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Richard Howle: Don’t blame ticket agents – if producers want to control West End prices, they have the power

Photo: Sam72/Shutterstock Photo: Sam72/Shutterstock
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The other day, as I got off the tube at Embankment, I had a craving for a Lion Bar, so I went to the kiosk on the platform and purchased one for £1.50. I knew it was over the odds, but it was convenient and I was in a rush. I could have gone to WHSmith and bought one at lower price or walked a bit further to Tesco and paid a completely different price there. But hold on, this is a national outrage – where are the newspaper headlines demanding an inquiry – “Chocolate bar charged at different prices at three different shops – shocker”?

There aren’t any headlines, that would be ridiculous, because everybody knows when you are buying goods in a free market economy the price varies depending on where you are buying them – be it television sets, feather dusters or chocolate bars. We all understand that if we shop around, we can buy the same products for different prices.

But perhaps not the Sunday Times, in perhaps one of the best examples of ‘No shit, Sherlock’ journalism, it revealed the “fiasco” that if you buy West End tickets from different outlets you might pay different prices.

The article was fuelled by a particularly ill-informed debate in the House of Lords led by Patrick Boyle (or Lord Glasgow) who stated that “customers have the right to know how much of the money they pay for a tickets goes on production costs, how much to the theatre, how much on the restoration fee and how much on commissions”. I demand to know how much of my £1.50 went to Nestlé (maker of Lion Bar), how much went to the wholesaler, how much the chap running the kiosk on the platform makes and how much of that he has to hand over to Transport for London for the privilege of catching hungry passengers looking to grab a snack as they head to a meeting.

Richard Howle: The secrets behind how producers price West End tickets

Why are tickets held to a different standard from other goods?

Perhaps, the answer is because as an industry, in an attempt to provide transparency, we create more questions than we answer. Because, if Lord Glasgow had done his research properly, he would see that in the purchase process the breakdown of how much is paid in booking fees and how much is paid in restoration levies is already there in most cases, (okay, there isn’t a breakdown of the split between the production and venue, but as we have discussed before, that is quite complicated). In fact, the ticketing industry generally goes above and beyond what it is required to do by law, which insists that the first price a customer sees should be the one they pay. Perhaps, if we just didn’t tell the public that they were paying a booking fee, they would just think in the same terms as Lion Bars, that in some outlets they are more expensive than others?

But, what is more concerning than the Sunday Times article and the Lords debate is the attitude of some theatre owners and producers, who equally rely on the network of ticket agents to sell their tickets and wash their hands of any responsibility.

About 50% of tickets in the West End are sold via ticketing agents, whose network of distribution and marketing do much of the heavy lifting in terms of the mammoth effort of selling 15.5 million tickets a year. On Broadway, where primary ticket sales are usually restricted to just one outlet, the marketing budgets for productions are four to five times higher than they are in London, with the subsequent knock-on in ticket prices.

With the ticketing industry playing such an important part in the success of productions, it is a surprise how little some producers understand (or choose to understand) how it works.

At the recent annual general meeting of the Society of Ticket Agents and Retailers, its chairman Richard Brundle relayed a story of how a leading theatre producer told him “ticketing has nothing to do with me, I don’t have any involvement in selling tickets”. When I heard, that my jaw dropped – that is literally the job of the producer.

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In the Sunday Times article, Edward Snape, on behalf of the League of Independent Producers, is quoted as saying: “There are concerns about the effectiveness and transparency of the market for theatre tickets. We welcome the opportunity to work with theatre owners and ticket sellers in reviewing the way our tickets are sold.” That call was echoed by Brundle on behalf of the ticketing industry at the STAR AGM.

We don’t need a review by the CMA, as Snape demanded, we just need producers to take responsibility for perhaps the most important part of their business. This is what happens in music, sport and events, where promoters exert much greater control over how their tickets are sold. The primary ticketing industry sells tickets on behalf of rights owners – if promoters and producers are unhappy with how it is working, it is entirely within their gift to change it.

As always, there are some that do it better than others. Some theatre producers are able to exert control over ticketing and do so, but as a collective they are only as strong as their weakest player. Take booking fees as an example. Producer A can insist that booking fees are capped if they wish, but if Producer B is desperate for sales and asking ticket agents to pump more resources into promoting their show, and allowing them to get a greater return on their investment, then Producer A is likely to lose out.

It costs money to sell tickets – a lot of money (more than people think). That cost is usually passed on to the ticket buyer in the form of booking fees. I have long argued that this should be seen as a production cost (such as lighting, costumes or marketing) and should be absorbed in the price of the ticket. There should be no booking fees, just a common recommended retail price. Make it the responsibility of the producer or promoter to shop around to get the best deal, reward those ticketing companies who sell the most tickets by providing them with lower wholesale prices.

But there is a downside to this: in order for it to work properly, it would require an across-the-board increase in ticket prices of 15%-20%. So, we have a choice – an increase in ticket prices, but a common price for customers wherever they bought the ticket (with no booking fees) or we continue to ask ticket buyers to shop around to find the price, ticket and service that best matches their needs.

Who can make that choice? Producers, that’s who.

Richard Howle is the director of ticketing for the NEC Group and former commercial director for Really Useful Theatres

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