Staff Writer Oisin McGilloway explores the struggles faced by live-music fans when trying to buy from large ticket sales companies and touts online.
Everyone is familiar with the dread of buying concert tickets. Staring at your computer screen, your phone screen and your friend’s phone screen simultaneously, having read the phrase ‘you are 16,101st in the queue’ 16,101 times. You realise that you’ve found a living hell. Why is such a simple task getting me so worked up? Why is it so hard to just get on to a website and book some tickets? Then you remember that at least 16,101 other people are thinking the same thing.
But this often isn’t actually the case. It’s easy to imagine that the vast number of people in front of you will eventually translate to the sea of heads at the gig, each one more adoring and sentimental towards the singer or band than the last. But what really lies between you and that holy QR code is not always a wave of fans, but ticket resellers, many of whom aren’t even human.
This came to a head of unprecedented magnitude earlier this year when Taylor Swift announced the European portion of her Eras world tour, which kicks off in Paris at the start of May next year. The first thought that came into my head when I read this, given the almost cultish power of the ‘Swiftie’ fanbase, was the virtual carnage that this would cause in the purchasing window. When tickets went on sale in US, Ticketmaster had prepared for a user capacity of 1.5 million verified fans; some might say they were the “foolish one” when the inevitable crowd of 14 million left the site frozen and dysfunctional, according to Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media (a major investor in Live Nation, parent company to Ticketmaster).
This was met with understandable outrage, worsened by Ticketmaster having to cancel releases to accommodate for the technical issues. However, many more, such as Democratic Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, were calling out the monopoly that the Ticketmaster and Live Nation merger has on ticket sales. With a company that has complete control over the sale of tickets but isn’t strong enough to carry the weight, third-party ticket reselling was almost inevitable.
Free-market sellers bask in the knowledge that they are the only solace. The less fortunate of a fanbase have no choice but to fork out as much as £10,000 pounds extra just to get a ticket. With such exorbitant figures that even the talent can’t ignore, why isn’t anything being done about this?
Many economists have been quick to ascribe this practice to the theory of ‘allocative efficiency’; ticket scalping at high prices ‘allow potential buyers to indicate how much they want to go to the event – their “willingness to pay”.’ But what we’re forgetting is that a musician or band’s fanbase can, particularly in the case of Taylor Swift, span many ages, many backgrounds, and many different means. Trying to bolt economic theories about material, consumer products, that often fit into a very specific band of socio-economic class by nature of their function, feels a bit silly when we’re talking about a concert, where the “product” is being in the presence of another individual. “Willingness” to pay here becomes incomparable to the ability to pay.
There’s also another, much simpler reason. “I couldn’t have done it without you” is the popular phrase uttered to fans everywhere by almost all artists (bar the more ungrateful types, who’d rather tell fans to “get a job”). So perhaps this “willingness to pay” is more for the artists’ benefit; how much you’d be willing to give back to them monetarily for their performance. Wrong. Because these resellers are third-party, they have no affiliation to the artist, so can pocket all the profit. Two ticket resellers jailed for fraud in 2020 have had to pay back £6.2m of the £8.8m they made between 2010 and 2017 in a recent confiscation order.
Ticket reselling harvests serious money, and when you realise how tight the economics of running a live show are, particularly after the pandemic and ongoing inflationary factors (Green Man Festival owner Fiona Stewart claims costs for the festival has risen by 34.5% since 2016), it isn’t surprising when people like Rylan Clarke are denouncing the practice. Third-party touting does nothing for the artist or indeed the economy of the live music industry—it serves solely the individual reseller.
There are never going to be enough seats for an entire fanbase, no matter how many arenas artists tour in. With the evolutions of social media (the fact that you can basically watch an entire Harry Styles concert from several different angles on TikTok), fanbases just keep multiplying; the fact that venues and other live music infrastructure won’t be able to keep up is a potential obstacle to seeing our favourite artists that we reluctantly must accept. However, in this situation, your willingness to buy a concert ticket relies on a mixture of how quickly you can access them, and of pure, good luck. Quantifying this willingness by changing the prices, on the other hand, is an easily removable obstacle, particularly at a time when people are having enough difficulty funding everyday life.
Of course, the live music industry, while undoubtedly an art-form, is all about commerce. You can’t deny that. For artist, going on tour is about making money, because it’s this money that helps push them to release new music, so is a win-win for both sides. As such, it mostly works privately; Chris Carey and Tim Chambers at LIVE wrote in their 2021 report that ‘this predominantly commercial art-form and pastime has been difficult for governments, regional development agencies and associated cultural funding organisations to support at scale’. But if ticket-selling, at least to music concerts, is being monopolised by the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, then surely it isn’t as sporadic and difficult to manage as we thought?
Indeed, Barack Obama tried this with the Better Online Ticket Sales (or BOTS) Act in 2016, which aimed to funnel reselling into verified sites like Viagogo and StubHub. But the issue still stands: ticket touting exists outside of the relationship between fan and artist, so is it necessary? Ticketmaster introduced its ‘dynamic pricing’ system near the end of last year, which seeks to get rid of touting by raising prices as demand for tickets goes up. This has obviously been met with widespread criticism, as Ticketmaster pockets whatever they add to the base price.
The problem here does not lie in the untenable ether of the internet; you don’t have to look further than the record-high bonuses handed out to Ticketmaster executives at the end of last year to see that overpricing tickets is an avoidable issue, with very clear culprit (I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t Taylor).