Q’s with StubHub’s Aimee Campbell: ‘We’re Not Perfect’

Secondary ticketing websites have been taking a lot of flack in recent years. So much, in fact, that issues surrounding the primary markets – beyond poor pricing  – seemed, at times, forgotten. 

– StubHub

Are tickets sold too cheap if they move on secondary sites for many times over their face-value? It is a compelling argument, because the free market is a compelling concept. But is it actually a free market, given that consumers make irrational choices when it comes to an emotional good such as a concert ticket?

What about profits made on secondary sites not owned by the industry; profits that don’t end up with the artists and promoters? Are there actually that many sold-out events in the first place? And how effective are bot bans, price caps and ID checks to curb resale?

Pollstar asked StubHub’s global head of public affairs Aimee Campbell.

Aimee Campbell
StubHub’s Global Head of Public Affairs
– Aimee Campbell
Aimee Campbell

What issues do you see with the primary market?

When tickets go on sale for a tour there are a wide variety of channels that you can purchase tickets on, including presales, VIP and fan clubs. You can also get access to tickets in advance, if you have a specific credit card or mobile phone operator.

Consumers need to understand how many tickets are allocated across these different channels, because I think the assumption by many is that [the entirety of] tickets will go on sale on, say, a Friday morning. But, in reality, not 100 percent of the venue is usually on sale, it’s usually a smaller percentage, because tickets have been allocated to these other channels, and also to industry insiders, sponsors and other people. Those tickets aren’t actually publicly available.

If consumers have that information they can manage their expectations when they log on to the general on-sale, instead of expecting the full 20,000 seats of an arena being made available. If they knew that it was – and I’m just picking a random number here – 6,000 tickets, there would be less disappointment [if they don’t get one].

I also think the ticketing market itself is very fragmented. Every single venue will have their own primary partner that they will want to work with. Different tour operators and promoters will have their preferred partners or companies that they own. For a consumer, that’s really challenging to navigate, especially if you only attend one or two shows per year.

Do you have any stats on how many events actually sell out?

There’s no real definition of what a sellout is. To me, a sellout would mean every single ticket has been sold, and we don’t necessarily know if that’s the case, because we don’t know how many are being made available.

How many of the tickets made available by the primary market end up on your site?

We did some research [about three years ago] and looked at how many tickets were available for major events both across sports and music on the UK website. On average it was around one percent of the venue that we had available on the site, and in many cases it was much below one percent, but it averaged out to one percent.

The New York Attorney General released a comprehensive report on ticketing about two years ago. What they found in the U.S. is that 54 percent of tickets were not being made available to the public.

If you just look at it from the access point, you have one percent being traded on the secondary market, and you have 54 percent not making it to the general public. I think it’s pretty obvious, which one is the bigger problem – if you’re concerned with fans being able to access events.

What do you make of the UK’s recent passing of legislation against the use of bot technology to buy up more tickets than the limit per person?

One of the issues we’ve seen in the U.S., which has had this legislation in place for [some 15 months] longer [than the UK], is a real lack of reporting. These attacks happen and they need to be reported so they can be handled. As a marketplace we run identity verification on all of the sellers on the site. And with that information we continuously check our sellers against international criminal databases.

If there has been a bot attack somewhere, and it does get reported, an investigation happens by law enforcement. We can then also help and be part of that detection and catching theses people that are doing it. But if people don’t report these attacks in the first place, law enforcement cannot carry out an investigation, and we can therefore not help and be part of the solution.

You’ve called ID checks a double-disadvantage. Why?

You don’t want to institute policies that then have an unintended consequence and actually backfire. When people are buying tickets at 9 a.m. in that panicked on-sale moment, they aren’t reading those terms and conditions, they’re just clicking through and buying a ticket, because that situation is designed to get you to buy quickly. So, first of all, people don’t read that information.

Second of all, if you’re a larger venue, it’s very difficult to carry out those ID checks without having huge queues outside. As a venue you obviously want people inside, purchasing drink and food and things like that.

The way that we live our life is much more flexible than it used to be. You buy tickets for these shows many months in advance. If something does crop up and you want to give your ticket to a friend, what they’re now saying is: that person can’t get in. You haven’t engaged in resale, you haven’t made a profit, you literally just wanted to give it to your friend. Turning someone away without purpose is simply unfair, and, frankly, anti-consumer.

How many tickets are sold above face-value on your platform?

