I’m very proud to say I have an essay in the first New Public Thinkers book, available now. Edited by Dougald Hine and Keith Kahn-Harris, the book is called Despatches From The Invisible Revolution and includes some breathtaking writing from the likes of Pat Kane, Keri Facer, Noah Raford, Vinay Gupta, Smári McCarthy and many others.
We were asked to write about 2011 as a fulcrum year. My contribution The Year Punk Broke seeks a connection between last year’s accelerated global changes and our personal ability to grow and change.
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” – John Lydon
“They’re just a band.” – Scroobius Pip
If you’re remotely interested in live music (or just fucked off when you can’t get tickets for a show without paying double face value) then last night’s Dispatches programme was essential viewing (watch it on 4OD). It exposed the reality of ‘fan-to-fan’ ticket reselling websites like Viagogo and Seatwave; that they’re actually just online touting; regardless of any stated business model, they primarily cater to professional touts and promoters of major shows, such as SJM, LiveNation and Metropolis, who collude by allocating them batches of prime tickets, to make more money than face value.
Grim stuff, yet it was nothing one couldn’t expect or predict if one thinks about it for more than a few seconds.
However the investigation left out three points that I think could’ve been covered with equal vigour:
First, because Dispatches approached the issue solely from a consumer point of view, they failed to follow the money and investigate bands and their agents’ relationships with those promoters who’ve bumped up profits by re-selling. A fascinating (and potentially explosive) question is: do bands and their agents get a share of that extra profit, or not? Promoters and artists split profits of a sold out show, based (presumably) on number of seats times ticket price equals overall gross income. How is that calculated? Are the big artists being diddled, or are they complicit?
I ask because it will be terrific fun to watch, if it turns out promoters have ripped off some of the biggest names in music by reselling their tickets above the agreed sums, without passing on any of the profit. Unlike us humble punters, these bands have the resources and wherewithal to fight back, if they so choose. Or, if they’re complicit, they would make a much more effective target for consumer groups to attack, by publicly shaming the likes of Coldplay or Rihanna or Will Young, rather than the comparatively anonymous promoters.
Secondly, Dispatches should’ve investigated the perfectly legal and now almost universal, yet immensely damaging, exclusive closed pre-sales to owners of certain mobile phones or users of other services that have a relationship with the venue but no connection to the artist. By giving a specific group of people priority access to tickets, regardless of whether they’re a fan, surely the secondary market is being massively further nourished, while real fans are locked out in the cold. Arguably these pre-sales are actually worse for fans than plain touting, since they normalise the reselling process and turn otherwise normal ticket buyers into touts, for the bands they didn’t want to see but felt obliged to ‘take advantage of an offer’ on.
(I don’t mean pre-sales to artists’ own mailing lists or fan clubs, by the way, that would seem to me to be a perfectly logical and reasonable process.)
Finally, I would’ve loved to see Dispatches widen the investigation to look at the whole process of brand sponsorship of elements of the entertainment industry. If you’re an artist playing to 2,000+ people in the UK right now, it’s almost impossible to do that without becoming a tacit advertiser of O2. It’s not the Brixton Academy anymore, it’s the O2 Academy Brixton. Even smaller venues are increasingly branded. Yet did you know that if you purchase a t-shirt at a gig, the band aren’t getting all the money – the venues take as much as 25% of all income from merchandise, despite being supposedly ‘supported’ by a brand sponsor? Almost no bands are able to fight this – even the ‘guaranteed sellout’ bands who know they’ll fill a venue, make a venue and promoter a heap of money in drink sales as well as their share of ticket revenue, still are unable to work out individual deals to keep all the money from their merch sales. So one solution you increasingly find happening is artists and their management quietly supporting and supplying the ‘bootleg’ merch sellers outside the venue, to claw back some of that revenue…
and da-dah! …the system gets even more fucked and corrupted.
I have mixed feelings about this Dispatches. Although touting is fucking irritating and further snags up an already messy business, if punters weren’t so obsessed by certain hyped huge shows that they pay ridiculous amounts over the odds, it simply wouldn’t happen. Moaners seem to be calling for some kind of legislation to regulate an industry over and above other industries, simply on the basis of an annoyance factor. I hate it when otherwise-happy Capitalists do that, it’s one of the worst, nimby-est bits of liberalism. Last night on Twitter I called it a #sheeptax but nobody reacted (probably for the best!).
Anyway, there’s an economic case for saying it is proof that these shows are under-priced (ha! This isn’t something I actually believe, by the way) – a secondary market only exists while fans are willing to pay. So Madonna took a shit-load of heat recently (including from me) for saying her tickets should be £180, yet once you average the touted price with the official £60 face value Coldplay tickets, they actually came out at roughly the same figure. Many, many people paid £200+ to see Coldplay at the O2. Well, ultimately, do they really want my sympathy? Who’s the bigger fool?
