Irrational Encounters With The Modern World

Barrowland

Tickets, Touts, and the BBC 6 Music Festival

I first attended a live music gig in October 1998 and, writing in April 2017, I have been to about three-hundred-and-fifty others since then. I did not intend to become someone who travels around the country, and occasionally the continent or across oceans, in the pursuit of hearing my favourite bands – but that is who I am. It is possible that I just grew older and cantankerous, but it is equally possible that gig-going has been ruined by online ticket sales, the secondary resale market, and self-obsessed pricks with camera-phones.

It was in 2000 that I began to regularly attend concerts, buying tickets in person from one agent that still exists and two record stores that have closed down. Occasionally, I would buy from the venue direct – the crowning glory being a ticket in the second row of the Edinburgh Playhouse stalls to see Alice Cooper with Dio. I was in the right place at the right time to see the Lostprophets’ first ever Glasgow gig, and Pantera’s last. The influence of a friend (and the cancellation of his scheduled T In The Park festival appearance) meant that I saw David Bowie play what became his final Scottish show. I watched Brutal Deluxe play the Cathouse to an audience of six people, and Iron Maiden play the first Download Festival to sixty thousand. I was there when FFS (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) played their debut live show, and I flew from Glasgow to Los Angeles just to witness a rare 75-minute Combichrist techno set. In short, my experience has been as wide and varied as my taste in music.

I still enjoy going to smaller club shows (aside from the insufferable selfie-takers, iphone photographers, and especially those who film video with their phones in portrait mode), but trying to obtain tickets for anything popular has become so much of a chore that it has sucked the joy right out of the whole endeavour. Chronologically, my recent gripes have been with the Reeves & Mortimer tour cancellation; Penn and Teller’s UK tour; Alice Cooper’s 2017 presales; and the BBC 6 Music Festival.

Bob Mortimer required emergency heart surgery, meaning that he was unable to perform as scheduled. See Tickets refunded, but kept the transaction fees that everybody had been charged when booking seats – leaving me three pounds out of pocket. Now consider, they had sold out venues every night, each averaging about two thousand seats. Suddenly it is apparent that See skimmed several thousand pounds off a man’s poor health – which is pretty reprehensible.
In 2016, when I was trying to buy four individual tickets to see my favourite band play in four UK cities, See advised me that they offer no “add to basket” option, and would force me to pay a transaction fee on each brief. Thankfully, I used individual agencies and went to the venues own sites and managed to pay a more sensible amount.

Above: Reeves & Mortimer later announced replacement tour dates, but by that point I had lost interest.

Lately, it has frustrated me that both Iron Maiden and Ricky Gervais have opted to use Ticketmaster in their seemingly noble bids to combat touts. Ticketmaster IS the tout – they operate two different secondary resale sites, with alleged evidence that some briefs are diverted for sale there without ever having been made available through the primary channel. Iron Maiden have claimed success with their “ticketless ticketing” system for the 2017 UK tour, while Gervais inflated the price of premium seats himself – giving the additional spend to charity, but again limiting access to only the wealthiest. Despite their assertions, it is not “fairer to the fans” that these high profile acts endorse the one ticketing agency that we all feel ripped off by.

In December 2016, I decided to jump on my chance to see magicians Penn and Teller, whose television career I have been following since the mid-1990s when Channel Four aired “The Unpleasant World of” show. I soon learned that TicketSoup, which was formed by and used to cover sales for Glasgow’s SECC and Clyde Auditorium, had been taken over by or merged with the dreaded Ticketmaster. So began the pain – I logged on and selected (from an interactive plan) the seats that I wanted, at which point an instructional box popped up. Due to high demand, it informed me, I would be unable to select my own seats and instead it would offer me whatever was available. My chosen seats at the front of the first circle had been greyed out, and in their place would I like two seats on the fourth level, three rows from the back wall of the theatre? Not knowing any better, I accepted, suddenly miles from where I wanted to be to see the performance. Insult to injury, the next day a second date was announced, and when idle curiosity (or masochism) made me look at availability, I could have at least had third level. I cannot say that I hold the same enthusiasm, knowing that I was deliberately diverted into buying seats so bad that I will be watching expert sleight of hand from virtually outside.

Above: Metallica are another huge band offering “experiences” instead of tickets. It is no longer enough to just watch a band play live.

