Jowell Gets Tougher On Touts

British culture secretary Tessa Jowell has told the U.K.’s live music business to clean up its act over ticketing or she’ll bring in a law to pull it back in line.

The move brought an immediate and positive response from Stuart Galbraith and Rob Ballantine, both members of the Concert Promoters’ Association team that wants reselling tickets outlawed, and also from National Arenas’ Association chairman Geoff Huckstep.

“I think it all got back on track,” Huckstep told Pollstar 24 hours after the July 17th summit meeting at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s London headquarters.

Huckstep, who runs Nottingham Ice Arena, and Ballantine – a director of Manchester-based SJM Concerts – both expressed disappointment at the outcome of the previous meeting (April 27th), which left many in the live music industry wondering if Jowell was being taken in by the secondary ticket agents’ efforts to legitimise their business.

Ballantine, who went as far as saying the government’s strategy at the time was “very watered-down” from what he’d been expecting, agreed that progress is being made.

“I felt the last meeting took two steps back, but we’ve definitely taken three steps forward this time,” he explained, adding that he’s confident the DCMS is moving nearer to stamping out the reselling of concert tickets for commercial gain.

Jowell has put that view in perspective by reiterating that she’s out to protect “the innocent victim of ticket touting who has to pay through the nose for a vastly over-priced ticket to see their sporting, stage or musical hero.”

“These are the people we must protect,” she said via the DCMS Web site as she warned that the business, including promoters, venues and all ticketing agencies, must work together to put its house in order within the next 12 months.

“If it hasn’t come up with a workable solution to stamping out the most unscrupulous touts by next summer, where there is clear evidence it’s needed, we may consider targeted action and changes in legislation to ensure genuine fans are protected from exploitation,” she explained.

Galbraith, managing director of Live Nation – UK, Ballantine, Huckstep and Wembley Arena general manager Peter Tudor – Huckstep’s predecessor as NAA chairman – are all of the opinion that the battle is turning against eBay and the secondary sellers because the minister and her department are steadily getting the hang of how the ticketing industry works.

The major noticeable change since April, apart from Sean Woodward (Labour MP for St. Helens South) replacing James Purnell (Stalybridge and Hyde) as head of Jowell’s DCMS team, was that the Association of Secondary Ticket Agents (ASTA) wasn’t at the meeting.

If Marc Melander set up ASTA – which first reared its head during Tudor’s ticketing panel at this year’s ILMC – with the major objective of producing an industry association that would ensure touts got a seat at Jowell’s table, then the DCMS has clearly seen through it.

Asked why he felt his newly formed organisation was invited to the last DCMS meeting but not the latest, Melander said he got a call from Samuel Kabiswa – one of Jowell’s civil service team – who said the organization’s presence wasn’t needed until it was ready to back up its accusation that the authorised sellers are hypocrites because they’re supplying the secondary market.

A public argument between the Internet touts and the promoters started about four hours before the DCMS meeting as BBC began broadcasting interviews with Galbraith, Ballantine and eBay’s Richard Ambrose, who treated Radio 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 listeners to what sounded like a petulant blast of invective against the concert industry.

Describing authorized methods of ticket distribution as a “shambolic” mix of “jammed phone lines and crashing Web sites,” he said trusting concert promoters to distribute them fairly and efficiently is “like seeking child protection advice from Fagin.”

Apparently buoyed by his Dickensian analogy, with the ticket buyer cast as the innocent child and the likes of Galbraith, Ballantine and Geoff Ellis from Scotland’s DF Concerts – the third prong of the CPA spearhead against secondary selling – as the sinister villain from “Oliver Twist,” he went on to describe promoters as being “more like the Sheriff of Nottingham than Robin Hood.”

Crucially, and in defense of eBay, he claimed “the vast majority of people selling online are selling for personal reasons, normally because they cannot attend an event,” a weak and unsupportable argument that may have the promoters feeling that eBay’s stance has now been reduced to just carrying on with secondary selling until the government tells it to stop.

On Radio 5’s breakfast program, Galbraith hit back by pointing out that resold tickets account for some 30 percent of the house and it was nonsense to suggest that eBay wasn’t acting as a conduit for profiteering.

He said eBay is “actually allowing people to buy tickets that they have no intention of using whatsoever, and making it more difficult for people who want to buy face value tickets in the first place.”

In simple terms, and if Ambrose’s claims are true, then the “vast majority” of the 3,000 tickets (30 percent) that get posted on eBay for a 10,000-capacity arena show are there because they’ve been bought by people who have since realized that they can’t go.

Presumably, the 100-plus Kylie Minogue tickets offered on eBay four days before her January 2-3 Wembley Arena shows went on sale were posted by the dozens of genuine fans who’ve realized they can’t go even before they’ve bought the ticket.

Tudor described it as “despicable people preying on gullible fans by offering for sale something they cannot possibly have.”

“It all proves that we need legislation as – however much the legitimate end of the market keeps its house in order – there are still unscrupulous ‘agents’ willing to rip people off.”

Common sense and the most basic grasp of math show eBay is clearly allowing the selling of “futures,” while Ambrose’s line about protecting kids from Fagin is beginning to sound like something he pulled straight out of fiction.

It probably doesn’t mean the site will suddenly agree to show the row and number of the seat on offer. It said it has to withhold that on the seemingly reasonable grounds that the promoters immediately cancel the tickets.

However, the DCMS will find it hard to figure how the Kylie sellers who did include the seat info in the ad turned out to be offering tickets for rows and numbers that don’t exist on the venue’s seating plan.

It looks to be more impressed by the CPA initiative to set up a Web site where fans can offer and buy tickets for face value, where the latecomer can take up the residue left by those who genuinely can’t go.

The next meeting between the DCMS and the music and sports businesses is pencilled for December.

Apart from the CPA, the NAA and eBay, the other regular attendees will likely include the Rugby Football Union, the England and Wales Cricket Board, the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, Cardiff Millennium Stadium, U.K. Sport, the Central Council of Physical Recreation, Ticketmaster, the Football Association and the Society of London Theatres.

– John Gammon