A Brief History of Live Event Ticketing

A Brief History of Live Event Ticketing
Photo by Dylan Mullins / Unsplash

If you're a theater buff, you know that getting your hands on the best tickets can be a real drama. But have you ever stopped to think about the history of event ticketing? Believe it or not, the process of securing a seat at a show has come a long way from the days of standing in line at the box office. In this article, we'll take an entertaining and educational trip through the evolution of event ticketing, from the use of physical passes in times past to the high-tech systems of today. So without further ado, let's raise the curtain on the fascinating history of event ticketing!

Before the advent of ticketing agencies and the use of paper tickets, the process of securing admission to an event was much more exclusive. Are you ready for a history lesson? It’s worth it, trust us. In pre-modern times, physical passes or invitations in the form of ornate coins or tokens were used to grant access to exclusive events, such as royal court performances or private parties. During the Roman era, admission to events such as gladiator matches and plays was granted through the use of physical clay disks roughly the size of a penny. Other than clay, these ‘tickets’ were often made of metal or bone and would bear the name of the event and the date. They would also often include the seat number and the section of the venue where the ticket holder was allowed to sit. It’s likely that these tickets were distributed through official channels, such as the event organizers or the venue, and were not meant to be resold. However, it’s also possible that ticket scalping, or the practice of buying tickets at face value and reselling them at a higher price, probably occurred in ancient Rome as it has in many other societies throughout history. If you’re ever able to visit ancient Rome in a time machine, see if you can get you into a sold out gladiator show so we can get to the bottom of this. These passes were often elaborately designed and functioned as a symbol of status or membership in a certain social group. As the concept of public performances began to develop in the 18th century, the need for a more organized system of ticketing arose.

In 1732, the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden had a ridiculously simple system. They would charge patrons to enter and had no physical ticketing system whatsoever. Being a London based theater made this easy, since it was common for theaters at the time to disclose that there was no guarantee of a seat upon entry. Talk about hospitality! Some 20ish years later in 1755, it was common practice for theater managers to issue prepaid brass or bronze tokens as ‘tickets’. Although this helped managers control the number of patrons in attendance and keep track of the event revenue (not to mention these slick tokens were harder to counterfeit), it was typically only good for one show. Remarkably the first recorded use of paper tickets for admission to an event was only 30 years later in 1786, when the first bonafide ticketing agency was established in London, England to sell tickets for performances at the Royal Opera House.

As you can imagine, the introduction of ticketing agencies and the use of paper tickets marked a significant shift in the history of event ticketing. Finally, people could fold their tickets into origami swans and little paper t-shirts. But paper tickets didn’t really catch on until after the audacious subscriber tickets had their heyday. ‘What’s a subscriber ticket?’, you might ask. That’s a great question my young theater grasshopper.  Available in 1868, subscriber tickets were a reusable token typically made of bone that represented access to that sweet cushy favorite seat in the theater on a set of days or particular days of the week. If it hasn’t become obvious, these tokens fueled cliques of exclusivity among patrons, probably forming the first VIP sections and die hard Cubs fans. At any rate, by the late 1800s paper tickets became mainstream and by the early 1900s paper tickets started evolving to have more ornate borders and used fancy colored inks. However, the use of paper tickets also made it easier for unscrupulous individuals to engage in ticket scalping. A scalper didn’t have to carry a large sack of tokens or clay or bone like a madman, and instead could easily hold hundreds of tickets with one hand. This led to the increasingly complex ticketing security methods, such as even more ornate borders and even fancier inks. Alas, the showy inks and frilly borders weren’t enough, and so in the 1940s serial numbers began showing up on tickets. Sports games were the inspiration for unique ticket shapes, such as baseballs and catcher’s mitts for the shape of baseball tickets, this really challenged the arts and crafts abilities of counterfeiters. Then in the 1950s, special paper started being used, along with watermarks and microprinting.

Have you ever heard about microprinting as a security feature? Here’s the scoop, the practice of microprinting is exactly as it sounds, to have extremely small text on the ticket which is extremely hard to replicate. To those curious as to just how micro we’re talking, it wasn’t unusual to see a 0.5 point font, which was still visible with the naked eye but obviously more difficult to copy. For comparison, some passports use a microprinting 0.1 point font to deter counterfeiting. And for reference, a 1 point font is roughly 0.35 mm tall, so a 0.1 point font would be 1/10th of that. Insanity right? If only theaters had Fourth Wall Tickets sooner, then they could leave the ticket management to the professionals and focus their energy on more sales and marketing. We shutter at the idea of living in that harsh, cold, brutal splashy ticketing landscape.

In the 1960s, event tickets began to be sold through authorized outlets, such as box offices and ticketing agencies, rather than being sold directly by the event organizers. This helped to reduce the risk of counterfeits entering circulation by spreading the liability of ticket authentication to those authorized retailers. By the 1970s holographics were implemented on tickets, and because shiny things have always been sought since the dawn of man, tickets started being collectable themselves. Fun fact: The Hungarian inventor Dennis Gabor created the first holograms in 1948, then gave up on researching it since the images were poor quality, but later received a Nobel Prize for Physics in 1971 after the invention of the laser in 1960 (allowing for much sharper holographic images) and subsequent explosion of holographic images in the early 1970s. Although less flashy, older memorabilia still holds the record for most expensive sale despite not having holographics. Did you hear about the ticket stub from Jackie Robinson's major-league debut that was sold at auction? It's believed to be the most expensive sporting-event ticket of all time. It only cost $1.75 back in 1947, but recently it sold for a staggering $480,000. Talk about a real steal! The previous record sale was $264,000 for a Michael Jordan debut stub that sold last December. If you’d like to see some iconic ticket designs for yourself, head over to ebay and search for ‘vintage ticket’.