So yes, it’s an appalling practice. But if people resolved tomorrow that they wouldn’t pay above face value, even if that means sometimes missing a show they wanted to see, pouf! the trade vanishes in a cloud of smoke.
I just had a killer idea for selling advance tickets to concerts online – a way of migrating ‘pay what you want’ across to the live music world, without having to do loads of gigs for £1.50. I think someone needs to build this app (or Eventbrite and other online sellers need to add it as an option). By the way, if this is already happening somewhere and I just missed it, I’ll happily stand corrected.
The ‘pay what you want’ model (popularised by Radiohead I guess) is now widely used by artists to sell downloads. It’s available as an option on Bandcamp for example; I tried it myself for 2010’s Christmas download and it worked beautifully. But to my knowledge nobody has set it up for gigging in a way that works: Eventbrite does have a ‘donation’ based ticketing option but it has two deal-breaking flaws: 1) they still charge a booking fee on the donation (!) and 2) if you reach capacity mainly from people who donated nothing, you can’t then prioritise those people who donated more. You get a room full of people who valued the experience at zero and turned away some folks who were willing to donate a chunk. So here’s a simple twist on the system that would make it beautiful:
Pay-what-you-like but the promoter can keep offering tickets after capacity has been reached. At close of sale (based either on a fixed point in time, or on a total amount of money donated), the highest offers (bids/donations) are the people who get the tickets and have their money taken.
The promoter can even set a cut-off point, so they want to earn a fixed amount and (once capacity has been reached) the system keeps prioritising higher offers (bids) until that amount is reached, then cuts off – which will still allow some lower bids access to the show. Meanwhile punters can keep checking back on a gig’s popularity and raise their bid / donation if they start worrying they won’t get it. It needs to be open to be fair, I guess.
*EDIT* and I guess it needs a reserve amount too, below which the gig doesn’t happen!? Hadn’t thought of that…
I bet this would be a relatively simple add-on for an advanced system like Eventbrite or The Big Cartel. (Not to even mention good old WeGotTickets, because they’ve got some catching up to do)
*EDIT* Luke Beesley (@LukeTotD) has found a catch: it makes life tricky for people who travel to gigs via public transport, since there’s an element of risk involved, yet you get much cheaper public transport bought in advance. And you’re more likely to want to donate *less* if you have to travel, because of the total cost involved. Yes, this is a problem.
I wonder if you could include in the model an option for a ‘secure it now’ price, for people who don’t like the risk. This would have the added bonus of encouraging gig prices upwards (from my point of view that’s a bonus since I fundamentally believe most non-‘heritage genre’ or ‘tribute’ small live music events are currently underpriced), while taking the risk out for those willing to pay a little more. It’d also be fun and perhaps, with a forum-style comment space under the ticket thing, create more of a community out of gig goers?
Am I now over-thinking it all? Comments welcome below, as always…
*BIG EDIT* Rhodri Marsden made a strong critique of the idea on ideological grounds on Facebook, and he’s agreed I can add our conversation in below:
I thought “Wow! that’s a good idea!”. And then I thought, no, it’s not. The reason it works for music is that there isn’t a finite number of products. If people want to pay more, then they can. That’s fine. But excluding people from gigs because people with more disposable income pushed ahead of them in the queue just seems a bit crap.
Gigs shouldn’t be about exclusivity. Certainly not in our world. Part of the reason it’s nice is cos everyone has paid a tenner to be there. Except the freeloaders, but I don’t believe in freeloading either and always pay even if I’m on the guest list. (I’m rambling now. I also appear to have become more left-wing in the last 3 minutes than I thought I was.)
my starting position (which you may disagree with) is that most small gigs (discounting ‘heritage genre’, ‘tribute bands’ and ‘lineup of local hopefuls’) are currently underpriced. Secondly, surely this system is no more exclusive than setting a fixed price in the first place? I believe a key to the gig industry is the disconnect between what promoters and artists believe people will / can pay for live music and reality. The myth is: people won’t pay £10 for a evening of live music but they’ll pay £8.50 for the cinema. To counter your ‘exclusivity’ issue, you can still run the ‘auction’ but stick in a ‘buy it now’ price.
Oh right. Yes. For some reason in my head we were talking about a room full of people who’d paid £20 squeezing out those who could only afford a fiver. If it’s a roomful of people paying a tenner squeezing out those who are only paying a measly quid, somehow it becomes more palatable.
In many places in the country a glass of wine in a bar costs almost £5. I’m not feeling bad about people only prepared (able) to pay that, perhaps (sometimes) getting edged out. But fundamentally, folks would set their own levels.
But doesn’t supply & demand economics set gig pricing levels in any case? Popular gigs cost more money, less popular gigs don’t. I don’t think there’s going to be a rush of people (say) desperate to pay £15 to watch something at the Buffalo Bar.