In terms of our own site: we typically see prices generally fall the closer you get to the event. If you put yourself in a position of someone who’s selling a ticket, and the event is in two days, and you haven’t sold it, you’re obviously going to want to drop your price, if your goal is to sell that ticket. The last week or so before the event is when you really start seeing those drastic falls.

We’ve been in the UK now for almost six years, and over time we’ve seen prices fall by 25 percent on our own site, and they’ll continue to fall as the market matures, and as fans and consumers get smarter about using the secondary market.

On average, globally, we see 50 percent of tickets selling for their face-value or below. The UK is less mature than the U.S., where we’ve been around for 18 years. In the UK it’s about 40 percent, and [you’re about to] see that increase as more and more people become smart about when they buy tickets, using our app, setting price alerts, and things like that.

What do you say to price caps?

If you have an open market, you’re always going to encourage as much competition as possible, and that leads to sellers having to price competitively, and ultimately that means better value and lower prices for consumers.

Value is completely relative. I’m a huge U2 fan, I would willing to pay essentially more than someone, who doesn’t like U2. If you’re a seller, and the market is restricted, you’ll just find another platform to sell that on, if the demand is still there. There’s nothing a government, a ticket website, a promoters can do, to change supply and demand. If you restrict the market in any way, it’s not going to change the fact that an artist is playing a 20,000 seat venue and has three million fans. There’s still going to be a limited supply compared to a high demand.

And people will find ways of trading those tickets, whether they go back to the streets – which obviously does not the provide the protection that an online marketplace would – or on to dark parts of the web, or set up shop in a different jurisdiction. There’s plenty of ways around it.
The secondary market plays a role, customers do need a place to buy tickets at the last minute, and to sell tickets if they no longer can attend events. The question is: do you want a safe and secure space online, or would you prefer to go back to the streets, where consumers don’t have protection and fraud is a major issue, because there’s no way of tracking that.

So what do you say to the complaint that all the money made on StubHub doesn’t end up with the artists and promoters?

I think that’s a very important area for us to work on. As any business, we’re not perfect. There are areas that we need to improve. One of our biggest areas that we are focusing on as a business, is how we can actually demonstrate value and be more part of the industry rather than being seen as a disruptor.

We have a number of partnerships in place, they vary from acting as a distribution channel for rights holders to sell tickets at face value directly to consumers, to being recognized by the O2 as their official resale partner.

There’s always going to be a need for people to resell tickets, especially as it’s not usually something that’s a refundable item, once you purchase it. We feel that there’s more that we need to do to try and work together with the industry, to come up with solutions that make sense for our business, for the rights holder, and also for the fan

That is a huge focus for us at the moment. I don’t have the answer for you right now in terms of what that looks like, but it’s definitely something that we’re very conscious that we have not cracked yet. It’s on top of the priority list.

Can you still speak of a free market, when it’s about a good that is so emotional it makes people make irrational purchase decisions?

You’re right, it’s a totally emotional purchase. And it is, at the end of the day, a luxury. Not only is the venue limited in its capacity, it’s also not something you legally have a right to, like education or medicine. That can sound a bit harsh, but if you look at what some of our critics say, the words they use are almost like [saying] we’re taking away insulin from diabetics. It’s a little bit of an overreaction, I think, to what is ultimately a luxury good.

Now, do we believe that people should have access to the arts? Absolutely. I think it’s about striking that balance of what we can offer to fans, which is why we’re looking to work more with right holders to be a primary distribution channel, so that we have a wide variety of tickets for a wide variety of events with a wide variety of price points.

The assumption is that we only care about those high-priced, high-demand events. And, yes, those absolutely are core to our business, that is where we make very good money, that’s part of our goal as a business. But, in the end, we’re only ever going to satisfy a very small percentage of people if that’s all we focus on. We want to be a destination for fans of all types of music with all different sorts of income, to be able to use the site and buy tickets when they want to on an easy to use platform.

If you want to go to an event in a city and stay over night, the hotel prices go up, the train tickets [and Uber prices] go up, the flights go up. There are entire industries that benefit from it. People feel annoyed when hotels charge more money for a big event, but you don’t get the public outcry that you get with the concert ticket. And, trying to think rationally, it’s not really any different. I’m not saying either is right or wrong, it’s just quite an interesting notion that people get very heated about the secondary market, but don’t really think about other companies raising their prices, which is just a function of the market.

As I said: it’s a luxury item, and we’re not all fortunate enough to go and see our favorite artist every time they come into town. It’s a sad reality, but we do have to, kind of, get over it a little bit. And if you don’t make it, it’s a shame, but we need to put it into perspective.