When one thinks of tickets touts, the first image that usually comes to mind is of a wideboy or “spiv” hanging around outside a concert venue whispering in your ear. Visit any gig or football stadium today and you can still find such people, often visibly wine-soaked and almost always looking like the last person one would wish to buy anything from.
If you are a regular concert goer, the chances are you will have bought a ticket from a tout at some point. Some estimates suggest as many as 40 per cent of tickets are now being sold on the secondary market. Today, however, you will probably have bought the ticket online, rather than from a dishevelled chap in a grubby back alley.
While online touts undoubtedly provide more security for the buyer than the unregulated street sellers of old, they have also opened up professional touting to anyone with an internet connection and a bit of spare cash. Those who have sat furiously refreshing their internet browser at nine o’clock on a Friday morning – only to find that tickets have “sold out” by 9.01 – will know exactly what I am talking about. The anger tends to reach boiling point when half an hour later the same tickets appear on eBay at many times their face value. A quick look on Seatwave is all it takes to see the problem. Tickets for the upcoming shows at The O2 by boyband One Direction are currently listed for sale for hundreds of pounds. If you want one of the best seats, however, you could pay £1098 – 27 times the face value of the tickets. For those who cannot afford such prices, live music is increasingly something they see only on television.
I recently spoke to a self-professed ticket tout, who I will call Tom. Tom used to work for Sky customer services, but found he could make more money – and make it from the comfort of his well-furnished living room – selling tickets online. Tom makes in the region £40,000 a year selling tickets – income which he declares to the inland revenue and pays tax on. Despite this being a fairly impressive sum, Tom tells me he knows others who make over £100,000. Due to the shame attached to touting, when people ask Tom what he does he tells them he is in “corporate hospitality”.
Touts these days are often those who have simply taken the time to understand how the ticket market operates, and in doing so have gained an edge over ordinary punters. One thing touts understand is that tickets are continually being released on sites such as Ticketmaster even after they appear to have sold out. The key, Tom says, is knowing when more tickets are going to be released; for this he is aided by special computer software. Another weapon in the tout’s arsenal is pre-sales. “Most people don’t even realise that concerts have a pre-sale several days before tickets go on general sale,” Tom tells me. “A good tout will know when the pre-sales are because they will have done their homework beforehand, whereas most people won’t have bothered.”
Other sides of touting are more sinister. Due to restrictions imposed by primary vendors on the number of tickets an individual may purchase, Tom has several credit cards registered in a number of different names – each with a fake address attached to it. He does this in order to fool companies such as Ticketmaster and buy more tickets than the site allows. Despite this being fraudulent, Tom says it is common practice among those who are serious about making money from secondary ticket sales. “If I didn’t do it I would have to buy within the limits set by the ticket agencies, which is usually six tickets,” he says. “Most of the people I know who do this have at least a couple of different credit cards which they use to buy tickets.”
Ticket re-selling is not simply a case of greedy touts fleecing consumers, however. Complicating things is the fact that the big ticket agencies often own secondary re-selling sites. A case in point is Ticketmaster, who own Getmein. This means that in theory Ticketmaster can profit twice from ticket sales – first through the original sale of tickets through its site, and secondly when someone like Tom lists tickets for re-sale on Getmein. Ticketmaster says their Getmein site is a marketplace where genuine fans can buy unwanted tickets at a fair price. Yet there is nothing to stop Tom buying tickets on Ticketmaster and immediately re-listing them on Getmein. Because Getmein takes a percentage cut of every ticket sold, the more people like Tom there are, the more money Getmein, and therefore Ticketmaster, stands to make.
Some would argue that concert and events tickets are best left to the free market. Yet it is hard to see how the market is working at present. It is correct of course to say that nobody “needs” to go to a concert or a sporting event, but pricing the majority out of live entertainment is undoubtedly a bad thing. Considering the money paid to the organisers of these events is paid for the service of attending the event, it is also hard to see touts as anything other than scalps ratcheting up prices while adding nothing of value in return.
Tom says the public should not hate individual touts, but instead lobby the Government to regulate those companies that enable touting through secondary sites. “As long as there are these respectable outlets for people to sell tickets through, there will be people like me selling tickets there,” he says.
There is probably not much chance of things changing in the foreseeable future, however. With a government so steadfastly committed to the free-market, it seems unlikely that regulation will be introduced that would make tickets more accessible to ordinary fans. Instead, the market will continue to give people like Tom the “freedom” to put concert tickets out of reach of those who just want to enjoy the show.