The war on secondary ticketing profiteers: who’s really winning?

Secondary ticketing sites came under fire earlier this year after their tickets were banned from Ed Sheeran’s tour; they’re also providing a safe haven for touts and customers are being landed with huge additional fees. As the legal scrutiny mounts around the practice, we speak to the punters that have lost out

We’ve all been there; it’s super frustrating when gigs on your bucket-list sell out in minutes. It’s even more disappointing when, five coffees, a maxed out data-allowance and a wasted hour of page-refreshing later, you spot tickets for the very same gig back on sale at double or triple the original price.

Fans have been flogging each other spare face value concert tickets since the beginning of time, but in recent years, ticket touting – buying tickets from licensed vendors before reselling them, often for profit – has spiked.

Traditionally, you’d associate the term ‘ticket tout’ with the blokes standing outside the venue muttering “buy and sell” at passing punters – and getting the name of the headliner wrong. However, of late, we’ve been seeing a new kind of tech-savvy profiteer. These 21st Century touts harvest tickets en masse during a general sale using a variety of methods, before putting them up for resale on secondary ticketing sites for huge profit.

So far, so 2008. But recently, these secondary ticket resellers are facing an increasing amount of pressure, with ongoing investigations in progress, questions being asked in Parliament and legal cases being built against them.

Customers, however, are still reporting unexpected additional fees being added to their ticket prices. While secondary ticketing websites must now display full costs and any added fees during the payment process – as required by law – some customers claim that these breakdowns simply aren’t clear enough. Many customers have also had difficulties obtaining refunds when increasing numbers of artists take the step of banning their tickets from gigs. This year two out of the four major secondary ticket resellers have closed down altogether, with another big player in the industry relocating overseas.

A student named Sophie got in touch with NME after she bought three tickets for the BBC’s Biggest Weekend event in Swansea earlier this year from the secondary ticketing website Viagogo. As far as she was aware, the tickets were up for sale at £18 each; and so she was shocked when Viagogo took £1772.41 from her bank account.

“I have messaged Viagogo constantly, explaining that I am entitled to a refund, as the website broke ASA [Advertising Standards Authority] rulings on clear pricing,” she said. “However they have been extremely unhelpful and most of the replies I receive are automated and not related to my case.” Months after the live event, she says that she’s yet to get her money back.

“Obviously I am a student and cannot afford such a financial blow,” Sophie added. “The longer it is taking to get back the harder it is becoming for me.”   

NME contacted Viagogo, and asked them to comment on Sophie’s case. They responded with the following statement: “Viagogo is not the ticket seller and all transactions are between the buyers and the sellers. Viagogo charges a service fee on top of the ticket price. For further clarification on Viagogo’s fees, please see our Terms and Conditions.”

“Viagogo is a marketplace and doesn’t buy or sell tickets. Viagogo provides a platform for third party sellers to sell tickets to event goers. Viagogo does not set ticket prices, sellers set their own prices, which may be above or below the original face value. Where demand is high and tickets are limited, prices increase.”

Tightening restrictions

Back in March 2018, the ASA ruled that many of the secondary ticketing adverts it investigated were “misleading” for consumers, and they banned several practices. The regulatory board took action against the four of the main operators in the sector: StubHub UK, Viagogo AG, Seatwave Ltd, and GET ME IN! Ltd. In the crackdown, the ASA banned the following: “not making clear the total ticket price at the beginning of the customer journey”, “not including the booking fee (inclusive of VAT) upfront” and “not making clear the applicable delivery fee”.

When we contacted StubHub and asked them to respond to the ASA ruling, they replied with the following statement: “Fans have always had the capability and choice on StubHub to view the full ticket price, including fees upfront via a toggle on the event page. Following the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) ruling, StubHub UK made this the default display option back in May this year.

