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Comment: Tackling the ticket touts

Published on: 24 June 2024

Writing for The Conversation, Dr Adam Behr discusses why finally, the time to tackle ticket touts may have come.

Tickets are a unique type of purchase because fans are emotionally invested but supply is controlled. Adam Behr, Newcastle University

Attempts dating back well over a decade to introduce specific financial mechanisms for ticket resales are yet to result in legal controls to protect fans. So it’s notable that the cultural plan in Labour’s manifesto singles out ticket touting for making “access to music, drama and sport … difficult and expensive”. Promising to “put fans back at the heart of events” with new consumer protections, it follows previous plans to tackle touting, including the introduction of a cap on resale prices.

Clearly, this was never going to be popular with touts. A lobby group for ticket resale platforms, the Coalition for Ticket Fairness (CTF), has vowed to fight regulation all the way.

It’s the latest in a series of skirmishes between resale platforms, the touts who buy up swathes of tickets for resale at swingeing mark-ups, and politicians seeking to regulate the secondary market.

A private fundraising meeting for the CTF garnered pledges of £73,000 to pay for a lobbyist, and it’s easy to see why the denizens of the secondary market are concerned that their comparatively easy ride might be getting bumpier.

The Labour manifesto doesn’t specify a figure – a 10% maximum mark-up has been mooted – although a cap of some kind on resold tickets looks likely.

This would still allow a small profit, or at least prevent losses, for people passing on tickets that they can’t use. But it would significantly undermine the business model of scooping up blocks of tickets to sell on at many times their face value.

Take the money out of touting

It’s not a new idea. Labour’s Sharon Hodgson introduced a Private Members’ Bill in 2010 to impose a cap. This followed huge growth in touting as ticketing moved online in the 2000s.

Successive inquiries and reports by the Office of Fair Trading and Culture, Media and Sport Committee had held back from statutory regulation beyond existing provisions to combat fake tickets. So Hodgson’s idea was to “take the money out of it” as a disincentive to industrial-scale touting.

Her bill was filibustered (when the debate went on too long to allow a vote) but further revelations about how sites marketed as fan exchanges were being used by professional touts put the issue on to the political agenda. There was growing dismay too at the size of the mark-ups and difficulty in getting tickets on the primary market.

An All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ticket Abuse was formed (co-chaired by Hodgson), and campaigning by the FanFair Alliance on the issue gained traction.

Labour’s proposal now resonates with an overarching direction of travel. The 2017 Digital Economy Act introduced measures to curtail the use of bots to automatically purchase tickets.

A 2019 Culture, Media and Sport Committee report on live music was also strongly critical of secondary sellers, calling for more extensive scrutiny by the Competition and Markets Authority and recommending that consumers avoid companies like Viagogo.

As the Culture Committee report noted, though, part of the difficulty surrounding ticketing is that the market is “complex and fragmented”. The lines between the primary and secondary markets have historically been blurred, such as when the leading primary seller – Ticketmaster – bought secondary sites Get Me In and Seatwave in 2008, closing them down in 2018 as unease grew around resales.

And these complications are exacerbated because the market for tickets involves an emotional investment that often goes beyond that for other types of good.

Concert-goers are fans rather than straightforward consumers. On top of this, unlike other musical or cultural products (like recordings or films) tickets are “rival goods” – one person holding a ticket means that someone else cannot.

Scarcity is baked in. Unlike with other types of resale (secondhand books, for example), tickets disappearing from the face-value vendors with the specific goal of being sold on for profit means the secondary market can distort the primary one.

man on the street holding a sign saying he will buy tickets for the edinburgh tattoo
Tickets are what’s known as ‘rivalrous goods’ – if you get in, someone else won’t. James Heatlie/Shutterstock

Part of what makes a ticket purchase so distinctive, and the debate so fraught, is the pressurised nature of the purchase – time-limited opportunity for access to a cultural event is mixed into emotional connection to an artist, and the often opaque mechanisms of the marketplace.

Indeed, what drew Hodgson’s attention to the secondary market was the experience of trying to buy Take That tickets for herself and her daughter, and finding £55 pairs of tickets on sale for four figures. Fandom, and cultural experiences, are not easily quantifiable, and questions of “fairness” and “real fans” sit uneasily alongside the need to put a figure on access.

There’s also the possibility that some fans who really want to attend an event prioritise getting in the door over wider concerns about consumer regulation.

Opponents of more stringent regulation suggest this will drive the touts underground, worsening the problem of fake tickets. This is a concern, of course, although forgeries are already illegal.

In a market characterised by international activity, looking at the primary market too may well be in the offing. The 2010 merger between Ticketmaster (the largest ticketing platform) and Live Nation (the biggest concert promoter) was passed by regulators in multiple countries despite fears of ownership being excessively concentrated. Now, the US Department of Justice is considering forcing a split with Live Nation.

A recent culture committee report on grassroots venues took a more interventionist approach, favouring a levy on stadium and arena tickets to provide financial support to smaller operators at risk in an ever-tougher marketplace.

But at the upper end of the market too, it appears that the consensus is shifting and that it may be time for Hodgson’s idea to come to fruition.

Adam Behr, Senior Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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