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MPs tell public to steer clear of Viagogo in wide-ranging live music report

By | Published on Tuesday 19 March 2019

Houses Of Parliament

The UK Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee has published its report on live music. In it MPs back a number of the music community’s ongoing campaigns on topics like business rates, education, discriminatory licensing procedures and secondary ticketing. On the latter, the committee specifically urges British citizens to not buy or sell tickets on the always controversial resale site Viagogo.

The committee, which scrutinises the work of the government’s Department For Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, while also debating issues around the sectors that department supports, launched its inquiry into the UK’s live music business at the start of last year, taking evidence from promoters, venues, ticketing firms and artists, among others.

Unsurprisingly, one key topic for discussion was the challenges faced by grassroots music venues which provide an important platform for new artists to hone their craft and find an audience. It’s no secret that rising rents, business rates, licensing issues and other challenges have put those grassroots venues – which already operate on very tight profit margins – under pressure, with a significant number going out of business.

In its report, the select committee says that this trend could put at risk “the UK’s position at the forefront of the music industry because the next generation of musicians will be denied spaces to hone their live craft”. And while this is a problem that needs industry as well as government attention, the committee adds that ministers have “failed to act promptly to stem the tide of the closures happening on a scale unprecedented in other cultural sectors”.

Of course, one area where the government could immediately help is business rates. Just last week cross-sector trade group UK Music criticised Chancellor Of The Exchequer Philip Hammond for not using his spring statement to extend a business rates relief scheme designed to support small businesses on the high street to venues. Pubs and restaurants already benefit from that scheme, but music venues do not.

The committee states: “The government should immediately review the impact of recent business rates changes on the live music sector and introduce new or extend existing relief schemes such as those for pubs or small retail properties to lessen the burden of business rates on music venues in order to protect grassroots venues and independent festivals”. Beyond that, it says, “further support should be given by the government by extending tax relief, already given for orchestra performances, to other forms of music production”.

Another area where government needs to take the lead is discriminatory licensing, with allegations that some local authorities continue to be biased against urban music, or at least give the impression they are so that cautious venues skew against booking urban acts. The Metropolitan Police’s since abandoned form 696 has got the most attention in this domain over the years, though it’s claimed that “institutionalised racism” still persists in the way live music licensing is administered in various parts of the country.

Rapper ShaoDow was among those who spoke to the committee on this particular issue. He recalled one particular incident, saying: “I had a venue cancel on me on the day that I was meant to go there. I was booked for a performance in a club and called them ahead of time to say, ‘I am on my way’, and they said, ‘Oh, by the way, we were just listening to your music – you make hip hop’. I said, ‘yes’, and he said, ‘Oh, we cannot do that here, we will lose our licence'”.

With all that in mind, the committee calls for “cross-departmental action by government to develop guidance for licensing authorities, police forces and music venues on risk management to ensure that urban music acts are not unfairly targeted”.

Ensuring more support for new talent in general is also a key priority for the committee. Politically speaking, that puts the spotlight on some of the widely documented issues facing music education in the UK, and especially the fact that English schools are not properly assessed on the way they teach creative subjects because said subjects are not included in the government’s so called EBacc criteria. Though the committee also urges the music industry itself to “ensure that a greater proportion of its revenues is channelled into supporting artists at the early stages of their careers”.

Which is all good stuff, although the report’s boldest statements are reserved for secondary ticketing. In particular big bad Viagogo, which has now twice declined to attend a hearing of the select committee. Noting that the Competition & Markets Authority was now planning new legal action against the resale site for failing to comply with consumer rights law, the committee says Viagogo has “caused distress for too many music fans for too long”.

The report then states: “We believe that Viagogo has yet to prove itself a trustworthy operator given its history of resisting compliance, court orders and parliamentary scrutiny, and flouting consumer law”. While the CMA’s legal action is a welcome move, “consumers remain vulnerable to the site’s misleading sales practices” in the meantime. “It is imperative that the CMA acts promptly and decisively to bring Viagogo into line with consumer law and, until it does so, we advise the public not to buy or sell tickets via Viagogo”.

Beyond bringing Viagogo in line with the law, the committee also has some more general recommendations regarding the secondary ticketing sector. This includes a better process for fans to resolve disputes with touts and the resale platforms they utilise, and a review of efforts to crackdown on the use of software by touts to hoover up tickets on the primary sites. The committee also has some things to say about Google’s role in all this.

Acknowledging the web giant’s decision to apply extra rules to resale sites advertising on its search engine, the committee adds that it nevertheless “notes that Google has repeatedly allowed tickets to be [advertised] in breach of UK consumer protection law. The committee calls on the government to set out the responsibilities of companies such as Google to ensure that advertisements comply with consumer protection law”.

The FanFair Alliance, which campaigns for a more transparent and better regulated secondary ticketing market, welcomed the report and especially its blunt conclusions on Viagogo. It said in a statement: “FanFair Alliance welcomes all aspects of the committee’s wide-reaching report and especially their condemnation of Viagogo. What we now need is action. If a restaurant poses a risk to public health, we expect inspectors to close it immediately on grounds of consumer protection. Unfortunately, such powers of enforcement are seemingly absent when it comes to online ticket touting”.

“So despite the huge consumer harm caused by Viagogo’s practices, and despite the best efforts of the Competition & Markets Authority and other regulators, the site has continued to operate in clear disregard of the law”, it went on. “This needs to change. Viagogo is already facing legal proceedings for contempt of court. While that case is pending, there is surely a compelling argument for the website to be temporarily blocked and for platforms like Google to cut off its advertising”.

Back in Parliament, Sharon Hodgson MP, who has led the campaign against secondary ticketing in Westminster, added her support, saying: “I welcome the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee’s report today into live music. I am pleased that ticket abuse has played a large role in this review, and that once again the committee has been clear that the public must not buy or sell tickets through Viagogo”.

She went on: “I hope that the government will respond positively to the report, particularly to the recommendations about reviewing the effectiveness of current regulations, and act appropriately if they are found to be ineffective. Ticket abuse is a widescale problem, and requires action from the ticketing industry, promoters, artists, search engines, consumers and government. I have been committed to tackling this problem for almost a decade, and will not stop until fans are put first”.

Finally, UK Music hailed what it called a “landmark” report from the select committee. Noting that the report backs its call for the government to extend business rates relief to music venues, the trade group’s boss Michael Dugher said: “This committee has now joined MPs from all parties who have called on the Chancellor to end the present system which discriminates against music venues, including by not allowing them to get the same rates rebate as pubs and clubs. It is time the government listened and threw a lifeline to venues who are struggling to survive”.

Also endorsing the committee’s statements on big bad Viagogo and issues around discriminatory licensing, Dugher then said: “We particularly welcome the recommendation that a new taskforce is needed to help and support emerging talent. We urgently need help to nurture the music industry’s talent pipeline if we are to continue producing world-leading superstars like Adele and Ed Sheeran”.

“With the decline of music in education in particular”, he went on, “there is a real danger that having the chance of a successful career in music means that you have to have access to the ‘bank of Mum and Dad’. We are, in effect drawing water from a well that’s getting smaller and smaller”.