How Event Tickets Started to Compute



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How Events Tickets Started to Compute

(Norberg Grant)

With support from a Norberg Travel Grant, I came to the Charles Babbage Institute in June to fill in some blanks.  Over the last year, I’ve been investigating the long history of events tickets.  This is a deep history, stretching back at least to Greek antiquity.  By visiting CBI, I hoped to fill out the very recent history of ticketing: what happened when the logics of ticketing was married to the logics of computing?

Events tickets are the sort of familiar technology that we tend not to notice: we buy them, often from an outlet like Ticketmaster, put them in our pocket, and pass through the turnstiles.  Aside from this instrumental use, tickets do at least two things of interest to cultural theorists:

  1. Events tickets are the mechanism by which societies implement decisions about who may enter spaces of performance and where those people should sit with relation to the stage or the pitch—and to one another.
  2. Events tickets shift transactions to do with admission in time.  By exchanging tickets for cash in the days, weeks, or months before an event, tickets allow event organizers to rationalize their cashflow and reduce (if not necessarily eliminate) some degree of financial uncertainty.

Scholars such as Sarah Lloyd have already identified the 18th century as a key moment in the expansion of the ticket concept in the West.  Another key moment in the evolution of events tickets arrives in the 20th century, when the logics of computing were grafted onto the idea of paying now for a token that guarantees the right to attend later.

Computing enables the sort of inventory control that box office managers had sought for centuries—this control makes remote sales possible at scale, and it also makes the illusion of a perfect audit trail appear on the horizon.  Ticketing had for centuries been plagued by sloppy accounting, lost inventory, unreliable staff, and good old-fashioned pilferage.  Beyond cleaning up a messy business, computerized ticketing promised to transform what tickets could do for a box office: ticketing professionals, such as Roger Tomlinson, saw the computerized box office as a means to leverage data associated with the ticketing transaction in order to learn about audiences.  This marriage transformed the box office from an unfortunate necessity (a place to collect money and dispense tickets) to a profit center that collected information about buyers and leveraged it in increasingly sophisticated marketing efforts.  In short, the promise of computerized ticketing was to bring the cool, rationalized hand of computerization to the unpredictable world of performance.  It may not be over until the fat lady sings, but the sale of tickets could be orderly, efficient, and predictable.

There are existing accounts of the rise of computerized ticketing, most notably a trade paperback by Dean Budnick and Josh Baron on the emergence of TicketMaster.  The story usually involves the Control Data Corporation and the Computer Sciences Corporation. CBI has the Control Data Corporation Records as well as some CSC materials related to Computicket.  Through invention and corporate acquisition, CDC and CSC developed the capacity to automate and rationalize the ticket-issuing, -selling, and -distributing functions for theaters, arenas, stadiums, and concert halls.  The blanks I wanted to fill were cultural: How did people within CDC and CSC talk about computerized ticketing? What futures were imagined by the companies that developed automated ticketing solutions? How were these futures sold to venues? How did the public learn and internalize the idea of purchasing a computerized ticket at a bank or a department store across town—or in another city altogether?  The CBI collections have helped reconstruct those stories.

Unsurprisingly, much of the internal conversations at both firms were to do with money.  Both CDC and CSC were keenly interested in developing a business model that could sustain the technological systems they were marketing.  For CSC, whose Computicket product never quite gained traction, the model raised more questions than it answered.  In an undated, handwritten note from Vince Grillo, some of these problems were enumerated: “No evidence of detailed analysis of ticket inventory and control problem.  Ticketing dispenser mechanical + procedural problems.  Theft + collusion.  Cost figures [too glib?]—assumes securing volumes projected will be a breeze” (CBI 170, Box 10, Folder 17). 

