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‘Hamilton,’ Broadway and the Duel Over Paperless Tickets

“Hamilton” just opened on the West End, and it’s impossible to get your hands on a ticket. Literally impossible, because ticketing for the show has gone entirely paperless — and producers are praising the move as the most effective way to cut out price-gouging scalpers and bots.

But the strategy won’t hit Broadway. At least not yet: It’s illegal in New York state for a live event’s ticketing to go entirely paperless, and the issue has left producers, ticket sellers, resellers and legislators deadlocked.

At the root of the standoff is the nontransferable entry that’s also the reason paperless works. Rather than receiving a hard copy of a ticket with purchase, or even an electronic ticket, audience members show up at the
theater with an ID and the credit card they used for purchase. Entry is, essentially, tied to the identity of the ticket buyer. There are upsides and downsides to that, according to the arguments on either side of the issue.

Those in favor contend that because paperless tickets are so much harder to resell, it’s a major roadblock for scalpers and for bots, the software that allows third-party resellers to snap up high-demand tickets far more quickly than individual fans can.

The recently opened London incarnation of “Hamilton” seems to offer proof that paperless works on that front. According to those involved in the West End production, there are no “Hamilton” tickets for sale on three of four principal unauthorized online secondary ticketing sites (like Viagogo), and many of those available on another site are easy to identify and wouldn’t be honored or refunded at the theater.

That’s good news for both the show’s producers and primary ticket sellers, who are holding on to the money that would otherwise go to scalpers, and for fans, who aren’t battling bots for ticket access.

But opponents argue that paperless also limits consumer choice, curtailing the ease with which buyers can, for instance, give tickets as a gift or resell tickets for an event that they’re unable to attend.

“We’ve found that the way paperless is normally implemented is not friendly to buyers being able to transfer their tickets,” said Jeff Poirier, the general manager of music, theater and performing arts at StubHub, which has lobbied legislators on the issue.

StubHub, of course, has a vested interest in the discussion, since nontransferable tickets could shrink the resale market that’s the basis of the company’s business model. On the other side of the fence, Ticketmaster and other primary ticket sellers (which are the sole outlets for transferring paperless tickets) support paperless as an option that should always be available to producers, promoters and presenters, should they want it.

The Broadway League, the trade association of theater producers and presenters, is in favor too. “An outside interloper shouldn’t be in the mix telling the primary seller how they should be interacting with their fan base,” said Tom Ferrugia, the league’s director of governmental affairs.

Technically, any Broadway production is free to offer paperless ticketing right now — but according to state law, ticketers must always provide alternatives (hard copies, e-tickets, etc.) to buyers who don’t want tickets tied to their ID and credit cards. Proponents of paperless, however, argue that the strategy only works when it’s all or nothing, since brokers and scalpers will always use the loophole. (Ticketmaster created the preregistration service Verified Fan — currently used by “Springsteen on Broadway” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” — as an alternative to battle bots.)

That deadlock is where things stand right now, as fans, brokers, scalpers and bots alike clamor for access to “Frozen,” “Harry Potter,” “Springsteen” and the rest of Broadway’s hottest shows. But things could change: The state’s legislation regarding live-event ticketing is due to be reevaluated in June.

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