NITO President Frank Riley Talks Ticketing, Advocacy & Indie Solidarity

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Frank Riley (Photo courtesy of National Independent Talent Organization)

High Road Touring founder Frank Riley has always been a staunch advocate for artists and the independent businesses that support them. When COVID-19 restrictions and the virtual shutdown of the entire concert industry threatened those small businesses most, he and a group of like-minded entrepreneurs banded together to form the National Independent Talent Organization, of which Riley is now president. They knew if they didn’t stand together in mutual support, they risked falling apart separately.

Nearly three years since its formation, and with the touring industry back on its collective feet, NITO has turned its sights on what it terms a “broken” ticketing system.
To that end, the non-profit trade organization has issued a nine-point ticketing platform, with the support of more than 50 stakeholders, it hopes will reform the ticketing system and protect artists and fans.

And NITO isn’t alone. After virulent fan response to perceived problems with Taylor Swift and other ticket onsales, the resulting filing of class action lawsuits and the U.S. Senate’s Judiciary Committee hearing in January, Live Nation – which owns Ticketmaster, far and away the world’s largest ticketseller – issued its own proposal for a FAIR Ticketing Act calling for reform.

There’s some similarities. But NITO differs in that the group wants primary ticketsellers to be banned from participating in, or profiting from, resales. It also wants fuller fee transparency, with a breakdown of all fees baked into the all-in price. And it wants artists and their representatives to have the ability to access their own ticket buyer data.

Pollstar: Clearly this initiative signals a new phase for NITO, and that there’s life after the COVID emergency.

Frank Riley: This ticketing platform is an initiative that’s meant to gather the NITO members under one umbrella again and begin to look at how to implement it. What we want is to join together and endeavor to find common ground, with each of us bringing other stakeholder members together and getting some kind of collective energy that will be recognized by Congress.

Is the ticketing platform a basis for a possible legislative effort?

This is a statement about where we stand. And it’s meant to be a lightning rod to find other stakeholders that collectively can go out and lobby for individual pieces of this platform. This isn’t going to happen overnight.

Your ticketing platform initiative has a lot in common with Live Nation’s FAIR Ticketing Act, but also with some clear distinctions.

Yeah, we do. The next initiative that’s going to come from our collective group is about secondary ticketing. And that’s the reflection of a desire from NITO to give some power back to the artists on how their tickets are sold, how they’re resold, and what the process is. It can’t be edicts from the larger corporate promoters about what we can and can’t do. We recognize that Live Nation and Ticketmaster are huge companies. And we all work with them in a responsible and cooperative way. But we believe that they have gone beyond what’s reasonable.

Let’s talk about where NITO’s ticketing platform diverges from that of Live Nation.

We can start with itemized, all-in ticketing. What Live Nation wants is the final ticket price to be on the website, but they don’t want it broken down by individual fees. When you go to a restaurant your bill tells you what you owe, but it is itemized. That’s what we want this to be. And we believe that if that’s put in the light of the public, that that will start to affect their perception of how this business is run.

There’s also a cap on ticket fees.

That’s another part of this. What we really wanted was to lower ticket fees on the lowest-priced tickets because it’s where the independent, live music community lives. The development of new artists and new voices and new audiences is their lifeblood. When you start stacking fees on top of relatively inexpensive tickets, that will start to affect the number of people attending shows. And if you don’t have a threshold to allow developing artists to earn their living as musicians, you’re going to shut those voices down. [We’ve been told] that if we lower the ticket fees on the lowest priced tickets, we’ve got to raise ticket fees on higher priced tickets. And there are members who say we also want a cap on the highest priced tickets also.

Then there’s the call for a ban on primary ticketing platforms taking place in and profiting from secondary market sales.

We’re talking about who would be out of the secondary selling market as soon as that space was cleared from the scalpers; the bedfellows of this whole thing. And that’s fundamental. I mean, that’s a serious problem right there. [An artist] doesn’t benefit from a $2,000 ticket [on the secondary market]. Nor does the deal, unless it’s sold through a secondary platform by Live Nation. Then promoters would benefit from it. The artist benefits from the deal that he does participate in. But you know that that money isn’t going into your pot. It’s going into a secondary seller’s pot. You’re actually benefiting people that are outside the system. I don’t think it’s anybody’s intent for the music business to benefit outliers who don’t participate in the risk, or the production, or the actual utility of what happens on a show; they’re just dealing with the ticket. And the ticket is not an experience, it’s a commodity.