The CDC materials reveal considerably more about the emergence of computerized ticketing.  CDC, which invested in and then acquired Ticket Reservation Systems before rebranding it as Ticketron, the preoccupations in the late 1960s and early 1970s were largely to do with stopping the bleeding, finding solid financing, and identifying markets and sectors for expansion.  A huge portion of the relevant CDC papers are transcripts1 of teleconferences between CDC executives based in Minneapolis and New York-based Ticketron personnel, as well as calls between CDC and potential investors in the Ticketron unit.  This was a complex moment for the company, and the tone suggests an effort to buy time for Ticketron.  In these conversations from 1969 and 1970, CDC VP-Financial Harold H. Hammer works on deals with players like United Utilities, the investment bank Salomon Brothers & Hutzler, and even CSC’s Grillo, with whom a potential Ticketron/Computicket was discussed.  At the same time, Hammer and Bob Price, who was in the midst of his rise to the top of the CDC hierarchy, are in regular contact with Ticketron personnel, acting simultaneously as corporate minders and coaches, looking to ensure that Ticketron would be investor-ready when the finances were in place (CBI 80, Series 9, Box 21, Folders F665 & F666).

Aside from working out the financing, the exact goal for Ticketron was elusive.  What, precisely, was the system meant to do?  While applications in theater, music, and sports were obvious from the start, the CDC materials held at CBI show that the company toyed with the idea of entering the railroad and airline ticketing space (a computing application that already had well-established players by the early 1970s).  Other areas that were under discussion included golf tee times, hotel reservations, and campsite reservations (CBI 80, Series 1, Box 33, Folder 3, p. 45; CBI 80, Series 9, Box 9, Folder 20, p. 1).  Ultimately, most of these ideas fizzled out, but the Ticketron project was injected with new life when CDC deployed the technology in the off-track betting sector: the same technology that made computerized ticketing possible was adapted to automated wagering.  From 1969 to 1972, this was the major growth area for Ticketron (CBI 80, Series 1, Box 33, Folder 3, p. 45).

Ticketron: Carol Channing at the box office.

While these machinations were whirring in backrooms, Ticketron and Computicket were busy presenting themselves to different publics: the venues whose box offices they wanted to take over; the stores and banks they would rely upon to host their terminals; and the theatergoers, concert attendees, and sports fans whom they’d need to teach a new way to buy a ticket.  The CBI collections include a number of Ticketron brochures, crafted for different audiences (CBI 80, Series 17, Box 4, Folders 42 & 45).  CBI’s neighbor, U of M’s Performing Arts Archive, has analogous brochures for Computicket (PA003, Series 6, Box 209).  In both cases, the emphasis is on the precise control of ticketing and marketing that the systems would offer to box offices.  Before the acquisition by CDC, Ticket Reservation Systems promoted a trial in New York in a pamphlet prepared for consumers.  Here, the emphasis is not on control, but rather on convenience, selection, and the novelty of interacting with computing: “The TRS computer has ‘memorized’ the availability of all the seats allocated to the ticket reservation system.  If seats are not available for the date you want, the computer can tell you when they are available” (PA003, Series 6, Box 209).

Ticketron would persist for another two decades, and after a couple of sales and acquisitions, it would eventually fold into Ticketmaster in 1991.  Computicket did not fare as well, and it folded altogether when CSC decided to cut its losses. These outcomes were not known in the late 1960s and early 1970s: it was all a mixture of the hope of computerization leavened with the calculations of postindustrial finance.  But the future that was imagined in these early moments of computerized events ticketing—and collected in CBI’s holdings—was one where the unpredictability of performance would fall under the spell of binary processing.  No more lines for customers—just go to the bank.  No more missing ticket stock.  No more unreconciled cash drawers at the end of the night.  As one brochure put it, “tickets and monies are accounted for with computer accuracy” (CBI 80, Series 17, Box 4, Folder 42, p. 9).

Scott Kushner
University of Rhode Island

1. I can’t help but wonder: who transcribed these? on what equipment? for what original purpose?  Beyond the scope of this project, I suspect there is a fascinating history of the types of labor performed by support staff in the mid-century computer services industry, one that is likely classed and gendered, and one that doubtless intersects with the histories of the machines and techniques the industry sought to bring to market.


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