Newsletter Editorial #131- Ticketing: Reforming A Broken Market

22 Mar 2017

Credits: pixabay

It’s not often that I watch Parliamentlive.tv. Rarer still would I attach words like ‘compelling’ to its content, however yesterday’s #CommonsCMS hearing into secondary ticketing (watch here), proved to be just that, and never more so than when hearing consumer champion Claire Turnham describe hers and others’ ticket-buying experiences on Viagogo, her battles with whom have, by default, turned her into chief campaigner in the platform’s current refund debacle. To-date, 425 complainants across 26 countries await refunds collectively amounting to tens of thousands of pounds.

Somewhat ironically, it is possibly as a result of Viagogo’s seeming intransigence and most recently, its dubious ‘glitch’ practices – coupled with the tireless #toutsout campaign led by the MMF and the FanFair Alliance – which may, finally, bring about much needed reform to the secondary market.

As Kilimanjaro’s Stuart Galbraith reminded the Committee hearing, previous Government flirtations with this issue have yielded little fruit. A two-year process back in 2007 during which Galbraith declared “…we have lost control over our industry”, concluded with then DCMS Minister Dame Tessa Jowell declaring that the industry itself needed to self-regulate. Effectively a green light for rank profiteering by industrial-scale, online touting, little wonder that the sector has since been awash with headlines, horror stories and cries of ‘foul’ ever since. Nor was it helped by subsequent Culture Secretary Sajid Javid (2014) applauding the “classic” entrepreneurialism of the secondary market.

Today’s proceedings appeared to genuinely shock the assembled MPs who expressed outright disgust at the practices of many secondary ticketing operators. It could be argued that the Government has unwittingly scored an own-goal, and now finds itself backed into a corner from which it surely can’t escape without meaningful action. Whilst the UK Referendum and resulting fall-out have undoubtedly starved MPs of time for precious little else, the Government has been extremely slow to respond to the recommendations of its own Waterson Report which delivered grounded recommendations to correct a market in apparent free-fall, last May (2016).

At the same time, its fair to say the primary market also has to step up and bear some responsibility for failing to become more consumer-friendly, whether that be the inevitable frozen/ timed-out experience of online booking on the day-of-sale, or the inflexibility of some operators to enable consumers to legitimately re-sell/ exchange tickets they no longer need – a market failing that has led to the growth of the secondary platforms, the most prominent and controversial of which being the ‘big four’ – Seatwave, GetMeIn, Viagogo and StubHub. Indeed Nigel Huddleston MP described Viagogo as “one of the most psychologically manipulative websites I have ever seen”. As a former Google employee, he’s perhaps better placed than most to make that judgement.

However, might the biggest cause for concern be that whilst the use of online ticket bots is to be regulated, opinion is divided as to how much the use of bots is to blame in the first place, bringing the elephant in the room – clandestine industry practices – into stark focus.

Consumer education is seen by many as pivotal to bringing about meaningful change, helped in no small measure by Monday’s publication of FanFair Alliance’s guide to online, tout-free ticket-buying – Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?

Whilst undoubtedly part of the ‘solution’, we feel other areas of discussion similarly need urgent focus:

 

  1. Enforcement of existing legislation

Since the consumer Rights Act 2015 came into being – making explicit the information that sellers of tickets must declare – to-date, not a single prosecution has been brought against serial abusers of the secondary market.

You don’t have to look far for examples – all ‘big four’ secondaries were making recent Ed Sheeran Teenage Cancer Trust tickets available, despite re-sale being explicitly forbidden in the ticket’s T&C’s, and despite promoter Galbraith writing to these operators not only asking them to not list inventory, but also drawing their attention to the fact that any tickets bought on the secondary market will be void.

Allied to this is the outright fraudulent nature of ticket-selling deployed by some. Viagogo claim they are not ticket-sellers – merely enablers – yet advertise tickets for sale. They also sell tickets that don’t exist to events in the full knowledge that hapless consumers presenting re-sold tickets bought through them will be barred from entry.

Talk of a 10% cap on the re-sale value of tickets (first floated by Sharon Hodgson MP in 2011) have re-emerged. Although warmly welcomed by many primary operators and promoters, again, any such legislation is utterly meaningless without enforcement. In this regard, Government itself hasn’t helped: its austerity cuts have hit local government Trading Standards departments hard, fearful of the financial risks of taking on major prosecutions.

Regulation is one thing, effective enforcement is quite another…

 

  1. Transaction Protection

The complexity of some operators cynically ‘gaming’ territorial jurisdictions appears to absolve serial abusers of regulations, particularly with regard to fraudulent use of credit cards, whether that be by the platforms themselves or the touts who are complicity working with the platforms themselves.

During the call for evidence hearing today, Claire Turnham described her initial relief that her bank had initially denied her transaction on Viagogo, thinking she had narrowly avoided a hugely inflated ticket purchase, only to find her card had been re-presented and cleared minutes later, through a subsequently different procedure not authorised by her. Although unable to confirm precisely who had accessed her card information to expidite the transaction, the beneficiary was a secondary platform.

Are there gaps in protection for consumers making online transactions via credit and debit cards? In an online world supposedly free of territorial barriers, are some online businesses exploiting financial loopholes and in the UK, what if anything might need amending to the Consumer Credit Act, to better protect consumers who are duped and deceived?

 

  1. Web Search

Just as the record industry has successfully lobbied some search engines for a voluntary code in which they de-list pirate websites, are search engines knowingly complicit in the secondary market, providing advertising against secondary market suppliers of tickets, the buyers of which will be barred from entry to performances?

As Galbraith illustrated today, his experience is that online touts will typically pay 20 times the Google ad-word per-click rate on advertising that he can afford – £10 per click as against his 50p per click, in part explaining why search results for tickets consistently list ‘the big four’ ahead of the primary market.

 

  1. Technology is also the solution

Whilst it could be said that advances in technology are responsible for where we find ourselves right now, it’s also very much part of the solution. Both SeeTickets’ Rob Wilmhurst, and Kilimanjaro’s Stuart Galbraith spoke about the importance of an ability to identify tickets in advance of shows, in order to shepherd those ticket owners towards legitmate alternatives, and to act as a deterrent to touts.

Blockchain – a digital ledger recording transactions, and whose record can’t then be changed retrospectively – has the potential to allow a legitimate change of ticket ownership but not allow, say, the price of the ticket to be altered.

Ticketmaster’s Paperless system is being used to combat ticket fraud for the forthcoming West End production of Hamilton, and platforms like DICE lock tickets to individuals’ mobile phones.

Eventbrite’s The Future of Concert Technology report contains 20 predictions from leading industry figures. Prediction No. 3 concerns fans ability to purchase tickets at the moment of gig discovery on their favourite sites (typically social media).   Not only is this more convenient for buyers (fewer clicks to secure tickets), such integration has the potential to better limit abuse from fraud, touts and bots, as the system is entirely transparent and traceable.

 

Clearly there is some way to go – until recently, the live music sector appears to have been relatively slow to incorporate smart ticketing technology in the way the travel industry has for at least a decade. One can only speculate as to some of the reasons why that might be – continued enjoyment of a cosy, closed cartel of vested interests is certainly up there…

The ticketing debate has rolled on for 10+ years now, with MusicTank among the first organisations to publicly and consistently platform debates on this as far back as 2008, since which, the mantra of “willing buyers; willing sellers” has been used to justify a practice at times inseparable from outright extortion.

Regulation, consistency in the marketplace and transparency are vital components in a sector in desperate need of reform.


Editorial by Jonathan Robinson