Tami Combs, a 58-year-old yoga instructor from Indiana, bought concert tickets to see the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Chicago and Sturgill Simpson this year.
But after the coronavirus pandemic struck, the concerts were postponed — one by seven months, the rest indefinitely. She now wants her money back, but says she is having trouble getting a refund from Ticketmaster.
“I have about $3,000 tied up in these tickets,” Ms. Combs said in an interview. “This is my money that they are holding hostage.”
Ms. Combs is far from alone as the pandemic is triggering widespread anger at ticketing companies like Ticketmaster and StubHub. Online, fans are fuming about being unable to get refunds for concerts that have been postponed, often with no rescheduled dates in sight. As they see it, ticketing outlets are being greedy at a time of crisis, holding billions of dollars in consumers’ cash that people now need for essentials.
Their anger is being stoked by the sense that some vendors switched their refund policies mid-crisis to avoid repaying consumers. Fans have drawn attention to the fact that Ticketmaster recently adjusted the language on its website. Whereas a few weeks ago, it said that people can get refunds “if your event is postponed, rescheduled or canceled,” now it only lists cancellation as a basis for getting your money back, though it suggests there may be other circumstances in which refunds might be considered.
And last week a Wisconsin man sued StubHub — the biggest marketplace for ticket resales — after the company recently dropped its refund policy, offering instead coupons worth 120 percent of what customers had paid for canceled events.
Ticketmaster said that, while it’s true it changed language to clarify matters, its refund policy has remained the same for years. StubHub, as the middleman between buyers and sellers of secondhand tickets, says that handling refunds for the huge number of canceled concerts is simply not manageable.
Even in the best of times, ticketing vendors are a common target for customer complaints. But the noise has started to bubble up to advocacy groups and attorneys general, posing a potential public-relations crisis for the ticketing industry.
For the companies, though, the problem is much more than a matter of optics.
The live entertainment industry has come to a grinding halt, with more than 20,000 events suspended in the last few weeks. If the pandemic does not subside soon, the peak summer touring season could be delayed as well.
Ticketmaster sells more than $30 billion in tickets each year, but most of that money is forwarded each week to venues, festival promoters and other clients. StubHub sells almost $5 billion in tickets a year, and pays the resellers who provide its inventory — many of them professional scalpers.
Last week, Pollstar, a trade publication that covers the touring business, said that the top 200 tours of 2020 had been expected to generate about $12 billion in ticket sales worldwide, but the concert industry could lose nearly $9 billion if shows remain dark for the rest of the year — which promoters and talent agents say is a possibility.
Still, John Breyault, vice president of public policy at the National Consumers League, urged industry players to refund payments, and to do so promptly.
“We have never seen such a quick and total collapse in the live event industry, as in many industries,” Mr. Breyault said, “but at the end of the day we can’t lose sight that these are dire financial times for consumers.”
The office of the New York State Attorney General said that since the first week of February it has received thousands of consumer complaints tied to the virus, on issues such as price gouging or fake medical treatments, but only 10 so far touching on ticketing matters. But experts say they expect an increase in formal complaints as more and more concerts are postponed.
For many fans online, one serious concern is whether companies jettisoned their refund policies when they saw the tidal wave of claims building.
Ticketmaster, which is owned by the concert giant Live Nation Entertainment, acknowledged that it had made changes to parts of its website once the coronavirus stalled the touring business last month, but that its underlying refund policy has not changed. That policy — which customers must click to accept when they buy tickets — says that refunds are processed automatically for cancellations, but that organizers of events may place “limitations” on refunds when it comes to postponed or rescheduled shows.
“In the past, with a routine volume of event interruptions, we and our event organizers have been able to consistently offer more flexibility with refunds for postponed and rescheduled events,” Ticketmaster said in a statement. “However, considering the currently unprecedented volume of affected events, we are focused on supporting organizers as they work to determine venue availability, new dates and refund policies, while rescheduling thousands of events in what continues to be an evolving situation.”
Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, the president of StubHub, said that the company had long issued refunds to ticket buyers before recovering charges from sellers, but that the huge number of cancellations has made that almost impossible.
“The complications that arise, and just the magnitude of this timing challenge, is frankly challenging for any intermediary in the normal course of practice,” Ms. Singh Cassidy said in an interview, “when practically speaking, that normal course no longer exists.”
StubHub, which was recently acquired by Viagogo, another secondary ticketing marketplace, for $4 billion, declined to comment on the lawsuit against it.
The potential loss of revenue facing Live Nation and StubHub has also drawn interest from Wall Street. Last month, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Live Nation’s debt over concerns about concert cancellations.
For ordinary consumers, though, the question is simply whether they are getting their money back.
Marcus Franz, 27, spent more than $1,000 on tickets to an Elton John show at Madison Square Garden that has since been postponed. Mr. Franz said he bought four tickets at $250 apiece for the April concert, two for him and his wife and two he had hoped to resell for extra money.
Even if the concert is rescheduled, Mr. Franz said, he is unlikely to be able to attend — he is moving to Texas soon.
“I think when you postpone a concert, with a date to be decided,” he said in an interview, “the right thing to do would be to cancel those concerts, figure out what’s going on, and then set them back up in the future.”
That may indeed happen. The major concert promoters and talent companies are now negotiating over plans to offer what some called a “refund window” in coming weeks — a period of perhaps 30 days when customers would be given the option to obtain refunds for postponed shows, according to multiple executives at these companies, who spoke anonymously because the negotiations are continuing.
They may want to act before more angry fans turn to the courts as Matthew McMillan, who sued StubHub in Wisconsin, has already done, albeit in a dispute over a refund for hockey tickets.
In the music industry, one lawsuit, filed in 2017, addressed the issue of when a postponement is really a cancellation. A fan of Janet Jackson sued Live Nation and a resale ticketing site, Vivid Seats, in California after a protracted delay to one of her tours. The lawsuit was settled, though it was not disclosed whether this involved any financial payment to her or other disappointed ticket holders; Ticketmaster said that the terms of the settlement are confidential.
Brian T. Fitzpatrick, a law professor at Vanderbilt University and a class-action expert, said conditions were ripe for such suits.
The companies may find some protection in the language of the ticketing contracts, Mr. Fitzpatrick said, but if concerts are delayed indefinitely and no near-term dates are supplied, ticket holders and their lawyers may argue that such lengthy postponements are unfair or unreasonable.
“If you are just stringing people along, then the court can say you are not exercising good faith,” said Mr. Fitzpatrick. “I think we are going to see lots and lots of breach-of-contract lawsuits coming out of the coronavirus. There is going to be a lot of people who are going to test what the law allows and does not allow.”
But other experts said getting legal traction will be tough because the ticketing companies will be protected by their careful contractual language or the courts will be sympathetic to the industry’s argument that the virus was a catastrophic event beyond its control.
Timothy J. Dennin, a lawyer who often litigates class-action suits, said it will be hard for fans to say they are suffering damage when an event is postponed and they could go sometime in the future, while rescheduling too soon could be dangerous. “In my view this is a Black Swan event that is no one’s fault,” he said in an email, adding later in an interview about the ticketing companies: “They are not responsible for the pandemic.”
Even if companies can rely on legal protection, some experts argue that for the benefit of their long-term reputation they ought to consider paying refunds to their customers anyway.
“People will remember how companies act in this crisis,” said Ross Johnson, a crisis communications expert based in Los Angeles. “This is a whole different ballgame for the Ticketmasters of the world. What they should be doing is saying, ‘We feel your pain.’”
Malachy Browne and Isaac White contributed reporting.