“If it’s hot shit, tickets are personalised”

Concert organisers don’t have the best reputations. The industry has always been seemingly shady and non-transparent. In addition to that, they are under the suspicion of cooperating with secondary dealers, who resell tickets online at exorbitant prices. This is a conversation about tickets and the weapons with which MCT fights the black market.

Mr. Sabottka, have you ever bought concert tickets on the black market?

Is that true?
Yes. I’m way too organised for that. I never had to. I always got my tickets early enough. Maybe there is one exception: As a teenager, I was working at a printer’s shop for some time. They also printed tickets for AC/DC and Alice Cooper. Well, I snatched one for myself. 

Maybe you can file that under youthful folly.

The black market per se is no new business. There have always been people who were standing outside of a venue, trying to sell tickets they didn’t need…
Those folks are not the problem. I fully understand if somebody can’t make it to an event and passes on their ticket to a friend. 

What I do have a problem with are profit-oriented corporations such as Viagogo, Ventic and Seatwave, as well as the middlemen who stock up on large numbers of tickets, and then sell them for an exaggerated price. The ‘ticket-ticks,’ as I call them, sometimes buy up to 30-40% of the available tickets, and then resell them for more than triple the original price. Without taking on any risk! I’m in conversation with the manager or agency of a band for months, figuring out a viable price point. For example, we may decide a certain ticket should be 75 euros, and then later we see the same ticket offered for 400 euros online. It just can’t go on like this. Everything that the artist, the fans, and I stand for is being threatened by secondary dealers. Love and devotion, they don’t give a damn about that. 

Why don’t you ask 400 euros for a ticket yourself?
Because I don’t think that’s right. Nowadays, every artist who has reached a certain level sells expensive VIP packages for their stadium or bigger venue tour. To me, a concert is like a football game back in the day, where everyone is standing in the rain if it’s pouring, where people eat a currywurst. Nobody sits in box seats or has separate parking. I don’t approve of that. It takes something away from rock-n-roll. I like to stand close to the stage, watching a musician struggling in their performance.

But you sell VIP packages, too.
I don’t like it. But I can’t deny the requests of the artists. But if there are VIP packages, then at least there shouldn’t be third parties making a profit of them. 

How do you take actions against the secondary market?
In 2011, we organised Take That’s stadium tour with personalised tickets for the first time. We sold 150,000 tickets for three concerts. This was something nobody else had achieved before. It was only possible because Take That’s management team realised how much money was made with secondary ticketing. They said they supported us. You always need the people on the other side to understand why you want to do this. There have also been artists, agents and managers who have said that’s perhaps dangerous. They feared that personalised tickets would slow down sales. Maybe not every customer wants to decide in advance with whom he will attend a concert in six months time. 

Was this a legitimate concern?
No. For example, we are organising a gig with Nick Cave at Friedrichstadt-Palast, a revue theatre in Berlin that rarely hosts gigs. We’ve been planning this for a very long time. The tickets were personalised and cost up to 88 euros. That’s a lot of money. Nevertheless, tickets were sold out in only eight minutes. 

Did any of these tickets still end up on the black market?
We have to accept that some of these tickets, even though they were personalised, are still resold unauthorised. Some of these personalised tickets still show up on the secondary market. Often, they are bought by scalpers under fake common names. Shortly before the gig, the concertgoer must re-personalise their expensive ticket. For this, they have to upload an ID with the fake name, which is of course difficult. Unfortunately, they don’t think about this beforehand.  

What sort of scale are we talking about here?
Approximately 10 percent of what would usually end up on the black market. With Nick Cave, it was 40 or 50 tickets. Not that many.  

Why aren’t all your concert tickets personalised then?
It doesn’t pay off for every event, because the organisational effort is much greater. If it’s hot shit, the tickets are always personalised. It’s only with the big names that the ‘ticket-ticks’ want to resell tickets at all costs. 

So what is in fact a fair price?
It’s a price the customer is willing to pay for without batting an eyelash, because they feel the artist is worth their money. I know, this may sound like blah blah blah. It is not about being cheap or giving away something for free. It is about pricing tickets appropriately, so that both the customer and the band are okay with it. There are huge differences among organisers. Many of my competitors overprice their gigs. If then the concert experience doesn’t meet the expectation of the concertgoer, the subjective impression the fan associates with the band is uneasy. If a ticket to see the German national soccer team is 55 euros, people are more likely to forgive them for a defeat against Poland, than if the tickets had been 300 euros. In which case, some fans will be really upset, and possibly rage.  

Why don’t other organisers protect themselves as actively against secondary ticketing as you do? Shouldn’t they all pull together?
I don’t have evidence of it, but I assume that some organisers give away ticket blocks to secondary dealers and do business with them. At the moment, there is a current lawsuit against Klaus-Peter Schulenberg and a former guarantor of the German Football Association. They are accused of setting aside a block of tickets for the 2006 World Cup together and selling them on the black market. 

You started out early to take care of the sales of your tickets. Why?
In the early 90s, box offices were equipped with computer systems made by CTS. Then, CTS started to buy out promoters: Marek Lieberberg, Peter Rieger, Folkert Koopmans, Dieter Semmelmann — and CTS became the Kraken it is today. All of a sudden, five big organisers from different music genres were attached to this system. Thus, it now had a lot of content. To make things worse, its structure was pretty arrogant. With every cent I gave them, CTS could fill the war chests of my competitors — money they can then use to take away my acts. Something was wrong with this. So I thought I’d try to tinker with my own ticketing system. 

You then founded the company, which you have since parted ways with.
Yes. The idea behind this was to only take ten percent of advanced ticket sales from the fans of the bands I organised tours for, instead of CTS’s exorbitant fees of up to 18 percent. With our system, people could print out their tickets themselves early on, because they were sold online. At the entrance, those tickets were registered with scanners. When somebody entered with their card, they couldn’t pass it on to the next person. That went really well. 

By now, some event locations are attached to a specific ticketing system. Doesn’t this circumvent competition?
Absolutely. If ticketing companies team up with an event location and buy the exclusive rights for that venue, the promoters don’t have a free choice for distribution. I told them, “As long as you force me to use a certain ticketing system, I won’t join your game.”

So, has your stubborn attitude changed anything?
I held out for a couple of years, and then they said, “Alright, you can do it on your own terms.”

In the meantime, Rammstein have started to sell their own tickets. What’s your take on that?
Back in the day, this would be unthinkable. Rammstein understood the game. As long as the tickets are personalised, I support it. It is important that the client is protected. This is our biggest concern. How they do it, I don’t really care.  

Documentary film
The Concert Dealer