Live Music Exchange Blog

Surfing troubled waters: The ticketmasters and history’s web – Adam Behr


Last week’s Dispatches documentary about the secondary ticketing market has sent a squall of feedback through the public discussion channel on the live music sector, notwithstanding that some voices have been suggesting that the matter needed airing for some time now. Amongst them, our own Martin Cloonan has offered a substantive account of issues regarding the status of the ticket that underpin the vexed question of how some of the bigger beasts of the live sector go about their business (see previous post).

The case for a change, or at least an open conversation, is strong even if some of the main players would argue that they’ve had little choice but to get involved in the secondary market if they’re to maintain their profit margins, or even their very viability. T in the Park’s Geoff Ellis was amongst those  naming previous government inaction as a contributory factor to promoters’ use of secondary sites. “We said at the time, if you don’t legislate then the music industry will go into the secondary market. Not because it wants to, but because it has got no choice.”

I’d like to take a step back now, though, from the legislative and bottom-line fall-out in the short term to look at where this fits into the wider historical picture, particularly as it pertains to the influence of the web on how musical goods are exchanged and what form, as may turn out to be the case, those goods actually take.

I think it’s pertinent here to draw a comparison with recorded music and what happened there when entrenched interests in a business model led to tunnel vision over how to adapt in a changing environment, or rather the choice not to adapt until the ship had sailed, as was the case with the major record companies. This also links to a wider point I’d like to make about the advantages of the ‘long view’, and one that is perhaps informed by considerations other than the fabled ‘bottom line’.

 At first glance, the difference between the effects of the web on the recorded and live music businesses is far more striking than any similarities. The web, through online distribution of tickets, has paved the way for the profitable secondary market, and vastly expanded the parameters for ticketing operations in the live sector. Famously, it took a petrol soaked rag and a lighter to the recording industry’s business model. At the same time, as both the Dispatches documentary and Martin’s post illustrate, digital technology has vastly shifted the terms of access and the power balance towards big business and away from the fan. This, again, is the direct opposite to what happened when recorded music became, effectively, free.

But the long view throws up some alternative perspectives. A general point, first of all, is that sometimes what seems brand new and unprecedented has precursors. The current set-to between traditional content providers (copyright holders) and the new, or at least newer, players from the world of the web has structural similarities to other spats going back at least a century. The rhetoric of the argument against downloading is strikingly similar to the ‘home taping is killing music’ campaign’ of the 1980s. And even if we leave aside the challenges to the whole model of copyright thrown up by instant, mass, lossless and easy copying, the underlying base of the row between the Youtubes and the Universals is basically the same as that between the recording companies and the nascent radio stations or, even earlier, between the recording companies and the sheet music publishers at the turn of the twentieth century. In each case a new compact was settled, sometimes requiring direct government intervention, sometimes out of new synergies or symbiotic possibilities offered by developing markets.

So far so same old story, but where does this fit into the live sector’s current debate? Well, it’s also worth remembering that in each of the above cases, the costly precursor to a revised model involved a sense that this was all utterly new whereas a standpoint that was able to look beyond the balance sheets (dare I say, an academic perspective) reveals such patterns. Obviously twenty-twenty vision is easier to achieve with hindsight, and second guessing the future is a tricky game. Nevertheless, if we can’t get a detailed map for the future, we can at least apply some map-reading skills to such of the terrain as we can see. Or to shift to a comparable analogy, it’s helpful to have rear-view mirrors as well as windscreens.

Richard Peterson’s and N. Anand’s ‘production of culture’ model, for instance, looks at how specific facets (technology, law, industry structure, organization structure, occupational careers and the market) combine to shape elements of our cultural lives that we might take for granted­– that otherwise seem spontaneous. This doesn’t function as an oracle, but such models can provide valuable toolkits for assessing events, past and present. The effect of technological developments in terms of the removal of constraints to copying was clear in the case of recorded music. The combination of listenable compressed mp3s and increased bandwidth hacked clear a wide-open path for the expansion of downloading culture. What of other factors, though, such as the relationship between consumers and producers? The background to the technological shifts that allowed for file-sharing was widespread dissatisfaction with the price of CDs. The BPI emerged in the clear from a 1994 Monopolies and Mergers Commission investigation into anti-competitive practices relating to CD pricing and a subsequent Office of Fair Trading report into major label practices issued not much more than a warning shot across the bows. But the prevailing atmosphere was one of suspicion and a sense of minimal of fair play, with the European Commission and U.S Federal Trade Commission weighing in as well. Calls for intervention, then, amidst investigations and accusations that fans were getting ripped off. Starting to sound a little more recognizable in today’s context?

