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Ticket scalping ain't new, but promoters are promising to get tough

When it comes to popular acts, scalpers will be looking to cash in. Photo/Getty Images

Scalping is just a small part of an eternal battle between legitimate money and under-the-table money.

At six foot two, with a vocal range to match Adele’s and composers such as Edward Elgar clamouring to write her songs, contralto Clara Butt was the global touring sensation of her day. Newspapers reported that “the furore caused by her concerts in Australia has been unprecedented in the annals of music there”.

So when tickets for her two Wellington concerts went on sale at 9am the day after her first New Zealand recital, in Auckland, people rushed to buy a seat.

Reports from Auckland had described His Majesty’s Theatre as “packed … from floor to roof”. Queues had begun building from 4.30pm in Durham St and an hour later stretched into Queen St, and “the enthusiasm manifested all through the evening was of exceptional warmth and was in many ways unequalled in local concert annals”.

In Wellington, promoters prepared for a rush on the Dresden Piano Company, where tickets were being sold. More than 400 seats had been pre-booked “by country people” and they said, “In order to avoid any crushing … the queue system will be adopted.” And they weren’t going to let anyone else make money out of the January 29 and 31 concerts. The Evening Post reported that “Messrs J and N Tait [will] not reserve more than 12 seats for any one applicant for either concert, thereby preventing one person [booking], say, 30 seats in the best positions, and reselling the tickets”.

It was 1908 and promoters were already battling scalpers.

Last month, Brent Eccles, Frontier Touring’s New Zealand manager and the head of the NZ Promoters Association, promised to up the stakes in the arms race against those seeking to cash in on visits by overseas stars: photo ID, named tickets, swiped credit and Eftpos cards, staggered ticket sales, extra shows and a ban on entry to those with scalped tickets.

But the issue is that it is an arms race. As album sales disappear, the last stand of the music business is behind the barricades of merchandise stalls and box offices. If there’s a buck to be made, then you can be sure there will be a black market. The fact that big names such as Ticketmaster and eBay-owned StubHub are involved in reselling tickets shows there’s a large grey area in the middle.

Last month, music website Pitchfork reported that Ticketmaster was looking at “dynamic pricing”: tickets would vary in price according to demand. It’s a process we are familiar with in airfare pricing, and though no one who’s paid full price for a ticket likes to hear that a co-worker, friend or relative has scored a cheap flight to the islands or Australia, we’ve become used to it.

But scalping is just a small part of an eternal battle between legitimate money and under-the-table money. Three days before Butt’s triumphant tour steamed into New Zealand, the New Zealand Herald reported on “an ingenious but illegal way of making money”.

Casual wharf labourer Henry Butler was fined 10 shillings for reselling partly used tickets for the return leg of the Hamilton-to-Auckland excursion train. He was making “about 2s 6d” on each ticket in what these days might be described as “disruption” rather than scalping; after all, the seats were empty and had already been paid for. But as the magistrate remarked: “Regulations do not permit you to make money in that way.”

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.