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Ticket Touting: Musical Events

Volume 640: debated on Wednesday 2 May 2018

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered ticket touting and musical events.

Thank you very much, Sir Christopher, for calling me to speak. It is really good to renew our acquaintance after all the years we spent together on the Scottish Affairs Committee, and I congratulate you on your recent knighthood. I also refer people to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

It should be the easiest thing in the world: simply buying a ticket to go and see a rock concert—I have you down, Sir Christopher, as a grime fan. When you try to secure your Stormzy ticket, it should be straightforward, but swimming through shark-infested waters would probably be an easier and safer thing to do than trying to buy a ticket for a popular musical show.

From the first click of the mouse in their quest to secure a ticket, customers are exposed to any number of touts, profiteers and spivs, who are determined to exploit them and maximise their own return at the customer’s expense. Customers will come into contact with an out-of-control, all-consuming, rip-off machine, which operates from the artist’s management and promoter all the way down to the venue and ticketing agency, and then all the way down to the tout and the unsuspecting fan. It is a business model designed to maximise profits and exploit its consumer base, and it has become one of the biggest consumer crises that we face in this country today. Quite simply, our ticketing infrastructure is irredeemably broken and beyond repair.

Let us have a cursory look at how this system has been created and designed. Touting has always gone on; it was probably going on in the Colosseum in the Roman empire. As a young lad trying to secure my Clash tickets, I certainly saw touts outside the venues, selling tickets for a few pounds extra. So touting has always happened, but the way it is designed just now is almost on an industrial scale, and it is riddled with all sorts of pernicious arrangements and invidious relationships.

The situation was probably defined in 2010, when the largest live music promoter in the world, Live Nation, bought the largest ticket agency in the world, Ticketmaster, creating something close to a monopoly on the live music scene. In addition, Ticketmaster just so happens to own two out of “the big four” secondary sites, Get Me In! and Seatwave; the touts like to do most of their business on those four sites.

What has been created, therefore, is a vertically integrated model that works in almost perfect partnership and symbiosis, whereby everybody gets their cut and their share. I will try to describe it as best I can. Live Nation, which is the largest music promoter in the world, ensures that venues employ Ticketmaster to sell the tickets for the artists that it represents. Tickets then go on sale, but they are hoovered up on an industrial scale by the touts and the scalpers. They are then put up for sale by the touts on the secondary sites owned by Ticketmaster, at hugely inflated prices.

My hon. Friend will be aware that I have a long-standing interest in this issue. Does he agree that the measures announced by the UK Government to outlaw the so-called ticket-bots cannot come soon enough and have been too long in the waiting?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, and she is absolutely and utterly right. Last week, I listened to the presentation by the Competition and Markets Authority at the meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse, which was hosted by the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson). These measures have been far too slow in coming; the Government need to get a move on with them. I will come back to that point later, because what the Government are doing is important, but there is lethargy at the heart of their response.

I was trying to describe how all this works. We have Live Nation putting on the shows and Ticketmaster selling the tickets at the venues, which are all hoovered up by the touts. The tickets then go on sale on the secondary sites owned by Ticketmaster. Google is then incentivised to promote those secondary sites by placing them at the top of their searches. So what happens in this perfect model is that the touts get their hit on the secondary sites and Google gets a share, but critically Ticketmaster and Live Nation secure their secondary cut from their secondary sites.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. We have had numerous debates on this issue over the years, but this one is extremely timely, with the “bot law” coming in just last week, and following the meeting that we had with the CMA. He mentioned Google. Does he agree that most people are driven to these sites by Google? If he does, does he also agree that Google has a role to play—by not giving these sites top billing and by ensuring that consumers realise that these markets are secondary markets and not primary ones?

Absolutely, and what Google actually does is breach its own certification rules, which suggest that it must ensure that such sites are designated as secondary sites. Google has a big role to play in this, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to mention it.

This business model is almost elegant in its exploitative design. Last year, Live Nation made over £1 billion just from its secondary sites. There is also good anecdotal evidence, which I will try to relay under parliamentary privilege, suggesting that the players at the very top of the music business tree—at management level and at promoter level—have a working relationship with some of the biggest touts in the world, to ensure that the wheels and the cogs of this huge, exploitative machine are properly oiled and working at maximum efficiency.

Everywhere throughout this broken infrastructure, relationships and models of exploitation such as those I have mentioned are the norm. StubHub is another one of the “big four” secondary sites. It is owned by eBay, which purchased it in 2007. StubHub now has a global partnership with AEG, which just so happens to operate the O2 and Wembley Arena. That means that, by default, the parasite-infested StubHub is the official resale partner of the O2 and Wembley Arena, which are two of the most prestigious venues in the United Kingdom.

