Is online ticket touting almost over?

The following MBW blog comes from Adam Webb (pictured), Campaign Manager of the FanFair Alliance, an organisation which aims to unite members of music and creative community in taking a stand against industrial-scale online ticket touting.

Semantics are everything.

Around ten years ago, when the music copyright business was grappling with ‘file sharing’, the response from certain quarters was to crack down on this practice; to ‘educate’ consumers, and have ISPs send cease-or-desist letters to offending customers.

There were many problems with this strategy. Not least that the cold Silicon Valley terminology – ‘file sharing’ – was partly another way of saying ‘music sharing’. And sharing music is an inherent part of being a fan. A drive to prevent sharing felt counterintuitive.

Solving this conundrum wasn’t easy. Political pressure was required, for sure. Pirate Bay’s founders were never going to shift their views on intellectual property. But the copyright business also needed to act commercially. To recapture the value of music sharing and meet the demands of its customers.

The results of which we now enjoy on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, SoundCloud, YouTube Music, Mixcloud and all the rest. Music sharing is celebrated once again. That ridiculous phrase – ‘file sharing’ – has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

From where I sit, there are many parallels here with live music, ticketing and the secondary market.

Similar to ‘file sharing’, the phrase ‘secondary ticketing’ has become loaded with negative connotations, which is unhelpful.

The majority of music consumers appear to quite like secondary markets. If they can’t attend a show, they want to resell or reallocate their ticket.

When FanFair Alliance launched in July 2016, the options provided for UK fans were dreadfully substandard. They were mostly pushed toward four main sites: Viagogo, StubHub, Get Me In! and Seatwave.

The sites competed for the services of professional ticket touts, they all lacked transparency. Compliance with consumer law was, shall we say, patchy.

Rather than serving consumer needs, their identikit business models were built on stimulating artificial demand.

Tickets listings flooded in during pre-sales, or minutes after the general sale opened – seemingly no questions asked. The pot of primary inventory was drastically reduced, allowing touts to ‘dynamically’ set the prices.

“Similar to ‘file sharing’, the phrase ‘secondary ticketing’ has become loaded with negative connotations, which is unhelpful.”

Adam Webb, FanFair Alliance

This wasn’t a true ‘secondary’ market. It was a broken and dysfunctional market; that served platforms and touts, not audiences.

The ownership of the Big Four sites complicated matters further, and especially the participation of Ticketmaster – by far and away the UK’s dominant primary agent.

It resulted in what management consultants might kindly describe as a ‘misalignment of incentives’. And for music fans, a complete shit show.

Yet, two and a bit years later, something remarkable has happened. Bad practices are being rooted out. A new wave of fan-friendly resale services are gaining traction, including one launched just last week by Ticketmaster. Politicians, regulators and enforcement agencies are taking action to protect consumers. Even Google is stepping up to play a part. It feels like we’re getting somewhere, in the UK at least.

This hasn’t happened by accident, and as FanFair Alliance campaign manager I’m extremely proud of playing a part in this change – alongside an expanding coalition of artists, managers, agents, promoters, ticketing companies and venues.

For a re-cap, here’s just a flavour of what’s been achieved this year:

February. Google action.

Where do the majority of music fans initially search for tickets?


Unfortunately, the search results they’re served are usually dominated by secondary ticketing companies, all of whom pay Google handsomely for prominence – even when shows still have face value tickets available from authorised primary sellers. As a result, unwary customers are signposted straight into the arms of ticket touts.

Google’s introduction of a certification process for ticket resellers was the first step to rectifying this situation. Their new guidelines prevented Viagogo from using the misleading term ‘official site’ in its search advertising. All secondary sites were required to provide a clear disclosure on their landing page.

Clearly more needs to be done. It’s nonsensical that a law-breaking company like Viagogo continues to dominate search listings through advertising.

However, we have cause for optimism. FanFair has built a positive dialogue with Google. Changes are happening, and we expect further developments soon.

April, August & November. CMA action.

April 2018 saw the first fruits of a long-running Competition & Markets Authority (CMA) enforcement investigation, when undertakings were secured from Get Me In!, Seatwave and StubHub to change their business practices by mid-January 2019. The evidence FanFair submitted to this investigation was sizeable.

Predictably, Viagogo refused to play ball. This resulted in legal proceedings intended to bring them to heel. And so it came to pass.

Late last month, the CMA announced they had secured a court order against Viagogo – effectively giving the Swiss-based site six weeks to drastically overhaul its business practices and follow the law. Failure to comply might result in fines, asset seizures or imprisonment.

For Viagogo the clock is now ticking. January 17 could be an interesting day.

April & July. Political action.

Government made two important interventions this year.