That same month, Alice Cooper announced his first UK tour for five years – excitement soon tempered when it was revealed that these gigs in standing arenas would be all seated. If you wanted to be at the front of the stage, you would have to find a seat located there – and good luck to you. Presales were announced on his official site and for customers of two different corporations – one telephones, one home energy. The next day, there would be presales through Ticketmaster and AXS, and on the individual venue pages, followed by general sale the day after that. You had seven places to try, therefore, in pursuit of a decent spot – more, if you planned to try and catch a couple of shows, and his diehard fans often travel to see the lot.
He did at least guarantee a ticket near the front, provided you paid a premium for one of four different “VIP” packages that were on offer. No need for luck, all you need is money – specifically, £482.50 to sit in the front row (and meet him, and various other unnecessary stuff – merchandise and photo opportunities and the like.) Alternatively, you could slum it in rows two to five, for just £426, and meet him but for less time – or whatever the supposed perks are. Personally, some of us just enjoy being down the front to see an iconic showman play his hits accompanied by the finest musicians he can find.

The Alice thing irked his entire fanbase, certainly on one respected and thorough forum. With all packages accounted for, his diehard fans would now be located fifteen rows from the front, behind the casual fans with money to burn, having to find the best available tickets for each location they plan to visit – a tedious process to be repeated as remaining availability dwindled at every subsequent venue on the list. The VIP experience used to be an upgrade, on previous tours, but Alice’s personal assistant (who was very sympathetic) says that sales soared when they included the ticket too. So to Hell with the fans, it is all about ticket company profits.

For my part, I was offered one seat – too far back, though in the centre section, and I declined it – and was automatically then assigned a number of seats dotted around the outskirts of the floor, declining each in the pursuit of something nearer the stage. This was in the presale, and then in the general sale I tried again – and bought again, when I found I could be in row seventeen instead of row thirty. If you want a ticket to see Alice Cooper in Glasgow this November, I have a spare to sell – it is right in front of the sound desk, so if you just want to see the show from the position which should have the best sound (since that is where the operator is listening from), then we can talk. Me, I want to be nearer the action.

Above: Alice’s personal assistant explaining why tickets are now inextricably linked to VIP packages.

I do love my music, which is why I never listen to the radio – a medium where it is used to fill gaps between irritating commercials, or as an interlude from the banal chatter of witless presenters. It was social media that alerted me the 6 Music Festival was coming to Glasgow this year, and I was so excited at the announcement of Sparks that I had to be told directly that they had further revealed a Depeche Mode gig at the relatively tiny Barrowland Ballroom. It seemed a strange choice, given the size of venue (the festival would also encompass the city’s Academy the same night, which holds more), and also for DM’s history here. Singer Dave Gahan’s immediate assertion that they’ve always had a good time here failed to ring true – they played this city in 1986, and did not come back until 2009 (they played Edinburgh in 1988, so their eventual return was twenty-one years after they had last been in Scotland, and twenty-three since they played Glasgow – where, a first-hand source told me, he saw them booed off stage for miming.) Most bands who love us and who regularly tour try to play more frequently than twice every quarter-century.

Aware of these facts, having previously had to travel to Manchester and London in 2006 to see them, my oldest friend and I had decided for various reasons that we were not going to attend any more of their UK dates.  The exception, we both instantly agreed when we heard the news, would be this intimate club set. All I had to do was secure tickets.

A local club DJ stated (perhaps with inside knowledge) that 1400 tickets would be sold, in a venue that usually holds 2000, and my estimate now is that they probably did lose about a third of the capacity due to extended staging, set dressing, and the various technology required for recording and broadcasting. I submitted a Freedom Of Information request after the fact, regarding numbers, but the BBC snippily replied that they were not obliged to provide the data and refused to do so voluntarily. It would have been interesting to learn just how far demand outstripped supply.

Above: Initial reaction pre-empted the chaos of trying to obtain entry.

Due to go on sale at 10am one Friday, I was poised and on the website twenty minutes ahead of time – but clicked away as, I have learned, the link quietly went live fifteen minutes early – placing customers in an online queue, and putting me thirteen minutes behind those who had already discovered the fact. By 10:08am there were no DM tickets left for me, and I hear they sold out faster than that. I could have accepted my poor fortune, if the process had seemed at all fair.

