Live Music Exchange Blog

‘Where did the tickets go?’ Ticket touting in China – Zhang Wenzhao


Zhang Wenzhao, is a postgraduate student at Shanghai Conservatory of Music (SCOM), majoring in Music Aesthetics and Criticism. She is a columnist on Shenzhen Daily, and has written music reviews and articles for Shanghai Artist, Music Weekly and 21st Century Business Herald. Here she writes about Chinese ticket touts, known as ‘huangniu’ or yellow cows, and the reasons why concert tickets in China are selling through the roof.

The Irish singer-songwriter Damien Rice held his first show in China on May 22rd, 2016, at Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. As a big fan who has been fascinated by his music for over four years, I endured quite a tough time searching, even hunting, for one precious ticket. The ticket sale began at 9am, April 23rd. I didn’t fall asleep the whole night and got up very early, in order to get it as soon as possible. Sadly and weirdly, all the 1,200 seats were sold out immediately, after less than one single minute, however nobody got one. Later that day I found there emerged several sellers on Taobao (a commercial website like Amazon) who were selling an 80 RMB [c. £9 GBP] seat for nearly 2,000 RMB [c. £225 GBP], while the price of 880 RMB seat had rocketed up to 6,000 RMB. As the price became so much beyond my affordability, I gave up in despair. It was not until one week before the concert that I finally bought the 280 RMB seat for 550 RMB from a ticket tout. Obviously, it is not my first time bargaining with touts, whom we call “Huangniu(黄牛, i. e. yellow cow)” in Chinese. So here is the question: where did the tickets go?

Firstly, I’d like to talk about the general situation of ticketing in Mainland China. With the booming of the economy and the remarkable development of city dwellers’ living standards, performances including concerts, dramas and music festivals have become a fashionable way of entertainment. According to an authoritative report made by Daolve Music Industry Research Center, ticket revenue from Chinese live music gained around 39 billion RMB in total in 2014, which was 6.4% higher than the previous year, with large-scale concerts contributing 26.6 billion RMB. That year 13.69 million participants bought tickets for 14206 live music shows in 1706 concert halls, theaters and stadiums in that year.

As in other countries, two main sales channels are provided in China for almost all sorts of shows: the burgeoning online sales and the traditional offline sales. As for online booking, we have official websites of organizers (for some high-class music halls shopping on official websites is the only way permitted), standard comprehensive ticketing websites led by Damai Web, and also other webs including Taobao and Xishiqu. These third sort of website are run much more casually. Besides regular ticket selling, they also provide extra services such as reselling and ticket competitions. The CEO of Xishiqu web seems to be quite proud of its operating model, “we are making a revolutionary progress by leading the outsider Huangniu inside our online ticketing circle,” he has said.

While online ticketing is booming, the traditional ticket centers are not that popular compared to the old days. It is believed that only old people and full-time students would go to the ticket center, spending a long time waiting in line. People with decent jobs prefer simpler online shopping, and they would rather spend much more money buying tickets through touts than queuing in front of the ticket centers. Huangnius may seem to be despised by the majority, but they have become the biggest winner of the Chinese ticketing system.

Where did the name “Huangniu” came from? It is said that the name originated from train ticket selling, when some carters wearing yellow jackets started to help the upper class buy train tickets and make profits from it (in Chinese, huangniu means “Yellow Bull”, describing whom they are like quite vividly). And later in the 1980s, watching a concert became one of the most significant ways of recreation for urban youths, therefore the time for concert huangniu had come.

Huangnius, who are always known as poor-educated crude people, wandering around and finding their potential targets in front of the concert halls after sunset. “You cannot imagine how indifferent and money-oriented those people are. They just grabbed my arms and asked me to buy their tickets. When I asked for the price and later turned them down, they became mad and cursed at me loudly” said Yang Ling, a twenty-year old female student of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. Usually, huangnius divide their own orbits through respective concert halls, while they would rather travel far (sometimes even go across cities and provinces) to resell tickets if they smell the business opportunities. It is hard to believe that huangnius who share working areas really do make an alliance and compete with each other simultaneously, especially given that, also as in other countries, the tickets they sell may anyway be fakes (and fights with their cheated customers are not uncommon).

The price of huangniu tickets may experience a sharp fluctuation during a single day, especially before the performance starts. For programme organisers, the beginning of the show marks the end to their income, while for the huangnius waiting outside the hall, the battle has now commenced.

Ms. Bai, the female huangniu from whom I bought Damien Rice’s concert ticket, told me she does not have any regular job, “nor do the others, and we can live a cozy life selling tickets”.  Why can they always get tickets ahead of those potential spectators? Where do the huangniu tickets come from? Complimentary tickets (including tickets prepared for company employees and media staff) are the major source of haungniu tickets. Despite the fact that measures cut their access to tickets has been made over the years, three major facts determine that huangniu still cannot be stopped from sourcing tickets. Firstly, there are always deals between promoters, theatres and huangnius. The promoters, who spend much time and money, cannot bear to see the failure of their box-office; they thus ask for huangnius’ help and sell some of the tickets ahead instead. Secondly, the huangniu phenomenon, though it is resented by the public, is not regulated by the government. Though it is written in the Law of Public Order Punishment that ticket touts should be punished, the Municipal Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV doesn’t have the enforcement power. Last but not the least, the whole huangniu ticketing thing is determined by the market principle of supply and demand.  “We do not mean to raise price ourselves,” Ms. Bai told me in an injured tone. “The more fans want to purchase tickets, the higher its price gets.”

As far as I am concerned, even if concert audiences and organizers do gain from huangnius, we should still make up our mind to reform the current ticketing system. Government has to take measures to supervise the regular ticketing process and to improve the laws about it. More professional managerial personnel are supposed to be being trained to this end. And we citizens ought to buy tickets through official channels consciously. I cannot even imagine how horrible the music market might be if huangniu really became the main way of ticket selling one day.  Efficiently measures should be taken to prevent this by every music lover now!

Zhang Wenzhao

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *