social-contacts. NV casinos seem like the worst-case scenario for that.

    For Ticketmaster events, the distances between contacts (in the network) are not quite as great, but with a dense population of shouting and screaming people? It just seems like another terrible idea. I laughed out-loud at the absurdity of it when I first saw a headline for their concept.

    Also about Ticketmaster. I once had a miserable job at a software company where everything was just completely dysfunctional all the time, leaving me to wonder why they even existed. In hindsight, it appears the product (if you could call it that) was really just a vehicle for billing of support hours to be rolled into huge management business consulting contracts from that a company with a very familiar name I won’t utter out-loud here. After an internal re-org, my new boss’s boss introduced himself and told us how much he loved working for the company because it wasn’t evil. He said his previous job was working at Ticketmaster.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I would guess that the sort of people that go to these venues would be on the younger side of life and are active on social media. And it is obvious that mobs like Ticketmasters, CLEAR and IBM are only interested in a cash flow along with a stream of data to be monetized from these event-goers. So how would this work out in practice? After the first few venues turn into superspreader events and those event-goers find their feed chocked with adverts because of the info that they had supplied, word will quickly go out on their social media what the real lowdown is. People will then shun these events and it will be a very long time before there is any semblance of trust again. So if mobs like Tickemasters had tried to do the right thing, they would have had a steady stream of customers long term but through greed, they will have revenue collapse as the events will be regarded as too dangerous to attend by their customers. Just my guess here.

    1. redleg

      The biggest cash cows are legacy acts, such as Fleetwood Mac. Think 15- to 20,000 people at an average of $800 each. Those crowds aren’t young.
      My cousin toured with them the last few years, until February 2020, and he said they won’t be having shows until at least 2022. Figure that Ticketmaster, LiveNation (both reviled by musicians) charges ~15% fee plus a handling charge (I’ve personally had charges that doubled the ticket prices) and what’s at stake for them (rent) becomes clear.

        1. redleg

          They do. Some pay much, much more, as that was the average (what he told me- not hard research). Nosebleeds were something like $150 to give an idea of how much more.
          That nosebleed price is too much for my budget.

  5. IdahoSpud

    I think Ticketmaster has forgotten who needs whom.

    Maybe they still expect to see pre-pandemic behavior, when popular events would sell out within a matter of hours. Afterwards, the venue would walk you through a metal detector and snoop through your personal belongings as you entered. I anticipate that the public’s willingness to accept that sort of thing may have been altered.

    It’s pretty arrogant to think they have the power to make customers jump through any kind of medical hoop to attend a live event. Such events are completely voluntary, and also tend to be fairly expensive – whilst we are in the midst of massive job losses. I’m not planning on going to any live event (or cruise, or flight, or dinner party) for a while, and I’m definitely not OK with any kind of medical snooping, so Ticketmaster can piss off.

    Also – Do they intend to give each employee training on the HIPAA act’s privacy and recordkeeping requirements?

    1. lyman alpha blob

      I can’t see that too many people would want to jump through those hoops either. One good thing about the pandemic – if it continues, maybe it will put Ticketmaster right out of business.

      The biggest operator of live venues in my town still has its own box office where I can walk up and pay cash for a ticket directly to the venue with no Ticketmaster surcharge. Unfortunatey one of their venues has already closed due to covid. Hopefully they can outlast Ticketmaster,

  6. Lou Mannheim

    Does anyone else chuckle when marketing people prepend products with “Smart?”

    I’m a huge fan of live music, there is nothing quite like a good set played in front of an audience. It could be at Radio City or a dingy, sweaty club – there’s an energy b/t performers and the audience that can only be captured live.

    But there’s no way I’m seeing a live show again until COVID is sorted, maybe outdoors but it would still depend. I feel for the artists – streaming is bringing negligible royalties, so for young artists touring and merch are the primary revenue streams. But the kids may feel differently, which is what Ticketbastard is playing.

    Let’s just make our national motto Caveat Emptor and be done with it.

  7. Carolinian

    The Ticketmaster scheme sounds utterly ridiculous. And one reason entertainment venues like movie theaters are suffering so badly is that the public itself is unwilling to take a risk just to watch a movie, especially when they have the alternative of doing the same in their own home.

  8. XXYY

    After purchasing a ticket for a concert, fans would need to verify that they have already been vaccinated … or test negative for coronavirus approximately 24 to 72 hours prior to the concert. … if attendees of a Friday night concert had to be tested 48 hours in advance, most could start the testing process the day before the event. If it was a 24-hour window, most people would likely be tested the same day of the event at a lab or a health clinic. Once the test was complete, the fan would instruct the lab to deliver the results to their health pass company, like CLEAR or IBM. If the tests were negative, or the fan was vaccinated, the health pass company would verify the attendee’s COVID-19 status to Ticketmaster, which would then issue the fan the credentials needed to access the event.

    Hard to even read this Rube Goldbergian process out loud without laughing. This would be bad enough if the process were vitally needed for some life-and-death reason, but the idea that people would comply with this impossible sequence just for the privilege of paying Ticketmastet a gigantic fee to let them hang out with other COVID spreaders boggles the mind.

  9. ksw

    And when you buy your ticket, a convenience fee is tacked on plus option to buy Covid test along with parking, VIP access, etc.

  10. Mikel

    MC or music group member: “LA what’s uuuppppp?!”
    “All the ladies wave your hands in the air”
    “All the fellas wave your hands in the air”
    (Cellphones are raised to begin filming)
    (Dancers march onto the stage)
    (Hit song begins)
    (Some fans at front rush closer to the stage)
    (Lead singer begins)
    (Fans begin to dance)
    After the first song comes the banter from the lead singer)
    “I just wanna thank you all for being here tonight. You’re so beautiful. On my way here tonight…(launches into a somewhat humorous or touching story)
    “This next song everyone who lost someone/needs someone/loved someone…”
    Etc…concert continues. Sing along continues…etc..

    Next night:
    MC or band member: “San Diego what’s uppppp?!”
    Repeat, repeat, repeat.

    Seen enough of it. Will keep the shreds of privacy still left for as long as possible.

    1. redleg

      Seeing it is one thing.
      Doing it is a potent mix of awful and awesome that I miss dearly.
      The worst part of the pandemic economy is that music venues and theaters are getting obliterated. Many have already closed, more are on the rocks. That’s a lot of hard working people out of work, small businesses lost.

  11. SteveB

    I went to the Ft Lauderdale Boat show at the end of October. Masks were required AND they did have Mask Police watching for non compliance. They also limited attendance. In years past on the weekend it is shoulder to shoulder,,,,, This year there was plenty of space… Yachts and boats have been hot commodities this year…

    Not sure how this would translate to concerts… I have a friend who is close to one of the biggest draws in music… They were planning tour in 2020… Now put off until at least 2022… They’re all old and don’t want to risk their health.. They don’t really need money… But it’s their Lifestyle ie: Playing and touring

    1. Mikel

      I see anyone big attempting to tour limiting the number of cities and doing extended dates (a week or two at a time in one city) at primarily outdoor venues. Something like that…and using local crews more.

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