How many times have you attended a major live event, a sporting event or concert, and heard a tout on the streets near the venue shouting: "Anyone buying or selling a ticket?"
Well, that image is far removed from what authorities in several countries now fear: organised professional touts making millions from trading in some secondary ticket markets.
This is serious business; it is not about street touts hawking a few tickets. A House of Commons committee was told last November that a Dublin paramilitary gang with links to Marbella, Spain and drug dealing is one of the big operators in organised touting.
A week ago, the former CEO of Ticketmaster in the US, Nathan Hubbard wrote: “The current practice of speculative ticket selling on resale sites is a plague on the live events industry.” And the victims are the fans.
There is no doubt that some global acts like U2, Coldplay could fill Croke Park over several nights – so the demand is there. Just recall Garth Brooks selling out five nights in Croke Park, only for the event to collapse in a welter of recriminations.
Last year Bruce Springsteen sold out two nights at the venue.
Croke Park can hold around 80,000 for a live concert. But equally, it could be an indoor venue with smaller capacity.
You know the story - the tickets for a major act go on sale and are sold out in minutes.
A few minutes’ later tickets are available on secondary ticket websites – a ticket that might have a face value of €100 is now selling for €200, €300 or more.
At one level it is simply the law of economics - demand vastly exceeds supply and that drives up prices. And, a frequently over-looked factor is that the capacity of a venue does not necessarily reflect the number of tickets available to the public.
The fact Croke Park might have an 80,000 capacity for a concert does not mean 80,000 tickets are available to the public.
For a start, a major act, say U2, have a subscriber fan club. These members get first shot at tickets in a pre-sale.
Equally, there may be sponsorship tickets for a given event, tickets held for families, friends of an act, tickets held by a venue for those with package deals and options on live events.
For some events it may be that only half the total tickets are available to the general public, thereby intensifying the demand and the frustration and anger over non-availability. And there is almost no transparency on how many tickets are actually available.
But there is another dimension to this that tells a different story. The secondary ticket market is legal and companies operating in this market say they comply fully with the relevant laws.
They do not sell tickets – they are a marketplace; for a fee, they facilitate buyers and sellers of tickets, while offering a guarantee on the legitimacy of the tickets and refunds or replacements if something goes wrong.
So far, so good. Typically these outlets can trade in large volumes of tickets. Some sell at face value, some below (if there is poor demand) but the real issue is the tickets that trade for exorbitant prices.
You buy, say four tickets, for an event and then cannot go. You sell them on one of these sites. That is perfectly legal.
However, the focus of authorities here and other countries is now on how these outlets source their tickets, especially large volumes for huge acts that are clearly going to sell out.
If hundreds or thousands of tickets are available on these outlets minutes after a public sale on the primary site is sold out, have all these people discovered they cannot make the event or decided to make a killing on their ticket purchase? That offers some explanation.
However, the big concern is that the organised touts, using bots are behind large volumes of tickets making their way to some secondary ticket outlets.
And that is why State agencies here and abroad are questioning the relationship between secondary ticket outlets and how they source their tickets.
A paper published by the Government here, as part of a consultation process on possible changes to the law, directly addressed this point: “It is important to state that there is no evidence in Ireland of tickets being supplied to secondary sellers or marketplaces by artists or their agents, venues, promoters or primary ticket sellers.
“In light of the evidence from other countries, however, it would be naive to discount the possibility.”
The document also notes: “Information on the make-up and characteristics of secondary ticket sellers and the means they use to source tickets is particularly relevant to the assessment of possible future regulatory intervention.”
Last November, Reg Walker of Iridium Consultancy, a company that works with venues like London’s 02 Arena, and one of the UK’s experts on ticket fraud and touting gave evidence to a House of Commons committee.
The story he outlined was troubling. He told MPs that some secondary ticket outlets were actively colluding with organised touts; they were paying in advance and helping with software in order to secure supplies of high demand tickets.
The UK Competition Authority is pursuing an investigation into practices in the ticket sales market; last week our own Competition and Consumer Protection Commission announced it has launched an investigation into suspected breaches of competition law.
It has already witness summonses and formal requests for information to parties dealing with live events.
The House of Commons is looking at new legislation; the Government here has commenced a consultation process on possible changes to the law here to curb grossly excessive “scalping” on ticket prices.
Independent TD Stephen Donnelly and Fine Gael TD Noel Rock are co-sponsoring a Bill to stop profiteering on ticket re-sales.
It will not be easy. The legislative options have difficulties.
One option being considered in the UK is using the Misuse of Computers Act to outlaw the use of bots. This may bring problems of enforcement, particularly as this kind of activity can cross borders.
That said, the good news for fans, is that there is now a concerted focus from the authorities in several countries to try to stop organised touts.