When the FanFair campaign launched in July 2016, the UK’s secondary ticketing market was in the midst of a golden era. It was a fantastic time to be a ticket tout.
The market was dominated by four sites: Viagogo, StubHub, Get Me In! and Seatwave – and on a weekly basis, huge volumes of tickets would flood onto these platforms during event pre-sales or just past 9 a.m. on a Friday morning. For certain shows, it was incredibly hard to buy a ticket at the face value price.
Meanwhile, legislation designed to protect consumers and provide transparency was flouted across the board. The secondary platforms gave little indication about where your ticket was located or its original face value, never mind who you were buying it from.
The impact on audiences was horrendous, with unwary customers also being ripped off and led astray by misleading advertising – particularly search advertising – and fast and loose marketing practices such as “drip pricing”.
Effectively, this was a peer-to-peer market built around anonymity and populated by chancers, rent-seekers and outright fraudsters.
Against this backdrop, a beacon of hope emerged – the UK’s business regulator, the Competition & Markets Authority, or CMA.
On the back of mounting evidence, much of it supplied by FanFair, and an illuminating session at the Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, the CMA launched a major investigation into secondary ticketing in December 2016.
In April 2018, this investigation bore its first fruits, with StubHub and Ticketmaster agreeing to undertakings under the Enterprise Act – committing to comply with various consumer protection laws. A few months later, Ticketmaster UK retreated from secondary ticketing entirely, in another hugely positive step.
Viagogo was always the most problematic of the platforms, and responsible for the vast majority of consumer victims
Viagogo, however, ploughed forward. The secondary site now had the ditch to itself. Always the most problematic of the platforms, and responsible for the vast majority of consumer victims, Viagogo carried on breaching the law, carried on misleading audiences and carried on wreaking havoc.
With a sense of detachment akin to that of infamous London football team Millwall (“no one likes us, we don’t care”), Viagogo even snubbed Select Committees, on not one, but two separate occasions.
And then, in November 2018, with pressure mounting and with Creative Industries Minister, Margot James, publicly advocating a boycott, Viagogo finally appeared to be snookered – pushed to the courthouse steps, they agreed to terms in a wide-reaching CMA court order. With this Sword of Damocles hovering, the platform was given two months to “overhaul” its business model, not merely complying with the law, but also making fundamental changes to its website.
The mid-January ultimatum laid out in the court order, however, came and went. After self-declaring its own compliancy, Viagogo did next to nothing.
By the end of the month, the CMA had declared “serious concerns” about Viagogo’s compliance with the court order – at which point, the penny appeared to drop. Incrementally, improvements started to become visible – some tickets were listed with seat numbers attached, names of “traders” (aka touts) were provided, and some of the distractive marketing tactics were toned down.
However, Viagogo still appeared to fall some way short of its obligations, and on 5 March the CMA repeated its warning. Finally, the regulator appeared to snap, announcing in early July that Viagogo had still not done enough, and legal proceedings for contempt were moving forward.
As far as campaigners and victims were concerned, this was fait accompli. Despite some obvious improvements, Viagogo had not kept its side of the bargain and consequences were expected to follow.
FanFair, and others, continued to submit evidence and awaited further news. A contempt verdict, even if not resulting in punitive action, would still provide an important marker and hopefully keep Viagogo in future check.
Even with the regulator breathing down its neck, Viagogo has exhibited breathtaking arrogance in its disregard for consumers and legislators
But then, out of the blue, the CMA announced that court action was being suspended. In a short statement, and without specific explanation, the regulator declared that “outstanding concerns” with how Viagogo “presents information” had now been addressed.
In response, and in words that will surely stick in the craw of every right-thinking music fan, a Viagogo spokesperson commented that, having “worked collaboratively” with the CMA, they now looked forward to “challenging the wider ticketing market to raise its standards in the interests of all in the live event world”.
This was fairly astonishing. Having forced this hugely controversial website to the brink of compliancy, the CMA appeared to relinquish its grip. What was presented by the Guardian newspaper as potentially “one of the worst businesses in Britain” was now giving lectures about standards. Considering the same company might have been in court eight months previously, it was pretty galling stuff.
So what next? To some extent, Viagogo has been hoisted by its own petard.
Due to Google’s positive move to globally suspend Viagogo’s search advertising in July 2019, web traffic to the site appears to have sunk. Meanwhile, because of the CMA’s work and the application of regulatory pressure, UK consumers do indeed have far greater transparency when browsing Viagogo, certainly compared to Viagogo users in other countries. Artists and organisers also have more power to exert control over their own events.
However, concerns still remain that the clean-up is not complete, and today (11 September) I have sent yet more evidence to the CMA – not only outlining what look like new and continued breaches of consumer law by Viagogo, but also detailing what appear to be continued breaches of its court order.
Even with the regulator breathing down its neck, the site has exhibited breathtaking arrogance in its disregard for consumers and legislators. That raises a real fear that, when the CMA decides to close down its investigation, as it surely will at some point, Viagogo will simply renege on progress and revert to their default setting.
More fundamentally, surely it also sends out the wrong kind of signals to rogue businesses that persist in ripping off the public, and risks holding back what we should all be pushing for – a properly functioning market with the interests of ticket buyers at its heart.
Adam Webb is campaign manager of anti-tout group FanFair Alliance.