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September 12, 2023

Full Rate No Cap's Bill Werde on Web3, Ticket Pricing, Building Audience Loyalty, and more

For years, Bill Werde was a journalist plying his trade with Rolling Stone and Billboard. Today he is still writing, only it’s completely on his own terms, having founded industry email newsletter Full Rate No Cap, a weekly analysis of news, trends and ideas in the music business.

“To be honest, I really don't do it as a business,” he says. “In fact, I joke it's the worst paying part time job I've ever had. I've made the conscious decision to turn down advertising at this point, because I'm really enjoying that freedom of just writing for myself. And I'm trying not to let a growing readership or advertising or anything like that get in my head, and I'm enjoying that.”

Stories on Full Rate No Cap have, however, resonated far and wide, having been picked up by outlets such as Music Business Worldwide and Hypebot. “It's kind of gratifying when other publications are willing to take something that I wrote just for my own interest, my own kind of readership,” he offers.

Werde’s full time role is Director and Professor of Practice at Syracuse University’s Bandier Program for Recording and Entertainment Industries, a multi-disciplinary program that encompasses the media, marketing and entrepreneurship side of the music business.

It’s a job that demands he stay at the cutting edge of music industry trends and analysis. Here, he shares some of his insights into ticket pricing, Web3, building audience loyalty, and more…

Bill with Randy Fibiger, SVP of booking for MSGE, for their weekly lecture series in the Bandier Program.

How are you seeing the smart promoters and event organizers operating when it comes to selling tickets?

Well, I want to be clear, I'm not an agent, I'm not a promoter. And I've never had my neck on the chopping block to do that role. So, for this particular question, it's more sort of anecdotal and the things I see and the conversations I have.

The smartest people I'm talking to… I would say two things. Number one, I think there is a lot of quiet interest in Web3 and Web3-backed approaches. [Recently] you saw a lot of headlines around Avenged Sevenfold and Ticketmaster being able to create token gated ticket purchases.

But while that was going on, something else happened that was really interesting that no one paid attention to – there's a company called Medallion that essentially worked to help My Morning Jacket put some tickets on sale.

And that sale actually happened a few days before the Ticketmaster-Avenged Sevenfold experiment. Now it was a different thing. What Medallion is doing is basically making Web3 invisible, which I think is brilliant.

So you're getting the benefits of being able to track data, you're getting the benefits of that data belonging to the artist on chain. So if you leave, [or] if Medallion goes out of business, the artist still has that data on chain.

And you're building these deep relationships with fans.

Now, that was not token gated. And I understand that token gated captures the fancy of a lot of people who are really into crypto.

"There's been a lot of attention paid to Verified Fan and what it does, but also, what it doesn't do. And it's pretty clear, Verified Fan is pretty good at validating real humans. But it's not particularly good at making sure that the people who get to buy tickets are your best fans."

But the actual benefits of Web3, which have to do with the back end data and the ability to aggregate and parse and use back end data for a fanclub, for example, and the ability to validate users, none of that stuff necessarily needs to be front and center.

So if you sign up for the My Morning Jacket fan club, which is essentially the back end of Medallion, it'll give you the option on the first screen: 'Do you want to sign up with your email address, or do you want to sign up with your digital wallet?'

Regardless of which way I sign up, all of the data I’m creating, all the activity, all the videos that I click on through their fan club, the tickets that I might end up buying, the actions that I take as a fan, all that data is living on chain.

This experimenting that's going on, where artists and managers are using new tech to be smarter about building relationships with fans, to be smarter about understanding the data that fans are throwing off, and then using that data to sell tickets and make sure that your diehard fans, your best fans, are getting those tickets, that's really interesting.

There's been a lot of attention paid to Verified Fan and what it does, but also, what it doesn't do. And it's pretty clear, Verified Fan is pretty good at validating real humans. But it's not particularly good at making sure that the people who get to buy tickets are your best fans.

And so, Medallion and companies like Medallion are starting to do some really smart work at being able to parse and track this data, so that down the road just a bit, you're going to start to see presales that are much more standard, where your best fans – based on how you want to define your best fans – are going to get access to those tickets. And I think that's really a very high potential area.

