Why booking fees are fair

Whether you like it or not, booking fees aren’t the mark of a dodgy operator, but the reality of a struggling music business, writes ALANA MARKULIS in light of Ticketek and Ticketmaster’s recent nomination for a “Shonky” business award.

I’m constantly reading articles from various websites analysing ticketing systems and presenting an unbalanced view on their “excessive” and “not up front and centered” fees. And it bugs me. You see, I do know the ticketing “world”. I’m the ticketing manager for Billboard The Venue have managed ticketing for small festivals and events; and manage a band called Planet Love Sound, who facilitate portions of their ticketing via their website.

First and foremost the music industry is a business. The ticketing agencies are a business. And whether we like it or not we all are in this together. It’s all one big incestuous orgy.

But let’s start from the start. In an oversimplified breakdown, the act no longer makes their primary income from music sales (shock horror) they make it from touring and merchandise sales (or by being played as the theme song to your fav show on MTV). With that in mind their performance fees have now increased dramatically and the promoter bringing them out has to increase ticket prices, or have two headliners per gig at venues. It means venues have less shows, less money and, yes, less patrons coming through. (Lest we forget the five-plus venues in Melbourne alone which have shut down in the past 12 months.) The ticketing agencies glue us all together. They’re also the so-called bastards charging us exorbitant fees.

“The ticketing agencies glue us all together. They’re also the so-called bastards charging us exorbitant fees.”

Explaining Ticketek and Ticketmaster’s nomination for a “Shonky” business award, Choice magazine pointed to a credit card surcharge of $2.64 and a handling fee of $9.50 for Elton John’s upcoming tour, while maintaining that Ticketek’s service/delivery fee was the same regardless of whether you bought one or 10 tickets. That fee, they said, was even applicable when “you print them out yourself. On your own printer. With your own ink and paper”, and then further pointed out that “fans were hit with a $11.25 charge to receive their tickets by registered post, despite the fact that it only costs $3.65 to access that service ordinarily”. Meanwhile, punters heading to Jack White’s Splendour sideshow in Sydney reportedly had to pay a $7.60 charge for a ticket that was sent as an email attachment. They also had to pay a credit card surcharge.

Now you may be ready to jump on the ol’ soap box telling the masses about how shocked you are that these capitalist assholes are exploiting your devotion to music. But booking fees are generally justifiable and I’ll break it down for you. Whether or not you print out your own tickets or get them mailed to you there is a certain amount of labour going into both. (For more on paperless ticketing click here.)

Booking fees cover, as the Ticketek Australia GM pointed out to The Sydney Morning Herald, “labour, dispatch, handling and the cost of technology that supports the scanning of these tickets”. All this new technology – apps, mail-outs, paperless tickets, as well agents now being able to link your accounts with tickets you may want refunded, or have lost or want to re-issue to friends because you can’t go last minute – well, people are employed to develop that technology. Lawyers are brought in to review the legalities associated with that technology, and then there are the customer service reps that you can speak to, and tech dudes updating, maintaining and distributing that technology. Unfortunately it doesn’t fall from the sky.

We use several ticketing agencies at Billboard and, let me tell you, I speak to the staff at those agencies more times per day than I do with people I share the same DNA with. These people include my primary, secondary and third account managers. Also I have an after-hours emergency team and personal account managers in the following areas: marketing, business development, financial, IT support and state/national.

“Whether or not you print out your own tickets or get them mailed to you there is a certain amount of labour going into both.”

In addition, they handle customer service queries and have actual freestanding agencies operating where you can buy or pick up tickets. They facilitate sales reports via their accounts departments and customer lists so that when you choose “venue pick up” as an option I have lists emailed to both the promoter and myself two hours before doors. When you ring with a query – say you bought tickets to the Sydney show instead of the Melbourne show – then the customer service rep gets in touch with me and I get in touch with the promoter to seek approval for exchange, go back to my account manager who goes back to the customer service rep who then calls you back to tell you, “Hooray! We can change over the ticket.” We then all readjust our allocation of tickets and facilitate the transfer of your ticket to the correct venue. Convoluted explanation? Yes. Still wondering why bookings fees are so high? OK, lets move on.

Also you might notice ticketing agents marketing in places like news websites, newspapers, streetpapers or sending you fancy newsletters with moving images, competitions and what not. Again this marketing costs money. Why do they do this? Because the venue wants it, the promoter wants it, the artist wants it and, yes, you want it. Otherwise how would you know certain acts are coming to town, when 2-for-1 offers are available or package deals are up for grabs. Still not convinced? OK, I’ll continue.

As the music industry struggles, we see new and innovative ways of developing income streams. We see labels participating in 360 deals, presales via artists websites including signed merch and promoters and venues negotiating business deals with ticketing agencies so that they can claim a rebate/commission/fee for allowing them to sell tickets to their shows/venue.

This rebate/commission/fee forms part of the booking fee. Choice noted that in 2009 to get “exclusive ticketing rights, these companies have to pay the venue owners ‘key money’, which they recoup through high ticket profit margins”. This much is true. Irrespective of exclusivity agreements a venue, promoter or event organiser may promise a major portion of a ticketing allocation. Where Choice falters in their article is their claim that “event owners and producers may have a choice of venue, but they have no choice of ticket seller when the exclusive ticketing rights of the venue have been signed over to a particular ticketing agency”. Wrong. In the current touring realm, venues will do just about anything to appease a client (the promoter). If a promoter wants a portion of tickets sold via a particular agency, trust me, as long as there is no exclusivity agreement (which I’ll add is increasingly becoming far and few between) the venue will agree to the client’s wish.

One of my favorite bloggers, Bob Lefsetz, summarised the point of booking fees perfectly: “Everybody on the inside knows the fees are profit, and without promoter and venue and ticket provider profit, you’ve got no touring business.”

Alana Markulis is the ticketing manager for Billboard The Venue and manager of Melbourne indie band Planet Love Sound. For further reading on booking fees click here.

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