However, the daddy of them all is the truly appalling and exploitative Viagogo. I do not know what arrangement Viagogo has with Google, but if you were to look online for your Stormzy ticket, Sir Christopher, you would be directed to Viagogo to try and purchase it.

Our ticketing infrastructure, therefore, is a broken monolith of misery, where tech giants are in cahoots with touts, who are in cahoots with the promoters and managers. But I will spend just a couple of minutes on Viagogo. How a company that exists exclusively to exploit people and to rip them off is allowed to continue operating is simply beyond me. If anybody is watching this debate at home, I say to them, “Do not buy tickets from Viagogo! Go nowhere near them! You will be ripped off totally! Do not touch them!”

At the all-party group meeting last week, I listened to some of the unfortunate victims of Viagogo. Viagogo is so exploitative that a self-help group has emerged among its customers—that group has thousands and thousands of members, who are ordinary, honest people just trying to secure a ticket for a friend or a grandchild, or as a rare treat for themselves. They had no reason to believe that the simple fact of trying to buy a ticket would expose them to such shark-infested waters and such danger. Why would they? Here was “nice Mr Google” directing them to these sites, so that they could find tickets. But that is where the horror starts, as the victims of Viagogo are exposed to all sorts of hard sells, tricks and exploitative practices.

I am intervening because I want the hon. Gentleman to join me in congratulating Claire Turnham for her amazing work. She set up Victims of Viagogo, originally because she was a victim herself and wanted to try to get her money back. After that long fight, however, she put out the information she had gathered, in order to help others. She has now helped thousands of people to receive hundreds of thousands of pounds in refunds. So will he join me in welcoming Claire’s work?

I have no hesitation in doing so, and I also commend the hon. Lady herself for her diligent work over the years in chairing the all-party parliamentary group on ticket abuse. In fact, it is in my speech to congratulate Claire Turnham, whom I met last week and who has done a fantastic job. She has managed to reclaim thousands and thousands of pounds for the Victims of Viagogo, but why should she have to do that? It is not the job of individuals—drummers, guitarists and singers—to protect the public; it is the Minister’s job. That is your job, Minister. It should be you who is protecting people—not individuals such as Claire Turnham, who are having to do that difficult job.

I heard about the emotional impact of being ripped off and realised how stressful and difficult it is for people to try to reclaim the money they have been swindled out of. I heard that health, relationships and work have all seriously suffered. As a musician, I heard about people being put off attending gigs for the rest of their lives because of the experience they have suffered from these parasites and companies that exist solely to rip people off.

My hon. Friend has been very generous with his time. He talks about the vast number of people who are exploited by these big businesses moving in and hoovering up tickets. Does he agree that it looks like the only way to stop this practice is to legally cap the price of resale tickets?

I have got an even better and more elegant solution than my hon. Friend’s, and I beg her to be patient; I will get to it. The issue has to be tackled properly. There is no point mucking around, doing things tentatively. We have to grab the bull by the horns. If she gives me a few minutes, I will get to that point.

I want to explain my renewed interest in the matter, Sir Christopher, because I know you will be absolutely fascinated. My former band, Runrig, put tickets on sale for their last ever concert, which will be at Stirling castle later this year. As the last ever concert, it was obviously going to be popular. There was no way that supply would ever satisfy demand, so it was going to be a target for the touts. Within minutes of tickets going on sale, I was inundated with Runrig fans angry, frustrated and disappointed with the experience of trying to secure a ticket. I was provided with screengrabs of tickets available on the secondary site, Get Me In!, at four times the face value of the tickets that the secondary site owner, the official agent Ticketmaster, had just put on sale 12 minutes earlier.

Runrig did everything possible to spare their fans from the touts, but it is almost impossible to evade their parasitic reach. Since then, I have watched through disbelieving eyes the misery extended to other live music events scheduled to take place this summer. Probably the biggest ticket of the year will be the Rolling Stones. They are playing at Murrayfield in Edinburgh. It will be a really popular show, and it is another huge opportunity for the touts. I saw tickets on sale for 480% above face value, even though face-value tickets were still available. People were directed through Google to the sites and encouraged to buy from them.

I pay credit to the Rolling Stones and the Daily Record, which has been absolutely fantastic—particularly the journalist Mark McGivern, who has pursued this matter resolutely. The Daily Record reported that the Stones were offered a cash incentive to put their tickets on sale to an agency that has pretty invidious relationships with secondary sites. It is to their immense credit that Sir Mick Jagger and Keith Richards turned that down, but does that not demonstrate how far up the chain the issue reaches that such matters are discussed in band meetings? It shows the callous disregard for music fans from those at the very top of the music business. Given Government inaction, it has been left to the artists and musicians to try to develop solutions to protect their fans. It should not be the job of singers, musicians and guitarists to protect ordinary people from consumer affairs issues. That is the Government’s job. Ministers should be doing that.

