The great rock'n'roll swindle

The days of the sheepskin-clad wide boy are ending: the internet means everyone can be a 'ticket agent' now. Patrick Barkham reports on the changing face of touting

The city is wrapped in spring smog as a queue snakes its way around the Forum in Kentish Town. Even here in grubby north London, at 7pm on a weekday evening, with the modest attraction being the indie jangle of the Shins, every ticket has been sold. Except, of course, they haven't. Easy to spot in the forest of skinny jeans are the oversized sports jackets and white trainers of the ticket touts, selling and reselling for a tasty profit.

The middle-aged men who mutter "tickets, tickets" at folk streaming towards gigs don't win many popularity contests. Last year, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand told fans to "smack a tout in the face", while Kaiser Chiefs, Bloc Party and the Sugababes' Heidi Range joined an NME campaign to Stamp Out the Touts. Even mild-mannered Sir Cliff Richard spluttered that one notorious online tout was "manipulative, extortionate and mean".

But touts are no longer lumbering beasts with a backpocket full of crumpled tickets. The internet has spawned a new breed: the bedroom tout. Genuine fans complain about rip-off merchants, but many also enjoy making a quick buck on an auction site. "With eBay, every student in the land is a ticket tout. They buy four tickets and the two they sell pay for the two they keep," says Graham Burns, an internet ticket seller who is also chairman of the Association of Secondary Ticket Agents (Asta). (The touts of yesteryear would be gobsmacked that modern touts, rebranded as "ticket brokers", have their own not-for-profit lobby group.)

The music industry says the problem is getting worse. Even middling bands routinely sell out shows within hours and, minutes later, tickets for sold-out events are plonked on auction websites for hugely inflated prices. Promoters estimate that a third of tickets are resold. Around 300,000 tickets for Take That's autumn tour were snapped up in seconds but 100,000 were soon back on sale online, according to the promoter (and still are, from £125 to £375, against a common face price of £45). When Arctic Monkeys announced details of their spring tour, they insisted on selling tickets via a ballot of fans on their mailing list. But £25 tickets for their first night in Southampton on Monday are for sale online for £237. A US economist has a name for this phenomenon: rockonomics.

Horror stories multiply about what is euphemistically called the "secondary ticket market". One online broker,, collapsed this year leaving 7,000 people without £1.4m worth of tickets.'s victims included a man in Mexico City who bought six tickets (hugely inflated in price) for James's comeback tour this month, along with plane tickets and hotel rooms for his friends. The best consumers can hope for is a refund on their tickets from their credit card company.

A new law comes into force today making it illegal to resell football tickets for profit over the internet (it has long been illegal outside grounds, to combat hooliganism). But at its "touts summit" last month, the government backed away from a similar ban for music tickets. Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, claimed the government's research showed most fans wanted the secondary market. "It would be unfair if consumers were unable to sell their own tickets, for whatever reason, and get their money back," said Jowell. "We don't want to criminalise genuine fans." This, surprisingly, was supported by an NME poll, which found that 84% of gig-goers support the right of people to resell their tickets.

The mainstream music industry is aghast by this failure to outlaw the secondary sale of concert tickets for commercial gain. "Both the industry and the fans have been completely let down by the government," says Stuart Galbraith, managing director of Live Nation, a leading concert promoter. "The government hoped by sticking their heads under the duvet this whole thing would go away, but they now realise how easy it is for the public to be duped," says Rob Ballantine of SJM Promotions, who is chairman of the Concert Promoters' Association.

Outside the Forum, ordinary music fans are more sanguine. In booked-up Britain, touts offer a chance to be spontaneous. Chris Horner, 24, an IT engineer, gives £30 to a tout outside Kentish Town tube for a £16 Shins ticket. He had forgotten that they were playing until he was reminded by a friend at lunchtime. "I totally agree that touts are a problem, but if it wasn't for those guys I wouldn't be going to the gig tonight," he says. "It's that simple."

Thomas Overbeck, 21, bought 12 tickets for his mates but three dropped out. He agrees to sell them to the same tout for £11 each. "We would've made a killing on eBay," says Overbeck ruefully when he realises the tout is selling at £30 each. But he doesn't begrudge the profiteering. "So he's made £57 profit if he sells those three. I think, 'Well done, sir'."

The touts' case for the defence spills from their lips with all the patter of natural salesmen. Rob is in his 40s and works in an office. He's been going touting in his spare time since he was 16. "You're only supplying a service. We ain't pointing guns at people's heads. We ain't selling drugs, and yet we get treated worse than drug dealers." While reselling music tickets is not illegal, the police can take action against touts for trading in the street without a licence. Rob says the internet has made his trade tougher because ordinary people check eBay prices and demand a fortune for their spare tickets when in reality "the price on the internet and on the street is a totally different market".

With their respectable-looking websites, e-touts market themselves as "independent ticket brokers". "The days of standing outside arenas are done and dusted because people have credit cards and they know what they want," says one Essex-based trader, who prefers to remain anonymous. "Most customers are happy but it's like everything else - you can find bad car dealers."