Steve Brown of Glasgow Caledonian University made the point on this site yesterday that the very fans who are paying over the odds for concert tickets are likely to be those who are downloading illegally, and thus also accused of questionable behaviour. Now I don’t want to suggest that overpriced CDs were a direct cause of mass downloading, everyone likes a free lunch after all. It doubtless did, however, contribute to a sense that such activities, if illegal, weren’t immoral. Or were at least a way of redressing the balance that had shifted far out of kilter with the interests of the everyday music fans. And now the stable door is flapping noisily in the wind and a generation of music fans have grown up in the ‘gift economy’ of the web, leaving the RIAA and its cohorts fighting a rearguard action for hearts and minds, to say nothing of wallets.

It’s the nature of mature capitalism that businesses integrate and expand to make use of economies of scale where they can– the very sorts of economies that web based ticketing has allowed for. So the mergers and acquisitions that took place in the burgeoning live sector were hardly surprising. But it’s also the case that bigger businesses become increasingly distant from their end users who are, ultimately, the source of cash. And it’s starting to appear that they’re creating a culture of resentment where the cash-cow feels like it’s being milked dry.

 Now, at the moment, the time honoured ‘gig experience’ is still paramount. It can’t be replicated in the same way as an mp3 provided a ‘good enough’ analogue (if you’ll pardon the crossed metaphor) of the CD experience. Still, even the ‘live experience’ is increasingly mediated. Stadium gigs involve watching a screen, and the growth of the streamed ‘live’ event in cinemas points towards a market in communal experience at even greater levels of remove. I’ve suggested already that second-guessing the future is a perilous occupation, but one thing we can be sure of is that unpredictable things will happen and that yesterday’s cast iron certainties can become tomorrow’s history lessons. It’s already looking like vinyl will outlive CD in some form or other. Or to take another example that feeds into the shifting sands of how people experience their cultural products and artefacts­­– the photograph. The recent bankruptcy of Kodak, its name even dropped from the theatre housing the weekend’s Oscars ceremony, is a case in point. My niece, as a pre-schooler, expressed not just surprise but utter existential bemusement when her photograph was taken with a film loaded camera and, asking to have a look at the picture, she was told that this was impossible. In her entire life, up to that point, she had never yet been unable to instantly view a photograph that had been taken in her presence. I’ve seen toddlers exhibit similar confusion after flicking around the pictures on i-pads and finding that similar looking images in magazines remain static. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t portend the death of the gig, but it does make for an argument that the chips are still very much in the air as to what type of ‘live experience’ will occupy coming generations’ time, and pocket money.

Lucy Bennett of Cardiff University has conducted research, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Social Semiotics, detailing the uses of social media by fans in such a way as to expand the limits of ‘presence’ at a gig, contesting the physical boundaries of the venue. The sea of mobile phones held aloft and barrage of tweets and facebook updates from numerous live events provide baseline anecdotal evidence of the beginnings of this process, even for those who aren’t ‘digital natives’. It’s plausible that future ‘live events’ experienced through these means will look and feel as different to our current situation as those facilitated by microphones and amplifiers would to our predecessors.

Doctoral research conducted at Edinburgh University by Melissa Avdeef into i-pods and social networks also describes the ways in which different approaches to genre and even etiquette are evolving in terms of how social engagement intersects with technology. It becomes ‘invisible’ to digital natives who have grown up surrounded by it, immersed in it.  ‘The social interactions of digital natives’, Avdeef notes, ‘are increasingly influenced and guided by the technologies they use whereas digital immigrants are more likely to be unsure of how to transfer cultural gatekeeping to digitality’

This is a potent backdrop to the dissent that is bubbling to the surface over ticketing practices for major events. The cliché that ignoring history is a good recipe for repeating it seems to be, yet again, bearing fruit. Matthew David’s account of Peer to Peer and the Music Industry, albeit in a discussion primarily about recorded music, notes that future business models will have to be mapped across axes of trust and proximity. The current practices under dispute clearly rely on high levels of proximity underscored by diminishing levels of trust. If the major players in live music want to repeat the mistakes of the recording businesses by ignoring the wider context in a fixed stare at the immediate bottom line, they’re going about it the right way. The record companies not only missed the social point but spilt what remaining reserves of cultural capital they were holding when they appeared to be suing their own customers. In a similar vein, Viagogo’s failed attempt at an injunction against Channel 4’s documentary doesn’t exactly look like a progressive or discursive attempt to engage with a challenge to one’s business methods. Martin Cloonan is right to warn of diminishing access to cultural events as ordinary customers are priced out. I’d add, though, that fans have a habit of finding new ways to consume, which can move faster and more unpredictably than corporate logic allows for and if they’re not careful the ultimate losers may be turn out to be the big beasts themselves.

 Adam Behr

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