"Blight On The Earth" - What Do You Make Of London's Ticket Touts?

By James FitzGerald Last edited 10 months ago
"Blight On The Earth" - What Do You Make Of London's Ticket Touts?
The enduring popularity of West End theatre shows has seen them fall prey to touts. Photo by Steve Reed in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Buying and selling, buying and selling? Of all the professions you probably wouldn't mourn the loss of in London, ticket touts are surely right up there — in a category otherwise reserved for rickshaw drivers, preachers on Oxford Street, and those brass busking bands that plod from tube carriage to tube carriage, sloppily playing When the Saints Go Marching In and treading on your feet.

Then again, perhaps you don't even notice real-life ticket touts anymore. Your mind is way too preoccupied with those nasty people on the internet who were re-selling tickets for Ed Sheeran's Teenage Cancer Trust benefit show at the Royal Albert Hall for £5,000 a pop. Massive online profiteering like this has long been the scourge of London's venues and authorities.

Although the use of bots to buy tickets en masse for online touting has now been outlawed, the basic practice of reselling tickets is actually legal (though tightly regulated in the case of football matches). But the attempts of venues and promoters to curb the practice give a clue as to how much it's reviled by much of London's entertainment industry.

Take the Islington Assembly Hall: it's become digital-only to make sure only those who buy the ticket can get in. Other efforts have included the creation of 'cleaner', peer-to-peer reselling sites, endorsed by Adele and others. However, new innovations haven't always proven successful. Some have even backfired at the cost of the punter. One episode saw The O2 Arena refuse admission to Foo Fighters concertgoers, even though they'd bought tickets from an O2-partnered website, Stubhub.

Football provides a slight exception to the rule that ticket-reselling remains legal here in London. Photo by Paul Wright in the Londonist Flickr pool.

Internet opportunists are hence exploiting what's frankly a bit of a mess. How you sleep at night having profited by thousands of pounds on a pair of tickets to the Harry Potter musical — well, we're none the wiser. Trying to contact a number of sellers proved pointless — they're just too anonymous, unaccountable. How quaint those stubble-sporting, parka-clad geezers loitering at street corners seem now!

'The industry is very hypocritical'

"People always want a scapegoat, and people like me aren't always painted in the most positive… 'scuse me a sec. Any of you after tickets for the Jesus & Mary Chain tonight...?"

We're having a fragmented sort of chat outside The O2 Forum, Kentish Town, with one of those very geezers. Except this one doesn't fit the typical tout profile. Highly eloquent, and with a debonair appearance, he seems to follow the maxim of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have.

"I'm not sure I'd call it a job," he corrects us, with a chuckle. While touts outside gigs may not be breaking the law — again, it's different at football matches — the reason they may look a bit shifty is because they probably don't have a street vending licence. This guy, the only one who agrees to talk to us on this chilly early-autumnal night, withholds his name and any other identifying info.

While he recognises the contempt often reserved for people doing for his job — sorry, occupation, hobby, whatever you want to call it — he argues that there is honour to the service he provides people.

People come to a show like this from miles around, just in the hope of getting a final chance to see their favourite band. Others have to just get rid because they can't go anymore. I'm here fulfilling a number of different needs.

Do I, personally, see anything derogatory in the word tout? No. Do I get sneered at myself? I don't.

The O2 Forum, Kentish Town, September 2017. Photo by James FitzGerald.

Sure enough, he goes about his business pretty openly; even escorting customers down the security queue to get them over the proverbial 'finish line' of ticket-scan and bag-check. He seems to be not only tolerated, but enjoys easy banter with security staff and a few drunk punks outside the venue.

Tonight's Jesus & Mary Chain gig hasn't sold out, and the gentleman in question is working to undercut the box office. "That's just capitalism, isn't it?" he reasons.

We argue that the tried-and-tested 'market forces' argument has been used to justify a multitude of sins in the debate over ticket touting. The mind turns to the remarks made by former business secretary Sajid Javid — that internet touts are little more than "classic entrepreneurs".

But that's just where tonight's tout draws a line. He points us to a newspaper that bears the Foo Fighters story mentioned above — saying he hates the faceless, online mega-profiteers like the rest of us. In his eyes, his personal service-with-a-smile couldn't be more different to what that lot do.

"I think the industry is very hypocritical," he fumes. He buys into the view that authorised secondary ticketing sites have a too-cosy relationship with online touts — a view that's seemingly got evidence, though stringently denied of course. "There's an opportunity to shut down all of that, but the industry is in cahoots with the sellers. It knows people will pay the money they're asking for."

'It's different with something like Stubhub'

The O2 Forum, Kentish Town, September 2017. Photo by James FitzGerald.

Because he claims to have actually listened to the post-punk band which is about to take to the Forum stage, this guy is presumably making more friends than his nearest competitor: a sour-faced bloke patrolling Highgate Road offering tickets to what he calls the "The Jesus & Mary Chin".

"I've sold tickets outside a gig," claims one half of a slightly boozed-up duo outside the Forum who introduce themselves as Ian and Simon. "But now I try to make sure it's only to fans, not to touts. I remember having to flog some Amy Winehouse tickets. I got £200 for them from a tout. But then I felt shit afterwards when I saw a girl — a real fan — outside the venue, needing a ticket."

Given the rather vanilla and event-free life your correspondent has lived, he's surprised at how many dealings tonight's gig-goers have had with touts of both the in-person and online variety.

Phil has a clear view: touts of all kinds are "cynical, and I wouldn't mind if they were eradicated altogether." A woman nearby concurs. "Yes I hope so. It's the artists who lose out."

But for Miguel, who finds gigs these days too expensive, a discounted ticket is the "only way". We watch as he locates a good deal, then heads in to see one of his favourite acts.

As someone who's been on both ends of the buying and selling relationship at a gig, Dan takes the view that although touts are a "blight on the earth", they're a necessary evil.

"They all mark up their prices, but think about someone who's forgotten a birthday — or just desperate. That was me once, paying three times face value for Motorhead. People will pay it. They want to pay it. That's just capitalism."

Photo: Dave McGowan

Similarly for John, who's here trying to flog a pair of tickets (babysitter cancellation), touting is a complex picture. The relatively modest profits made by street-corner operatives is nothing compared to lucrative business of — yep, you guessed it — the internet wheeler-dealers.

"This guy here is just helping me out," he says. "The show's not even sold out, so it's not like he's going to get a huge mark-up after buying my ticket, if any. It's different with something like Stubhub. I feel like I don't know who my money's going to."

That seems a common view — but why? Is it that many of us secretly admire the graft of the grizzled street-corner operative; while deploring the cowardly profiteering of an imagined bitcoin-hoarding, online-gambling web weirdo? That many of us see little to no moral equivalence between different types of ticket-reselling should prove instructive to London's authorities. This business will always be a reality; a consumer right, arguably. But what does need to change is the transparency.

Last Updated 17 January 2018