Last Wednesday, April 30, at 11 a.m., tickets went on sale for the Major Activities Board’s (MAB) annual spring concert, Summer Breeze. Maybe MAB’s advertising efforts were especially thorough, or perhaps it was simply the mass appeal of trap artist Harry “Baauer” Rodrigues, but by 3 p.m., all 2,250 tickets had been sold. Many students went home empty-handed after a four-hour wait that day. And, as always, some of those tickets and some of those students went immediately to UChicago Marketplace.
The following day a post appeared on the popular student Facebook group Overheard at UChicago announcing some potentially troubling news. The post read, in part: “Overheard: Some guy who’s been fake-offering to buy Summer Breeze tickets for $75–$100 and then not showing up and telling people that they’re awful for selling above the list price.” The post alleged that the “guy” also made xenophobic remarks towards international students and disparaged economics majors. The likes and comments piled up in short order.
The ensuing debate on Overheard was an interesting experiment in outrage dynamics: Which was worse, a xenophobe or a ticket scalper? Discussion of the issue was heated and varied, covering topics ranging from fair ticket pricing to class privilege to U.S. law and the Nash equilibrium. A mathematical model was designed, with percentage points. The term “morally defensible” was used at least once.
Yet it wasn’t until student and digilante Kevin Zhang (A.B. ’13) offered to reveal the name of the hitherto unnamed anti-scalping crusader that things crossed from mildly humorous, armchair debate into the realm of real-world vendetta. “You can [private message] me the name,” Zhang offered. “I’ll publicly name-and-shame them and call the Internet Police.” Zhang eventually made good on his offer, and the Internet Police were called on a one Cam Cunningham, fourth year, music major, semi-professional jazz guitarist and noted hater of scalpers.
“What I was basically trying to do was to add as much entropy to the market that I could,” Cunningham said. “So we got a group of people together and just tried to buy these tickets, set up times to meet these people—and just not show up.” In ensuing online conversations, Cunningham says, they would reveal their motivations to the would-be scalper, “sometimes more eloquently than others,” alluding to some of his more disagreeable comments. “We were hoping that these people would become very frustrated…and, hey, maybe they also wouldn’t be able to sell these tickets.”
Cunningham and a small group of “co-conspirators” attempted this ploy multiple times before being outed on Thursday, and did not pull their punches. “It was clear that a lot of these people had bought their tickets just to sell them to the highest bidder,” said Cunningham, who took issue with what he perceived be a money-grabbing scheme being made out of University subsidized tickets. “Comments about ‘correcting the market’ are really absurd to me....The purpose of the event was that it was not a ‘free market’, since these were subsidized tickets. So to have these guys so arrogant, with their noses stuck in their economics textbooks, that they think this was a ‘free market’ - I didn’t really approve of that.”
It was comments like this that really ruffled the feathers of Cunningham’s targets. One of those targets, first-year Victor Tan, was particularly miffed. “His whole thing is like, ‘I’m better than you, I’m smarter than you, I’ve got this whole justice thing on my side, therefore you [the scalper] deserved to be messed with,’” Tan said. Tan alleges that words like “capitalist” and “foreign” were used against him by Cunningham.
For his part, Cunningham claims that Tan called him an “effeminate guitarist,” and that his supposedly xenophobic comments were misconstrued. “My point was that it doesn’t matter where you’re from—if you’re an asshole, you’re an asshole, and we have plenty of American assholes….Granted, I did not state it well,” he said. He will not, however, back down on his stance that scalpers like Tan are going against what Summer Breeze is all about.
Tan is similarly adamant in his choice to scalp: “I’m not gonna make pretenses about me being an angel or anything,” he said, “but something arbitrary like ‘the spirit of the event’ shouldn’t jeopardize my right to do what I will with my property.” Tan ultimately sold his surplus tickets for $60 a pop, quite a bit more than the $20 MAB had promised.
At least one student, second-year Sasha Chhabra, is happy with his second-hand purchase of two such tickets, which he bought for $50 each and later re-sold for a profit. But Chhabra remains somewhat ambivalent about the practice of scalping. “I don’t want to have to pay more than I need [for tickets],” Chhabra said. “On the other hand, I think I’m a fairly smart dude, and have experience with arbitrage so it’s a chance for me to make a ton of money.”
And, if scalping is in fact a bad thing, he says MAB is the guilty party. “By allowing people to buy four tickets and allowing resale for all four they are actively promoting scalping,” Chhabra said.
For their part, the Major Activities Board released a statement last Friday in which they condemned the actions of scalpers selling tickets “above face value.” Members of MAB noted that tickets for their events are affordably priced due to their being subsidized by student life fees, which every student is obliged to pay as part of their tuition. “To abuse that system for profit is inappropriate and disrespectful to your fellow students. We strongly discourage the practice, and we expect everyone to hold others to the same standard,” MAB said in the statement. MAB declined to comment further on the subject.
Meanwhile Cunningham, either the hero or the villain of this weird series of events, has not been much affected one way or another. The rolling boil of outrage that preceded and fueled the controversy has cooled to a simmer, and most have made peace and moved on. “It’s not really about scalping anymore, it’s more ‘he said, she said,’—there’s not really an opinion to be had about that,” Cunningham said, referencing the argument over the wording of his missives and the scalpers’ response to them. “I mean if you want that kind of thing you can watch Bravo.”
And whether you sympathize with one side or another - the scalpers, the buyers, the lone crusaders—there are never any winners in these types of student-on-student fights. Ultimately we all coughed up at least $20 to see a live performance of the Harlem Shake.