“All ticket prices listed on StubHub UK are the final price paid, with no additional fees added at checkout. We will continue to support measures that bring transparency and trust to fans who want to sell or buy their ticket. We are therefore disappointed to see other secondary ticketing companies continuing to ignore UK regulatory decisions from both the ASA and the CMA to the detriment of UK consumers.”

Seatwave waves goodbye; GetMeIn gets out

We also contacted representatives of both Seatwave and GetMeIn earlier this year (both companies were owned by parent company Ticketmaster, the primary ticketing giant) for comment regarding the clarity of their pricing. They responded with the following statement. “When buying tickets with us, fans know exactly what they will pay at every stage of the process with all fees displayed upfront. This is in line with the ASA ruling. We welcome the efforts that are being made to increase transparency for fans and we hope that all companies will be held to the same account.”

Curiously, Ticketmaster has since made the decision to cease the operation of both companies – both closed down in October in the UK and Ireland. Ticketmaster now plans to set up a new ‘fan-to-fan exchange’ for tickets instead, where tickets cannot be resold for above their original face value. In a statement announcing the closure, they cited the prevalence of touts on the platform. “We know that fans are tired of seeing others snap up tickets just to resell for a profit on secondary websites, so we have taken action,” said Andrew Parsons, head of Ticketmaster UK.

Their decision comes during an ongoing investigation by the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority. According to the BBC, the authority is currently considering legal action against Viagogo. Ticketmaster’s exit from the secondary resale market also comes shortly after the Irish government gave their backing to a new bill which would ban the resale of tickets for anything above face value.

“We know that fans are tired of seeing others snap up tickets just to resell for a profit on secondary websites, so we have taken action”
– Andrew Parsons, head of Ticketmaster UK.

Last month, the US arm of Ticketmaster faced allegations of ticketing malpractice after journalists from CBC News and Toronto Star posed undercover at the Ticket Summit 2018. Reporters spoke with sales reps, who allegedly discussed how they hack buying limits by using multiple accounts and purchasing tickets in bulk before they are sold at a higher rate. One rep allegedly told undercover reporters that the biggest tout had ‘grabbed around 5 million tickets a day’.

Responding to the claims, a Ticketmaster spokesperson told CBC News: ‘We do not own the tickets sold on our platform nor do we have any control over ticket pricing – either in the initial sale or the resale. Following the allegations, Ticketmaster is now facing a class-action lawsuit from legal firm Hagens Berman. According to Rolling Stone, lead plaintiff Allen Lee, is suing Ticketmaster and parent company Live Nation Entertainment for “unlawful and unfair business practices” that have “unjustly enriched” ticket sellers. There is also another second class-action lawsuit pending against Ticketmaster in Canada, encompassing both the resale program itself and the platform’s high pricing. When we contacted Ticketmaster, they did not respond to our request for comment.

…But Viagogo goes on and on

Meanwhile, according to reports from The Guardian, Viagogo – currently under investigation for “misleading” pricing and violations of consumer law by two different regulatory bodies – is planning to move majority of its UK workforce to New York. Responding to an investigation by the BBC last summer, Viagogo issued the following statement: “Viagogo clearly displays the full and final price, including all booking fees, before customers complete their purchase.”

One fan who spoke to NME bought secondary tickets after Janelle Monae’s London show sold out in moments

Many of the music fans who contacted NME about their experiences were caught out by Viagogo when it came to additional fees they didn’t expect to pay. One gig-goer, Meghan, claims she didn’t notice any additional fees during her purchasing journey when she tried to buy tickets to see Lauryn Hill at The O2; she claims she only realised once payment had been processed. The additional fees were so high that she was forced to sell the tickets back to the ticketing outlet. Not an ideal outcome, as it leaves another music fan to be caught out in the same way further down the line.

Meghan also told NME that she feels the website pressured her to buy the tickets as quickly as possible. Bold red lettering told her that there were just 2% of the total tickets remaining; stats such as “7 other people are interested in these tickets” appeared on each listing. Meanwhile, at the time of writing, Ticketmaster still has tickets available for multiple regional dates of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill 20th Anniversary tour, on sale at face value.