Bands have attempted to put all sorts of tough terms and conditions on their tickets to try to keep them out of the secondary market, and artists are looking at ever more innovative solutions to protect their fans. I pay tribute to artists including Adele, Ed Sheeran, Noel Gallagher, Bastille and in particular the Arctic Monkeys, who have deployed a number of anti-touting strategies, but we need Government to take the lead.

I do not know which hon. Member or hon. Friend suggested banning bots, but the Government are starting to do something. They are in the process of banning those anonymous bots that hoover up tickets, and they are now starting to ensure that recalcitrant secondary companies comply with existing law. At last the CMA has given notice to Seatwave, Get Me In! and StubHub, but they have been given nine months to comply. The biggest culprit of them all, Viagogo, has not even responded to the Government, but they still allow it to do business. We have had the Waterson report and the Consumer Rights Act 2015, but that is regularly broken and ignored. It has failed to protect people and it is tentatively enforced. Much stronger action is required.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), I question the need for a secondary market at all. Why is there one? If someone cannot go to a concert they have a ticket for, they should give it back to the venue, which can then resell it to someone who can go. What is wrong with a simple arrangement such as that?

We usually hear from people—we have seen it in a couple of articles—that this is all about tickets finding their natural value, as if there is a sort of stock market where tickets find their real value at the hands of the touts reselling them. What utter tosh and rubbish! Since I secured this debate, I have even had touts getting in touch with me who say that they are some sort of misunderstood public servants. They have even set up their own self-help group called the Fair Ticketing Alliance. Someone will have to patiently explain to me how snapping up hundreds of tickets, then selling them back at twice, three or four times the price is really in the consumer interest. That is the thing about the touts: they will never stop, and they will always remain one step ahead of any measures to deal with them.

Touting is a hugely profitable business that will not be given up lightly, but it is what it is doing to live music that concerns me most. It is now threatening the whole music industry. The anti-tout campaign group FanFair Alliance—I pay tribute to the excellent work it is doing through Mark and Adam—conducted an opinion poll. Two thirds of respondents who paid more than face value for a ticket on a resale site said they would attend fewer concerts in future, while half would spend less on recorded music. The FanFair Alliance is spot on in concluding that touting is doing considerable damage to one of our great export industries, in which we lead the world and which supports 150,000 jobs.

The Government have been reluctant and slow to legislate on behalf of music fans and artists, but they cannot continue to ignore the damage being done by a dysfunctional infrastructure that is broken beyond repair.

I am lucky to have venues in my constituency from the Barrowland right across to the Hydro, but does my hon. Friend agree that if people are paying more money for their tickets, there will be less money to spend in the neighbouring venues? Cities will lose out as a result.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a dynamic hit on all associated industries and businesses. If money is put into the hands of the touts and agencies, it is taken out of the hands of the music industry and those in it. Come on, Minister! Let us reclaim the music. Let us make going to a live show a safe environment. Let us make buying a ticket a reasonable experience, where we will not be exposed to profiteers, touts and spivs.

This is an exploitative marketplace. It is one of the biggest crises we have in consumer affairs, and it is destroying our music industry. It is no good pussyfooting around any longer; it is time to act. Join the rest of us, Minister. Let us reclaim the music and make it safe for fans to buy tickets online.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing this debate. The Government, along with brilliant groups such as UK Music and the British Phonographic Industry, have consistently championed the British music industry and the incredible talent that makes it such a success story and a brilliant export for this country. We have produced the Beatles, the Stones, Adele, Amy Winehouse and so many more. The live music industry is a vital part of the ecosystem, contributing £1 billion to our economy in 2016.

Our live music scene is clearly thriving, but it is far from easy for fans to experience it. We have all experienced the frustration of waiting for tickets to go on sale—our fingers hovering over the keyboard, only to find that all the tickets have been mysteriously snapped up in seconds. Given the time constraints of this job, I have slightly fallen out of the practice of trying to get tickets for events in recent years, so I was absolutely appalled when I heard about the practices now going on from my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams). It is so frustrating to see tickets reappearing on secondary sites almost instantaneously, at the huge mark-ups that have become commonplace.

The secondary market has a place. Real fans, who are sometimes unable to attend an event, should have the means of making sure that their tickets do not go to waste. However, the Government recognise that the process of distributing and buying tickets often causes momentous public frustration and concern. We are determined to crack down on unacceptable behaviour in the ticketing market, and to improve fans’ chances of buying tickets at a reasonable price. There is absolutely no inertia in the Government, and I was sorry to hear the tone of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire.

We are determined to get on top of this issue. I will outline recent measures that we have taken, but first I will address specific concerns about the relationship between primary and secondary ticketing sites. Competition is fundamental to that relationship, and competition decisions are made independently of Government, and of Ministers, by the Competition and Markets Authority. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to make his points directly to the CMA. I assure him that there is no lethargy in the CMA or in Government about these matters.