It would be reasonable to think that a portion of tickets could have been allocated for local collection in person only, as the online system was swamped with keen English people and Europeans taking advantage, in the knowledge that trains and flights and hotels can be had for a comparatively low cost. Had a percentage of tickets been kept aside for those in the vicinity, we would have camped out overnight like we used to – knowing we were being held in a queue, on account of the fact we would be able to see all of the people in it. What is the point of taking the festival to different cities every year, if you refuse to guarantee entry for at least some of those living in the vicinity? It might as well be hosted annually in London.

The online system advised not to refresh the browser page, or risk losing your place. One friend, frustrated at the lack of availability, refreshed the page and was rewarded with the option to obtain a pair – suggesting that, as well as going live prematurely, the dedicated site had glitches.

My intention had been to buy four tickets, the two I needed and a further two to sell at face value (I knew a few people looking) – I would be a hero to somebody. Instead, I failed.

The touts succeeded, of course – instantly listing on sites like Viagogo for seven, eight, nine hundred pounds. Touts used to stand outside in the rain, they invested a bit of time and effort. If you were smart, you could wait until showtime and then haggle the price – offering face value (or less) and knowing they would either take what they could get or keep hold of a worthless piece of paper. Not now. Now anybody looking to make a fast buck can do so without standing up.

Above: One of several media reports, all focused on how quickly the gig sold out and how much touts were charging.

The BBC reacted quickly, promising that nobody who bought on the secondary market would get in. Absolutely, definitely not. No chance. ID to be checked on the door. very strict, do not attempt it. That policy worked well – and I say that with the sarcasm of someone who bought a ticket on Twitter for the Sparks and Goldfrapp gig, and who can be seen in the BBC’s own footage, at the barrier, applauding the former after their performance of “Dick Around.” Meanwhile, another friend bought tickets for DM, and then forked out for a fake ID (which she had to order in the name of the man who had originally paid for the tickets) – not only was this ruse successful in getting her in, it makes a mockery of the whole enterprise: forced to fund the secondary ticket market AND invest in the equally immoral practice of forging identification documents.

For my part, a generous stranger purchased a ticket for me on Viagogo (the reasons for this are a story in themselves), leaving me desperately trying to find my friend a way in. This friend, I have written before, introduced me to DM and they are her band. It was imperative that she be there, to which end I racked my brains and investigated every avenue. It was hopeless.

On the Saturday, the Gigs In Scotland Twitter page announced a handful of tickets would be immediately released for every venue that evening – I can only presume that this was from the allocations reserved for the BBC, and released for sale once they knew how many staff, guests, and VIPs they expected. It was 2:27pm, and the official BBC 6 Music page retweeted the information, meaning that Gigs In Scotland was the original source of the news. Come the Sunday, I sat on their page from 1pm until 4pm, refreshing constantly, only to discover – nothing. In vain, I phoned the Barrowland, who confirmed that there would be no tickets on the door that night, and no Production tickets released. It was over. I had exhausted every option.

I phoned my friend, adamant that she take my ticket, which she refused with equal stubbornness. Short of marching her there, I had no choice but to concede. My enthusiasm was gone, replaced with the sadness of knowing that I had let down my oldest friend, my closest confidante. I had a way in for myself, but was disconnected from it – a gift from someone I have never met, unrelated to my persistence and effort. I could take it or leave it, and would have surrendered it in a moment had my friend only agreed. Instead, I used the tout-sold ticket that the BBC had definitely blocked, and went in to watch my best friend’s once-in-a-lifetime dream gig, without her.

The stage had been extended to accomodate the band, with fully grown trees felled and placed at either side as set dressing, both highlighted with ultraviolet paint. The ceiling tiles had been similarly marked, in various colours, to brand the hall in the 6 Music Festival style, and camera equipment further reduced the crowd capacity. They brought us a band who had ignored our city for most of my life, shoehorned them into a space they had made to look nothing like it usually does, and excluded most of the home audience from attending. The gig was amazing, but the overall experience was awful.

Above: In the words of Joseph Heller (Closing Time, 1994) “The Freedom of Information Act…was a federal regulation obliging government agencies to release all information they had to anyone who made application for it, except information they had that they did not want to release. And, because of this one catch in the Freedom of Information Act…they were technically not compelled to release any information at all. […] It was a good catch…because the government did not have to release any information about the information they chose not to release…”