Viagogo responded to our request for comment with the same statement that they gave when we contacted them about Sophie’s case earlier on. “Viagogo does not set ticket prices, sellers set their own prices,” it concludes, “which may be above or below the original face value. Where demand is high and tickets are limited, prices increase.”

Hurrying tactics

The tactics Meghan mentions are commonplace across all of the major secondary ticketing sites; StubHub displays the number of tickets it has on sale (accompanied by red stopwatch icon) while GetMeIn and Seatwave – prior to their closure – also used similar messages to provide an added sense of urgency. “Hurry!! Only eight tickets left” read one such example when NME viewed standing tickets for Childish Gambino’s upcoming concert at The O2 Arena in November 2018.  

“I was panicking, and when I searched for tickets on Google, I trusted the first link I found,” Meghan said. “Viagogo looks like any other ticket site, and I didn’t spot the huge extra charges until it was too late.” She says that she only discovered the £82 per ticket total, way above their original value, after her payment had been processed; a claim which NME is unable to verify.

The existence of these additional fees are vaguely referenced in the terms and conditions of secondary ticketing sites. While Viagogo’s website does currently display additional fees on the final window of the buyer journey, with a brief explanation of their VAT and Booking Fees, the process for how these totals are calculated isn’t broken down further. For many customers, who claim they didn’t spot these added fees in the first place, they come as a nasty surprise once payment has been taken.

Another music fan, Grace, had a similar experience when she bought tickets to see Janelle Monáe play at London’s Roundhouse. “After I paid I got an alert on my confirmation page that I’d be charged an additional 20 quid per ticket,” she claimed. NME is unable to verify if Viagogo displayed these fees anywhere earlier in the payment journey, but as with other cases, Grace says that she didn’t spot any indication until it was too late. Were Viagogo’s fees detailed anywhere on the website? Grace claims that they weren’t easily visible. “Nowhere that I could see,” she says. “And I looked carefully because I was buying tickets for two mates as well as myself.”

“It’s a weird one because on one hand I’m really glad to have tickets to the gig and Ticketmaster was useless in getting them reserved in time,” she continues, “whereas this actually worked. On the other hand, if the tickets had been advertised at the price I ended up paying for them, I don’t think I would have bought them.” In total, Grace and her mates ended up paying £83 per ticket, once all the additional fees had been added.

Meanwhile, Viagogo maintain that pricing on their website is clear. “Viagogo clearly displays the full and final price, including all booking fees, before customers complete their purchase,” their statement said.

In some cases – as with Brockhampton’s recent show at KOKO last month – tickets appeared on secondary sites before general sale even opened to the public

However, Grace’s experience is common. Concerts continue to sell out at a rapid rate, and hugely marked-up tickets are appearing on secondary ticket sites within minutes. In some cases – as with Brockhampton’s recent show at KOKO last month – tickets appeared on secondary sites before general sale even opened to the public.

Another concern comes from the blurred lines between secondary ticketing sites; in some cases they’re owned by primary sellers. Ticketmaster, for example, owned both Seatwave and GetMeIn before their closure.

‘Pugnacious Endeavors’

The remaining two companies in the sector, StubHub and Viagogo also have a strong, and overlapping relationship. Eric Baker, the founder of Viagogo, originally set up StubHub in the US, with Viagogo following as a European wing for his Pugnacious Endeavors network (yep, that’s pugnacious, meaning “eager or quick to argue, quarrel, or fight”).

This umbrella company is based in Delaware, USA, and Viagogo (which previously processed payments at its Swiss head office) recently began processing sales and payments through a company registered in Delaware instead. The state was named the world’s most opaque jurisdiction back in 2009, and in terms of its financial secrecy, it ranks above British Virgin Islands, Belize and Liechtenstein. International companies can re-domicile in the state easily, and the inner-workings of trusts, company accounts and beneficial ownership are all kept off the public record. A source well versed in the ticketing industry suggested to The Guardian that Viagogo’s relocation is also being planned in part because there is less hostility towards secondary ticketing websites in the United States.

