The gnarled market trader selling two rancid pike for a paahnd. The lonesome student on a street corner with a gigantic sign strapped to their spine pointing the way to a mythical ‘Golf Sale’ that no-one has ever visited. The moronic street preacher babbling “Jesus wants you for a hatchback!” through a megaphone made of twigs and spam. The lost tribes of Britain, silenced forever by foodie pop-ups, Black Friday and the rise of the iReligion.
And to their number we can add the humble scrout tout. You’ll have seen them, huddled over stacks of unsold Little Mix forgeries around tube stations or out on the scout, a weather-beaten, rain-sodden old scrote, teeth rotten from roll-ups or punched out in a torrid Simple Minds scuffle in 1988, standing by a crossing muttering “buy or sell your Stormzo, buy or sell”. Once they were the scourge of these pages, campaigns raging against their rip-off tactics and bands urging punters to attack them on sight, like a bunch of Britney-milking Tommy Robinsons.
Now, with the last few survivors looking so haggard and dispirited, watching the only honest illegal blag they know go the way of chequebook fraud and painting your own ten pound notes, they seem such tragic figures you almost feel sorry for them, to the point of romanticising their part in fading street culture. I’m quite looking forward to the inevitable West End musical I’ll Give You A Fiver!, in which a lonely ticket flogger down to their last Shed Seven row Z is scooped from the streets, handed a guitar and finally gets to be the star of the show. King Krule for the lead.
The alternative, as we’ve found, has been horrific: the flagrant and cynical exploitation of music fans on an industrial scale. At least yer honest scrout tout is out there at Brixton tube station, rain or shine, just trying to help out a Jack White fan who missed the pre-sale, for a meagre twenty or thirty quid profit per ticket. They’re not a legion of Russian bots systematically snapping up every ticket for an event online within seconds and whacking them straight onto secondary ticketing sites for 100 times the original price, in order to fund sex trafficking rings, Facebook voter targeting campaigns and online attempts to convince the public that Jeremy Corbyn was holding one of those new-fangled wi-fi wreaths that broadcast grief across a hundred foot radius.
Last month, a new law came into force banning online touts from using bot software to buy more tickets than they’re allowed, a development which may well have driven Ticketmaster’s decision to bow to pressure to shut down the secondary sites they’d shunt chunks of tickets to for extra profit – Seatwave and Get Me In. It’s a step in the right direction, but the company is already coming under fire for its inflated Platinum ticket service, and unless the other two major secondary sites, Viagogo and StubHub, follow suit, it’s something of a fruitless gesture. Since eBay paid £246 million for StubHub in 2007 and Viagogo founder Eric Baker (who also created StubHub) continues to make millions from Viagogo without any other major projects in evidence, they’re both unlikely to close on moral grounds. Even if both companies did magnanimously decide to treat the fans like human beings, what’s to stop a new site popping up to take advantage of the (albeit reduced) toutbot cash revolution? They could call it No Choice, Suckers! or MassivelyOverpricedBackRowTicketsForShit.com and the millions would still roll in.
We may be only one piece of price-limiting legislation away from beating the bots altogether, though, and in the meantime the new law should put more face-value tickets in the hands of real fans (at least until the botters discover a work-around) and see fewer Adele tickets hitting Viagogo for the price of a Range Rover. Hell, Ticketmaster’s new focus on face-value-or-cheaper ticket swaps could well kill off the day-to-day scrout tout altogether. And as much as they were often scowling, sinister, vaguely threatening scam merchants sucking the caked-on scum from the arse of the music industry, I’ll kinda miss them. The way they’d make the walk from tube station to venue feel like a vibrant, buzzing event, like some kind of Strokes stock market. The are they/aren’t they frisson of enigma around their relationship with the blokes who carpet the street in tatty fake tour t-shirts after the gig. The vaguely Dickensian squalor of it all.
To engage with the common or garden scrout tout is to watch a timeless semi-comic ballet of flaunted terms and conditions play out. The wary approach, one eye on the lookout for hidden SWAT teams waiting to pounce at the first sign of soggy cardboard contraband changing hands. The disdainful first offer (if you’re selling) or extortionate demand (if you’re buying), as if a ticket for Bombay Bicycle Club at the Guildford Grotcavern is either a piece of flattened dogshit you’ve just scraped from your shoe or the world’s most prized artefact, carved from solid Bitcoin. The fake walk away to find a better offer, the swift huddle with fellow scrotes, the revised price, the frenzied haggle, the surreptitiously slipped tenner. It’s a character-building, slightly grimy brush with the underworld, as Guy Ritchie as most of us will ever get. Yes, your gig money is funding someone’s heroin habit, but at least you don’t have to wait around for Pete Doherty to fail to show up.
Touts can be an unexpected source of comedy too. I’ll never forget heading into a Heaven gig past some poor tout being mobbed by a group of S&M punters en route to Torture Garden, demanding “tickets for Grouplove? How much? When does it start?” So farewell, Touty Trev, it’s been (frustratingly undervalued for a VIP pass) fun…