Bill moderating a panel at the 2022 Mondo conference.

So if used correctly, Web3 can actually be really key in building audience loyalty or fostering that artist-fan relationship. Is that how you see the smart operators using that technology?

Yeah, absolutely. I think that understandably, certainly in 2021, when NFTs just exploded, there was a lot of pushback, and there was a lot of bullshit to be pushed back on. And there was the reality that tech bros were speculative buying million dollar JPEGs. And it was stupid. I said it was stupid then, I think it's stupid now.

The speculative buying part of NFTs has really given Web3 a terrible name, which is why I'm really enjoying the artists and the companies that are just quietly building in this post-crash period, and they're not in any way, shape or form focused on, hey, let me sell you a JPEG for a bazillion dollars.

They're focused on, how do we deliver actual utility? How do we deliver real value for fans? And I think whether you're looking at Avenged Sevenfold or you're looking at My Morning Jacket and some of the other acts that are signed up through Medallion, you're looking at artists that are doing this the right way, that are showing the potential of Web3 and of chain-based fan clubs.

And I think it's very real. There's nothing flash in the pan about that, it all makes sense.

"The speculative buying part of NFTs has really given Web3 a terrible name, which is why I'm really enjoying the artists and the companies that are just quietly building in this post-crash period, and they're not in any way, shape or form focused on, hey, let me sell you a JPEG for a bazillion dollars."

You’ve written about TikTok versus YouTube Shorts in terms of gaining an audience. Do you think either platform lends itself better to ticket conversions?

That's a really interesting question. It really depends on who the artist is and where their base is. The first and most important thing is, you want to go where an artist’s fans are. And so if that artist has built their base on TikTok, that's obviously where you want to be.

And I think also, there are certain demographic realities. Certain countries are going to index much higher for YouTube. If you're a global superstar, you might be surprised to consider that depending on where your tour is routing, YouTube is probably going to be a better partner, just because there's a lot of countries where TikTok isn't.

That said, if you're trying to reach pop fans, young fans, people who love engaging in dishing around celebrity, TikTok’s the most powerful platform.

I mean, every night that Taylor Swift's in concert, you can find a dozen reasonable quality livestreams on TikTok, and it's fun as hell watching all the fans.

It's a healthy mixture of haters, but also the Swifties that aren't at that show, and they're just freaking out. I'm watching these shows on TikTok and I'm like, I can't believe I don't have tickets. This looks amazing. I have to get to this show.

I just say all that because there is nothing that creates FOMO like live social, and there's nothing that sells tickets like FOMO.

Credit: Yvette de Wit (Unsplash)

You’ve written recently about the emphasis festival and event organizers are placing on being environmentally conscious. How important do you think that's going to be moving forward?

[Just because a] festival or a tour isn't green, which is certainly the norm still in the live music business, isn't going to stop [people] from going. And so I think it's a tough sell. I mean, it really takes promoters and venues with a conscience, because the market is not demanding it right now.

So you have this massive industry that is built on carbon, that is built on flying or busing or training or shipping tons of people and tons of gear all over the country, all over the world. I think it's a tough one. I don't think there are easy answers.

Certainly, there are some great organizations out there that are doing God's work and trying to raise awareness. But I think the live business and the music industry overall… for a business that likes to broadly consider itself to be socially progressive and aware of the issues and on the right side of history, I think it's generally been pretty tragically on the wrong side of this one.

And if I'm being really honest, at least today I don't really see signs of that changing. During the Trump years America completely absconded from its role of any form of conscientious leadership in the world. I think that COVID put additional and immediate enormous pressures on the live business that are obvious financial pressures.

And I just think it's not where the focus has been. I think the industry has immediate issues around finance, around models, around all sorts of things. And I think that's really where the lion's share of the headspace goes. So it's troubling. I wish there was more there, but I understand why there isn't.

The other thing I would just say about the green question too is, unfortunately America, which is a leader in the global music industry from a revenue perspective, is obviously more polarized than it's ever been.