In 1976 a little ticketing distribution company called Ticketmaster was formed, maybe you’ve heard of them. It’s worth mentioning that Ticketron was formed in 1968, and is typically regarded as the pioneer of automated ticketing machines. Later still in the 1980s, box offices shifted to a distributed commerce model where tickets could be purchased at record shops like Tower Records, to avoid causing long lines at the box office. It’s fascinating that by 1990, Ticketron was a major player in the ticketing industry, with 750 outlets and a 40% market share. Despite being second to Ticketmaster, which had 50% of the market, Ticketron was a formidable competitor. However, in 1990 the majority of Ticketron's assets and business (with the exception of a small antitrust carve-out for Broadway's Telecharge business unit) were purchased by The Carlyle Group. The following year, the group sold Ticketron to rival Ticketmaster, dooming us all.

We’re sure Ticketmaster employees were excitedly licking their lips in the early 2000s when the proliferation of the internet and the shift towards online ticket sales marked a major turning point in the history of event ticketing. With the advent of websites and platforms specifically designed for the sale of event tickets, it became much easier for consumers to purchase tickets from the comfort of their own homes, and even print them out. You would feel like a wizard when printing your ticket at will. This also made it even easier for event organizers to manage ticket sales and track attendance, since now they could sit at home in their underwear while they printed money from sales, rather than having to go into the office, an altogether next level of wizardry. Tech’s involvement in event ticketing only escalated with Eventbrite and cVent coming into the picture, which let anyone with an internet connection sell tickets for their own events. And of course, the emergence of mobile ticketing and e-ticketing systems further revolutionized the way tickets were purchased and delivered, allowing for the use of smartphones as a means of admission to events.

In the current state of event ticketing, ticketing companies, aggregators, and scalpers have all become incredibly sophisticated as they constantly play cat and mouse. We’re well aware of scalpers at Fourth Wall Tickets. In the past, scalpers were often seen as nefarious characters who used shady means to acquire tickets, such as standing in line for hours or paying off box office employees. However, as the ticketing industry has evolved, so too has scalping. Today, scalping is an insanely complicated enterprise, with scalpers using advanced technology and tactics to acquire tickets and resell them at a profit. For example, when scalpers used software programs that can purchase tickets in bulk as soon as they go on sale, event organizers started limiting ticket purchases per person. Scalpers responded by using bots, or automated programs, to create tens or even hundreds of customer accounts to purchase tickets online, making it difficult for individuals to compete with them. These crafty scalpers go so far as to mask the geolocation of each bot, and buy a burner phone for each account when a phone number is required. Luckily Fourth Wall Tickets is a light and agile system, capable of helping theater owners manage tickets carefully with bespoke tooling. But scalping isn't just limited to online ticket sales. Scalpers may also use tactics such as buying tickets from box offices in multiple locations or using fake IDs to purchase tickets that are intended for resale (isn’t that a federal crime?). Additionally, scalpers may hire people to stand in line for tickets or even buy tickets from legitimate ticket holders who are willing to sell them for a profit. Despite the efforts of event organizers to deter scalping, it remains a persistent problem. Some people argue that scalping is a natural part of the market and that it allows people who are willing to pay more for tickets to see an event. Others argue that scalping drives up ticket prices and makes it difficult for ordinary people to afford attendance.

In addition to innovative platforms, there’s been an increase in the use of contactless and biometric ticketing methods, such as the use of RFID technology and facial recognition, for security and convenience. These methods allow for a more seamless and efficient admission process at events. We’re scared to think what scalpers will get up to if facial recognition catches on in event admission (is that a fake face?). Looking towards the future, there’s potential for the use of blockchain technology in event ticketing (it’s already been done virtually). The use of blockchain, a decentralized digital ledger, could potentially eliminate ticket fraud and scalping by creating a secure and transparent record of ticket ownership. The stub could then be auctioned off since blockchain data is typically forever. And you thought those monkey jpegs were worthless, tisk tisk. There’s always a growing emphasis on security and fraud prevention in the ticketing industry. Have you noticed that the barcode on your Ticketmaster mobile ticket now has a moving element to prevent screenshots? This is likely something you've seen if you've been attending shows. In addition to security, there is potential for the use of technology to create personalized and interactive experiences for event attendees. This could include the use of augmented reality or other immersive technologies to enhance the event experience.

Isn’t that an interesting series of events? As we wrap up our adventure through the history of event ticketing, we hope you can appreciate as we do, just how captivating the evolution is to learn about. From the use of clay and bone passes in pre-modern times to the face scanning, high-tech systems of today, the process of securing admission to an event has grown to meet the needs of both event organizers and attendees. The future of event ticketing holds the promise of further innovation, but can be difficult to predict at this point given just how many moving parts there are. Whether you're a seasoned theatergoer or a newcomer to the world of live performances, the history of event ticketing is sure to win you some clout points with your friends and intrigue your date. But as a venue operator what really brings smiles and praise is integrating Fourth Wall Tickets. How has your theater evolved in the events and event ticketing realms? What were the challenges of your evolution?