According to Burns, there are only about 150 online resellers in the UK and more than 40 are now members of Asta. That means they must be legitimate VAT-registered companies with an office address and a real telephone number. Asta's members, says Burns, are offering a service: online touts criticise promoters for not always offering fans a choice of where they sit (unlike some secondary sellers), offloading poor seats before announcing extra dates and keeping prices artificially low to ensure gigs sell out and generate a "buzz".

But e-touts are cagey about their profits and coy about how they get their hands on hot tickets. "If I told you the answer you'd be party to the business model," says Burns. "We've got no 'ins'," claims the Essex-based trader. "We sit down at the computer with a credit card, like anybody else." A common tactic, however, is to deploy up to 15 credit cards simultaneously, so even if there's a limit of, say, six per person, it's easy for one multiple credit card-wielding tout to grab 90 tickets. Quick-fingered students are also paid to buy up as many tickets as they can when online box offices open for business.

Glastonbury 2007 might just have foiled large-scale touting. Tickets sold out on Sunday and, thanks to a system of personalised tickets printed with a picture of the purchaser, tickets are, so far, conspicuously absent from onselling sites. But large promoters don't think this can work elsewhere. "It's tout-proof but I don't think it can be extended to other events," says Galbraith, whose Live Nation firm runs the Download and 02 Wireless festivals. "No other event has the sales capacity of Glastonbury."

It brings problems, but the internet also serves up some potential solutions. Viagogo is a commercial ticket exchange set up by Eric Baker, who founded a similar site, Stubhub, in the US (which sold $500m-worth of tickets in 2006). The secondary market "has existed since the gladiators", but modern methods such as eBay don't work well for time-sensitive items, he says. On Viagogo, the seller sets the price or can auction the ticket. The company guarantees that the seller is paid, and if the buyer's tickets don't arrive or are fraudulent it will find replacements on the secondary market. For this security, Viagogo charges the seller 15% commission and the buyer 10%.

For idealists who object to Viagogo's commission there is a last resort. In February, 1,225 tickets were traded on, an "ethical" free ticket exchange set up by Richard Marks, a 50-year-old doctor. It's an introduction agency for fans wanting to buy or sell tickets: the only rule is they must stick to the face price. "People are really fed up with touts and really frustrated because no-one seems to be doing anything about it," says Marks. "It would help a bit if you sent the taxman after them. For example, eBay should be compelled to list people who make a certain amount of money from selling tickets. If lap dancers have to pay VAT so should touts."

E-ticketing could be another technical solution. Galbraith is extending e-ticketing at the O2 Wireless festival this year: in essence, mobile phones become tickets with fans buying a barcode-type text message which is scanned on entry - and can't be sold on because it can't be forwarded to another phone. "I'm sure in time touts will come up with ways to copy and catch up but initially it's a solution for us," he says.

But music moguls argue that the rip-offs will only get worse without radical regulatory change. "If the government doesn't act to stamp out touts now it will become a major part of the industry," says Ballantine. Without a ban on secondary selling for commercial gain, he says, the industry will have to take on the likes of eBay by auctioning off a proportion of all gig tickets: higher prices will squeeze tout profit margins and, in theory, undermine the secondary market. Tickets have already been auctioned in this way for Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake and the Police concerts in the UK. This trend makes eBay spit. "The event industry cannot have it both ways," says a spokesman. "They can't say 'this is illegal' and then auction off the tickets themselves."

Promoters want eBay to force sellers to list the seat or serial number of the ticket to prove they have it in their hands. This would stop touts offering tickets they don't actually have. (Touts gamble on finding real tickets for less money than they sell their pretend ones; if they fail, tout and ticket tends to disappear - along with the innocent buyer's money.) But eBay refuses to do this. If it did, a spokesman says, event organisers would be able to make that particular ticket void, in accordance with terms and conditions that ban their resale. Innocent resellers would be penalised. "That's hardly fair for consumers," claims the spokesman. "The reason they [promoters] want to do it is not to improve consumer information in the secondary market. They want to end the secondary market."

Galbraith retorts: "eBay has become a front for thousands of small business touts." Live Nation's research, he says, found evidence of touts earning £25,000 a month on the site. But eBay says it shuts down rogue traders and argues that the vast majority of ticket sellers are ordinary fans. According to a poll for eBay, nine out of 10 of those listing tickets had put less than five or six up for sale over a 12-month period and nearly 60% had only auctioned one ticket.

The music business's last resort is the Office of Fair Trading, which it hopes will confirm the legality of music tickets' terms and conditions that state they cannot be resold for commercial gain. This would enable the industry to police itself, says Ballantine. It could launch a crackdown on secondary selling, invalidating all tickets sold above cover price on the internet, and offer consumers a way to legitimately resell their tickets at cover price if required. Most observers believe it is unlikely that the OFT would approve such a measure.

If the music industry gets a ban on reselling for a profit over the internet, a certain voluminous-jacketed figure would bounce back into fashion, lurking outside venues. But Ballantine is surprisingly relaxed about these old-style touts. "We'll never get rid of them and we haven't got a major issue with them. The problem with the internet is that [tout] sites have a veneer of respectability. They look official, you send them all your money and you get no tickets back. If you're outside a venue at least you can see what you want before you buy it."


Patrick Barkham

The GuardianTramp

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