Almost any political issue is treated with kid gloves by any artist who's just afraid to alienate half of their fan base. And that's a lot of artists. And I think the polarization is not helping the climate issue. It’s largely seen as a Left issue.

Bill with Grace Malone and Michael DiVestea, two Bandier students who are leading the marketing efforts and Instagram account for Full Rate No Cap.

What do you think are the greatest public misunderstandings about ticket pricing in the primary and secondary markets?

The greatest public misunderstanding about ticket pricing, far and away – and there's really not a close second – is that Ticketmaster sets the prices or that Ticketmaster is choosing to sell platinum tickets. It's just not the case.

Artists set ticket prices and artists decide to sell platinum tickets. And yet I still regularly see articles that lash out at Ticketmaster for high prices.

Now, to be clear, if you want to lash out at Ticketmaster because of fees, then you're in the right. But not ticket prices. Artists today, at least in the United States, largely have the ability to control their ticket prices, and largely have the ability to keep their tickets off of secondary markets if they want to. And most of them don't. Most of them want the profit and most of them want the fair market dollars, at least on some level.

I mean, this was brought home most strikingly by Bruce Springsteen, the blue collar hero, basically telling fans to fuck off if they didn't like the ticket prices.

"The greatest public misunderstanding about ticket pricing, far and away – and there's really not a close second – is that Ticketmaster sets the prices or that Ticketmaster is choosing to sell platinum tickets. It's just not the case."

If Bruce Springsteen tomorrow wanted to sell tickets for $200, or $100, or $20, and keep them at those prices, there are a number of ways he could do that, The Cure being the most recent example of that largely working. [Prior to launching their “Lost World” US tour earlier this year, The Cure opted out of Ticketmaster’s platinum and dynamically priced ticketing options, which have been accused of fueling a rise in ticket prices. They also dictated that tickets were non-transferable to prevent scalping, and canceled tickets that had been bought by scalpers and sold on the secondary market.] Most of the secondary platforms in America honored The Cure’s request, but there's one – not SeatGeek, not StubHub – that is selling their tickets.

And on that platform, you can find a few hundred tickets per show. But these are arenas, so that's actually a pretty remarkable feat that by and large they've kept tickets off the secondary market. And by and large, fans have been able to purchase tickets at the prices that [frontman] Robert Smith and The Cure intended fans to purchase them at.

So when artists want to be like, ‘Oh, we wish we could do something about it.’ Well, you can. Look at what The Cure is doing on this tour. That’s a textbook example of a band showing that if you want to prioritize your fan, if you want to keep prices down, if you want to keep tickets in the hands of fans and not scalpers, you can have an awful lot of success doing that.

And is the most effective way of keeping tickets off the secondary market to cancel them, like The Cure did? Or how do you even stop it getting to that point where they're sold in that market?

It turns into a little bit of a multi-touch point kind of approach for the artist. I think the first and most significant one is you use Verified Fan with Ticketmaster. And then this is where it gets a little bit complicated if you don't know about the ticketing industry, but I will tell you, this is not complicated for artists, managers, agents or promoters.

The way this ideally works is you basically limit resale to Ticketmaster’s Face Value Ticket Exchange. And by and large that has worked. The exception here, the little bit of a carve out is, there are a small handful of states, and there's really three that wind up mattering the most – I want to say Illinois, New York, and Colorado – that have bans on artists limiting resale. And those states believe that they're being consumer friendly by doing that: oh, fans should be able to resell their tickets. But what they're doing is being scalper friendly.

So when I dug in on these numbers a week or so ago on Full Rate No Cap, and I talked to a bunch of people with first-hand knowledge of the back end of the secondary markets, what I was told was that roughly 40 to 50% of the secondary market value of all Cure tickets being resold was happening in just those three states.

This is a 30-plus day tour. And in just those three states, you have basically half the value of the secondary market being resold. It shows you how effective it is to have limitations on resale.

Sign up to Full Rate No Cap here. Follow Bill on LinkedIn here.


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Article by
Rod Yates

Rod is the Marketing Content Manager at Audience Republic. He was previously the editor of Rolling Stone Australia and Kerrang! Australia. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich once sent him a toaster – which was very thoughtful of him.