After declining to appear towards MPs at a parliamentary inquiry last year, Viagogo agreed to send representative to face questions from the UK government’s department for media, culture and sport (DCMS) select committee on September 5. The concession came shortly after the company faced widespread criticism for profiting from ticket sales for a cancer charity benefit show by the comedian Russell Howard, but the company later declined to appear, just one day before the hearing. In a letter from Viagogo director Prabhat Shah, the company cited the Competition and Market Authority’s ongoing investigation into their practices, along with legal advice they had received.

Legislation attempts to keep up with technology

Following new government legislation introduced at the beginning of this year, it became illegal to use bots to purchase tickets in bulk on 5 July.  Ticket touts and secondary ticketing sites will now face hefty fines if they’re caught, and it’s a promising start. However, as security and ticketing expert Reg Walker noted to The Guardian after the new legislation came into force, “bots are just one tool in the touts’ box. There are changes in technology that mean there may be loopholes in the legislation that they can exploit.”

It’s well known that touts have many other less sophisticated methods at their disposal. Sometimes, they simply produce counterfeit tickets, as a fan called Ryan discovered when he bought a Bestival ticket on eBay. Unfortunately he only discovered his ticket was effectively “a useless piece of paper” at the festival gates. “I was stuck on the Isle of Wight not knowing if I’d get in,” he said. Luckily he was covered by eBay’s Buyer Protection, and replacement tickets were sent out.

In theory, the same should happen with other secondary ticketing sites; Viagogo has a user guarantee which withholds payment from a seller until their buyer successfully gains entry to an event, while StubHub says that they will locate replacement tickets or send you a refund in the event of an issue. However, this doesn’t help customers who claim they have been landed with unexpected added fees, nor the customers who have shelled out for hotels and transport around a show. In one prominent example, Viagogo refused to refund customers after Ed Sheeran banned secondary tickets from his tour.

Artists fight back

Some of the world’s biggest acts are starting to fight back against secondary ticketing sites. Iron Maiden and Bruce Springsteen have both successfully banned the use of paper tickets at their tours; punters instead gain entry by showing the debit or credit card they used to buy the ticket, along with their ID. Ed Sheeran, meanwhile, made headlines when he took the step of effectively banning all tickets bought from secondary ticketing sites full stop. As an alternative for fans who did need to resell their tickets for any reason, he teamed up with the fan-to-fan resale platform Twickets. The company, which says it monitors for unusual ticket-buying behaviour, has been supported by a number of other artists, including Adele and The 1975. In addition, Sheeran also stationed representatives from promoter Kilimanjaro Live outside the venue to provide legal advice to his fans seeking a refund. “People just need to start taking a stance and within two or three years companies like Viagogo are going to be kaput (no longer in business),” Sheeran told BBC Newsbeat.

 

“People just need to start taking a stance and within two or three years companies like Viagogo are going to be kaput”
– Ed Sheeran

Responding, Viagogo countered any claims that their tickets for Ed Sheeran’s concert were invalid. “All tickets on Viagogo are authentic,” they said in a statement, which also alleges that the founder of Kilimanjaro Live was seeking to profit from their customers. “Stuart Galbraith duped Ed Sheeran fans by confiscating thousands of genuine tickets at the gate, forcing fans to buy new tickets and pocketing millions of pounds in duplicate sales”

In turn, Galbraith responded to Viagogo’s allegations. “The claims made today by Viagogo are ludicrous, laughable and most importantly totally false,” he said. “This is a transparent attempt to deflect attention away from their upcoming appearance at the [MP] inquiry and the wide-ranging criticisms, multiple legal prosecutions in many territories (including by the Competitions and Markets Authority in the UK) and condemnation of their business practices. Kilimanjaro will defend against this action vigorously and look forward to doing so in court.”

