#92 Newsletter Editorial: Can Fans Get No Satisfaction?

24 Oct 2012

This December will mark the 43rd anniversary of Altamont – the Rolling Stones’ infamous free concert.  Captured in all its grim ferocity by the Albert and David Maysles’ movie Gimme Shelter, such were the reverberations of the event, where 300,000 flower children gathered in the spirit of peace and love, only to be intimidated, abused and – for the unlucky Meredith Hunter – murdered by Hells Angels, the word itself has become synonymous with the ‘death of the 1960s’™.  Along with Charles Manson, Altamont became the dark ying to Woodstock’s yang of positivity.  The end of Aquarius.

Ironically and topically enough, it was a barrage of criticism over high ticket prices that forced the Stones to play a free rock concert in the first place – the $4-8 cost on their 1969 US tour was considered excessive by the band’s fans and underground press alike.  In order to retain their Street Fighting credentials, the band hastily agreed to the freebie performance.

How things have changed.  Or not. With the Stones’ Virgin/Amex-approved 50th anniversary O2 concerts booked for late November, the idea of Mick n Keef playing for anything less than seven-figure sums seems as likely as AEG hiring a local biker gang for security.

Consternation about the cost of a gig ticket, however, remains; and even taking inflation into account, the price of attending the Stones’ birthday celebrations (ranging from £95 ‘cheap seats’ to a £950 VIP package, including slap-up meal, free champagne and “post concert snacks”) has been met with widespread disgruntlement.  This was exacerbated when it became clear that tickets were liberally advertised across secondary ticket sites well before being sold on the primary market.  These presumably originated from a presale for Amex cardholders.

To no one’s great surprise, when any remaining tickets did go on general sale, on Friday October 19th – and it would be interesting to know how many did go on sale – they sold out in a reported 7 minutes. And even then, fans were apparently redirected towards ‘official’ secondary sites.  As Harvey Goldsmith tweeted: “Why is it on rolling stones you can only get tickets through Get Me In. Nothing less than £660- £15,400??”

The idea of $4-8 being ‘expensive’ now seems kind of quaint.  At the time of writing, the cheapest pair of Stones tickets on Seatwave.com will set the lucky purchaser back £880.00, plus £163.39 in service and delivery fees.  The most expensive are £25,000 for two, plus £4504.99 in extras that allow Seatwave to – in the site’s own words – “deliver a safe and transparent marketplace…provide a team of passionate people making sure you receive dedicated customer service…and cover all our fans with our unique protection guarantees”.

If nothing else, the ensuing commotion has pushed the simmering issue of secondary ticketing firmly back on the media agenda. ‘Rolling Stones fans hit out at ‘tout’ website’ ran one of the kinder headlines.

Certainly, it appears that revelations broadcast by Channel 4’s Dispatches back in February 2012 have failed to dent public confidence in the online secondary market.  Viagogo, Seatwave and StubHub continue to dominate Google’s search rankings, while a quick scan of Alexa web stats reveals that combined traffic to these services UK sites is on a par with visitors to Ticketmaster.co.uk.

All of which puts arguments around secondary ticketing in an interesting place.  The Stones are arguably not the best barometer of this debate – this might genuinely be the ‘last time’ that UK fans get to see them; many of their audience have deep pockets; and, as it was 43 years ago, a Stones’ gig remains a genuine cultural ‘event’.  Albeit a vastly different culture.

Against this, is the promise that technological innovation will help the primary (and secondary) market to operate more effectively – allowing artists to communicate directly with their audience and ensure, at least to some degree, that tickets end up in the hands of genuine fans.

There are certainly interesting things happening in this space – notably Songkick’s ‘Detour’ fan-funding experiment with Hot Chip; direct to fan initiatives by Radiohead and Mumford & Sons; pre-sale lotteries from The xx and Robbie Williams; bespoke campaigns from Topspin and the Dutch-based Ticketscript allowing Field Music to sell tickets via Facebook.  In addition to these are genuine swap sites, such as Scarlet Mist and the AIF-approved Ticket Trust, where fans can exchange tickets for face value.  Meanwhile, on a larger scale, AEG has announced the launch of its own ‘fan friendly’ ticketing service AXS.com, allowing purchasers to reserve seats for their friends.

How these trends and counter trends play out will be intriguing to watch.  There is an underlying hint of ‘the oldest profession’ about ticket touting – there will always be geezers in baseball caps and bomber jackets hollering ‘buy’ or ‘sell’ outside venues.  The practice will never disappear and politicians currently show little appetite to regulate.

Equally, innovation does not take place in a vacuum.  There are constraints.  For example, artists typically control only a minority allocation of tickets and, in an era of reduced consumer spend, margins in the live promotion game remain tight.

All these issues will be deliberated on Wed. 5th December, when MusicTank makes ticketing the subject of its latest think tank event.  Rather than re-tread old ground, there is a clear opportunity to move the debate on.  Stamping out touting is about as likely as ending ‘piracy’ – but fans at least deserve a primary market that functions better and keeps the secondary market in its place.

Editorial by Adam Webb

These issues will be discussed at MusicTank’s forhcoming event, 5th Dec 2012 – Ticket To Ride: Getting Primary Tickets Back into the Hands of Fans

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