What Dispatches should’ve investigated
posted on February 24th, 2012

“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.

  1. Scott
    1:01 pm on 2/24/12

    Great article – haven’t watched the program yet but now checking it out.

    I know someone who was involved in the ‘ticket world’ a couple of years ago. They told me that the artists know and agree to these tickets being held back and take some of the profit.

    Also know for a fact that a lot of football players and staff sell their tickets to touts. This is normally done by the players giving the touts tickets in return for them getting tickets back of other events. Therefore would be surprised it artist did the same.

    Guess its a case of can’t bet them join them situation as they know that touts are going to get hold of them any way, but doesn’t make it right!

  2. 2:44 pm on 2/24/12

    One thing that came out of this, Seatwave’s statement confirmed something I’ve long-suspected: that, especially for seated gigs, pre-sales are often used to shift the crap tickets that’ll be hard to move later on.

    Music (and comedy) tickets are an interesting anomaly in that, all this shit aside, in this country, they’re almost entirely fair. From a purely mercenary point of view, they’re not maximising profits. If Take That can sell out a tour in five minutes, they can sell out that same tour in a week at most by sticking an extra 10 quid on the price. It’s been happening slowly anyway, but Madonna aside, things have stayed reasonable.

    The second oddity is the lack of tiered pricing. Generally for music gigs involving seating or entirely seated gigs (music and comedy) there’s one ticket price, regardless of if your seat is on the front row or at the very back. It’s not always done that way, the UK theatre industry often uses tiered pricing (which sometimes leads to additional oddity of the same venue have flat pricing on comedy shows and tiered pricing for theatrical ones). For music it’s first come, first served. I like it, but it’s deeply odd. Not sure how common it is in the rest of the world either. I remember seeing Flight of the Conchords a few years back and a bunch of jokes about the ‘cheap seats’ at the back falling flat as they didn’t have a clue that it was different over here…

  3. Toby
    5:31 pm on 2/24/12

    Very interesting take on the issue. I agree that I would have loved to see Dispatches investigate further and into the points you mentioned above.

    However, I can’t help but get a hint of reverse-snobbery about your final point. I’m sure a lot of people who don’t really care about music all that much bought tickets to see Coldplay at the O2 (to use the example you gave above) because it was the ‘cool’ thing to be seen doing at the time. There’s certainly no doubt that going to gigs & festivals has been more fashionable over the last few years than it ever was before in my lifetime. But surely I’m not being too naive if I think that quite a few of those people went to see Coldplay because, you know, they really actually like Coldplay?

    My point is this: if many of the tickets are immediately bought up from the primary sources (or not released through the primary sources in the first place), this is scamming the real fans who love the music – whether you or I can understand loving Coldplay in the first place is moot – right from the off.

    What if the roles were reversed, and it was you selling out the O2 for a fortnight? What if, next week, Kate Moss appeared on the cover of some glossy magazine wearing a Chris T-T T-shirt (wow, a lot of Ts there) and you became the Next Big Thing without even wanting it to happen? Would you think that the fans who were willing to pay £200 to see you (but presumably weren’t happy to) were stupid? Like Pip said “…just a band”, but have you never loved a band or artist so much that felt like you’d move heaven and earth to see them live?

  4. Greg
    2:10 am on 2/28/12

    I very much enjoyed watching the program too, and as someone who worked in the industry it has puzzled me as members of the public from time to time had mentioned that they bought the tickets through a secondary, which I always put down to real fan to fan sales or private touts.

    A quick look currently on viagogo and seatwave shows large numbers of tickets to of all sizes of shows by SJM, Metropolis, Livenation, Academy Events, Kilimanjaro – many of which have not yet even sold out through primary sellers (e.g. 50 tickets to some 1000 capacity shows 3 months away that have not yet sold out available on seatwave).

    Either there are some private touts out there that are taking some big gambles on emerging artists that may not even sell out (unlikely) or given the ease with which a promoter can shift allocations of unsold tickets they are taking a punt on secondary websites. From my experience of running a venue until recently, promoters after confirming a show will tell us where they want the tickets allocated and will normally send them to a good spread of primaries with the remainder through the venue, I have never seen them list a secondary seller. Occasionally on likely sell outs an allocation would have ‘other’ on the list and not specify why – probably going to a secondary seller, as sometimes it would say ‘other (fan club)’ etc.

    My suspicion though is that some primary sellers themselves may be putting part of their allocation onto secondary sites as many promoters are funny about using certain primaries. In the program they mention the promoters that allocate directly to secondaries, but both companies also refer to professionals that they have to keep sweet or others who have access to tickets – some of these I suspect could be primary ticket agencies.

    It is indeed a very shady business when you look into it, and one that is very different from it’s public image. Much of it would also be worthy of investigation from the competition commission, as Livenation own AMG which SJM and Metropolis are large stakeholders in, of which Academy Events is part of; combined with Livenation/AMG owning most of the large festivals and venues and that Livenation has now merged with Ticketmaster. Thus making it a near impossible market to enter.

© Chris T-T 2008–2013
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