We have already taken several measures. The Consumer Rights Act 2015 imposed a duty on sellers and secondary ticketing facilities to provide buyers with certain information about tickets, such as their face value and any restrictions limiting their potential use. Section 105 of the Digital Economy Act 2017 introduced a provision for an additional requirement under the CRA for ticket sellers to provide a unique ticket number, where one has originally been given, when putting a ticket up for resale. I am pleased that that provision is now in force, and that some event organisers are looking at how it can be used to improve access and protections for the ticket-buying public.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) on securing the debate; he has certainly sold more tickets to his public performances than I ever have. The Minister made a specific point about having a unique identifier for consumers. What consultations have taken place with people in the industry, and industry experts, to ensure that that is carried across? Such events can be really beneficial for our constituencies—particularly those like mine, where we used to host T in the Park.

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We are in constant contact with the industry. My officials have been in touch with the major event organisers UK Music to get the message out there that this is a powerful tool, which event managers and primary ticketers can use to oblige secondary sites to include the unique number on anything that they offer for resale.

I am also pleased, because I had personal involvement in this in my previous job at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, that last week I laid the draft regulations under section 106 of the Digital Economy Act, making a provision to ban the use of bots, and the purchase and resale—for profit—of more tickets than provided for by caps set by event organisers. I hope that that will be successful as well. Of course, the legislation has to be properly enforced.

Will the Minister tell me why the reselling of music venue tickets, which as we have heard is hugely damaging to the industry, is not comparable with sports tickets? It is actually illegal to have secondary sales on those.

I think the hon. Lady is slightly mistaken. I believe it is only professional football that has that protection, for historical reasons. The rest of sport is dealt with in the same way as the music industry.

I welcomed the CMA’s announcement last week, as part of its ongoing enforcement investigation, that it had secured commitments from three of the largest secondary ticketing platforms to provide additional information. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members that the one secondary site that has not yet co-operated is Viagogo, which is controlled from abroad. I believe it is based in Switzerland, which presents an extra challenge. I echo the remarks made by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, advising customers not to use Viagogo’s services until it comes within the law. The CMA is concerned that all ticketing sites, secondary and primary, accept their responsibilities to consumers.

The Government are also giving approximately £15 million to National Trading Standards for national and cross-boundary enforcement. I welcomed the NTS’s announcement at the end of last year that its officers had conducted raids on a number of properties across the UK, resulting in four people being arrested under suspicion of breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. I congratulate National Trading Standards and local trading standards officers on their excellent work.

In addition, the Advertising Standards Authority has recently taken action against the main four secondary ticketing websites, banning the misleading presentation of pricing information on those websites. Companies will have to show prices in a clear, transparent and upfront manner before consumers make their purchasing decision. Hopefully, that will put an end to the drip-pricing practice that has been commonplace.

Clearly, enforcement bodies are taking the matter seriously. We are prepared to go after those who flout the law or abuse the ticketing market. The ticketing industry and online platforms need to take action, and we are attacking the situation on a number of fronts.

Google recently introduced new rules for ticket resellers advertising through its AdWords platform, requiring them to be certified. To apply for certification, they will need to comply with a number of rules to improve transparency, and stop implying that they are a

“primary or original provider of event tickets”.

We are getting at them through Google as well, and industry is becoming increasingly adept at using technology to improve the ticketing experience, exerting greater control over the transfer of tickets through the use, for example, of blockchain and “ticketless” tickets attached to fans’ mobile phones.

I welcome what the Minister has said. She has outlined the plethora of instruments and laws that we now have. As someone who has worked on this for 10 years, I feel that it is all starting to come together. I know she takes this issue seriously, but will she commit to keeping a very close personal eye on it? As those of us who have fought Viagogo and the secondary market for years know, they are slippery characters. I doubt they will ever comply, so we will be back here revisiting this issue.

I thank the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her work over the years, and on her chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group. I will stay across this issue. I have exactly the same suspicion: that the company that we have already mentioned in no uncertain terms will drag its feet and fight all the way. We will have to be across that, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s continued involvement in helping us. I also welcome the work that the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers and sports bodies have undertaken with the CMA to look at ways to ensure that terms and conditions are considered to be fair, particularly in instances where tickets were put on sale many months before the performance.

I recognise that there is no magic bullet to solving the worst excesses of the secondary ticketing market; it requires concerted and consistent effort. I have laid out our efforts as they stand. I thank the hon. Lady for her comments about how we are now pulling together a number of strands to deal with the issue. We are making good progress, but I have no doubt that there is more to do. We must ensure that the UK is a vibrant place for fans to experience great music.

Question put and agreed to.