First, consumer law was clarified for the benefit of secondary ticketing platforms and their sellers, restating in plain English their shared obligations to provide buyers with (a) the original face value of the ticket; (b) the specific location, including seat numbers if it’s an allocated event; and (c) any information that might restrict the use of a ticket – for instance, if photo ID is required for entry.

If promoters stamped their tickets with a ‘Unique Ticket Number’, they needed to provide that too.

In July, new legislation came into force – penalising anyone using automated software to bulk-buy tickets.

Meanwhile in September, the DCMS Select Committee returned to the issue of ‘ticket abuse’ as part of their inquiry into live music. True to form, Viagogo failed to show up – a decision described by Committee Chair, Damian Collins MP, as a ‘gross discourtesy’.

Throughout the year, support from politicians like Sharon Hodgson MP, Nigel Adams MP, Pete Wishart MP and Lord Clement-Jones has been extraordinary.

September. ASA action.

Following a long-running FanFair complaint, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced success in tackling Viagogo’s ‘drip pricing’ – whereby customers were hit with the site’s ‘reassuringly expensive’ booking fees only in the final moments of the purchase process. Countless individuals have been stung like this.

At the start of September, and under threat of prosecution, Viagogo agreed to stop this practice. The price ‘per ticket’ is now shown upfront, with fees included.

The site is still less than transparent, and continues to break a whole spectrum of consumer law, but at least its users have greater clarity on pricing.

A gross wrong had been righted.

October 2018. NTS Action.

Last year, National Trading Standards (NTS) launched an investigation focussed on the activities of large-scale touts operating on secondary ticketing sites. Raids took place in December 2017, and four people were arrested under suspicion of breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. In essence that, as businesses, they had made bulk-purchases under the pretence of being regular consumers.

In October this year, six people were charged with money laundering and breaches of consumer law relating to the resale of millions of pounds’ worth of tickets. Reported by The Guardian, one of these outfits, London-based firm BZZ, is reported to have listed tickets on secondary sites on more than 21,000 occasions between June 2015 and February 2018.

The outcome of these trials could have significant ramifications – not least a clearer understanding of how such extraordinary volumes of tickets were sourced. A preliminary trial is set for July 1st 2019. The defendants have indicated they will plea not guilty.

Artist action. Market change. Global change.

The upshot of the above actions has been three-fold:

i. Artists and promoters have been empowered. The terms and conditions placed on their tickets can now be presented and enforced in a way that both disrupts the rip-off secondary sites and promotes consumer-friendly resale.

Ed Sheeran is undoubtedly the most high profile advocate of this approach. Backed by manager Stuart Camp, agent Jon Ollier, promoters Kilimanjaro Live, DHP Family and AEG Presents, and the background work of Iridium’s Reg Walker, the volume of Viagogo listings at Ed’s upcoming shows has been reduced to a speculative trickle.

And Ed’s not alone. Arctic Monkeys, Iron Maiden, George Ezra, Radiohead, Mumford & Sons, Noel Gallagher, Catfish & The Bottlemen, Pixies, Stereophonics, Gorillaz, Patti Smith, Gerry Cinnamon, The 1975, Rammstein, Public Service Broadcasting and Biffy Clyro are among those who’ve employed successful anti-touting strategies.

Going forward, it’s important these processes become more cost-effective, technology-led and consumer-friendly. But the idea that artists are powerless is simply not true.

“We’re on the road to reclaiming the phrase secondary ticketing.”

ii. The UK ticketing market underwent dramatic change. Consumer-friendly resale is nothing new to these shores. Scarlet Mist launched in 2004. Resident Advisor have provided face value resale since 2014. Dice has its waiting list. Skiddle has Re:Sell. Twickets continues to partner with an impressive range of artists and primary agents. And now the biggest companies are following suit.

See Tickets launched its Fan-to-Fan platform last year. Eventim unveiled FanSale at the start of this. But it was recent moves by AXS and Ticketmaster that were most remarkable. The former ended its UK partnership with StubHub, and will soon open a capped resale marketplace. The latter pulled down shutters on Get Me In! and Seatwave, and now offers capped resale through its primary site.

iii. We are not alone. At least partly inspired by the UK, a wind of change is blowing elsewhere. Viagogo is facing actions in Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Australia and New Zealand.

Artists have raised their voices in the Netherlands, Australia, Italy and Japan – where last week legislation was passed to make unauthorised resale illegal. Similar changes are on the cards in Ireland.

Who knows where things will spark up next?

So there you have it. 2018 in a nutshell: Viagogo on the ropes, touts in court, StubHub lost its major music contracts, Ticketmaster made a U-turn, artists took back control, and hopefully – hopefully – we’re on the road to reclaiming the phrase ‘secondary ticketing’.

The future is ‘ticket resale’. And it’s in the industry’s hands.Music Business Worldwide

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