Linking tickets to a unique digital identity – a scannable Captcha code, for example – does help to stop people gaining access to shows using counterfeit tickets, and it also helps to prevent reselling taking place on secondary sites. However, as with all technology, it’s not foolproof. As Foo Fighters discovered when they played Manchester’s Etihad Stadium earlier this summer, a glitch in the system can have huge repercussions. On this specific occasion, approximately 3000 fans with valid tickets were left stuck outside the venue after a “human error” led to their tickets being falsely rejected.

When an invalid ticket isn’t deemed invalid

There’s also another major flaw when it comes to artists banning secondary tickets from their gigs. The original intention may be positive, but unfortunately it doesn’t help gig-goers when their secondary tickets aren’t accepted under such circumstances. Viagogo’s terms and conditions state that “if buyers are refused entry to the venue as a result of invalid tickets” they will be granted a refund. Meanwhile, StubHub’s terms and conditions offer refunds for invalid tickets “except in cases where the venue or organiser/primary ticketer is responsible for the invalid ticket”. Viagogo told NME that anybody who was unable to get into the Ed Sheeran concert was refunded. “If a customer has any problems with their tickets, we urge them to contact us immediately on our event day hotline,” said a press representative in a statement. “We are often able to find replacement tickets right away, and in the rare instances we are not able to, customers receive a full refund.” 

One fan, Frances, claims that this didn’t happen after she bought six tickets from Viagogo to see Ed Sheeran at Wembley Arena. She spent £900 in total, and later learned that the tickets would not be honoured at the show after watching an episode of BBC’s consumer issues show Watchdog. So she asked Viagogo for a refund.

“Viagogo were very unhelpful,” Frances said. “They were adamant that the tickets were valid. They kept messaging me saying they couldn’t give me my money back.” In the end, she dealt directly with her bank instead, who “were amazing and got me a refund” Unable to buy six replacement tickets from another outlet, she missed the show.

Just like many other affected ticket-buyers we spoke to, Frances admits she instinctively trusted Viagogo due to their high ranking on Google. Search for tickets for virtually any artist, and the other top four secondary ticket resellers appears in the top tier of results. All companies clearly optimise their websites to perform well with search engine algorithms.

“They were at the top repeatedly,” Frances explains. “We presume in the UK that we can trust such sites.”

What happens next?

The Advertising Standards Authority referred Viagogo to National Trading Standards in May this year, and a Competitions & Markets Authority enforcement investigation is ongoing. For now, though, secondary ticketing websites continue to do business, and they’re all adamant that they’re abiding by the law.

So, what can you do to avoid being caught out by additional fees and high resale prices? According to the FanFair Alliance, an organisation set up to make ticketing fairer and more transparent, you can take several steps to ensure you’re not caught out. They’ve produced an entire handbook of tips when it comes to beating the touts.

First of all, it pays to get organised when gig tickets go on sale through primary outlets at face value; it’s also worth checking for early presales to make sure you have the best chance of bagging one through an official outlet. And if you miss out, don’t panic or be tempted by secondary ticketing sites selling for profit. Many artists announce extra dates when demand for their shows is high, and as FanFair point out “many authorised ticket sellers offer face value ticket resale, ‘waiting list’ or ‘reallocation’ facilities”. It’s worth looking out for those too, and playing the waiting game.

If you’ve been caught out by a secondary ticketing site, it can be possible to get a refund, and according to FanFair,  “to date, more than £240,000 has been successfully refunded to individuals in the form of chargebacks from their bank or credit card company.” The key, they say is sheer perseverance and the organisation has put together a guide to obtaining a refund with the help of Victims of Viagogo founder Claire Turnham.

Above all, the best course of action that music fans can take is this: resist ticket touts, as tempting as they might seem.