'Hand caught in a cookie jar': Band managers demand answers about Ticketmaster's secret scalper program

Managers of popular musical acts such as Mumford & Sons, Mark Knopfler, Radiohead and the Pixies are blasting Ticketmaster over its secretive partnership with scalpers that was exposed in a recent CBC News investigation.

Findings of CBC's hidden-camera investigation set off chain of emails with box office president

The managers of Mark Knopfler, left, and Mumford & Sons recently expressed their concerns about Ticketmaster's scalper program with the company's president. (Punit Paranjpe/Olivia Harris/Reuters)

Managers of popular musical acts such as Mumford & Sons, Mark Knopfler, Radiohead and the Pixies are blasting Ticketmaster over its secretive partnership with scalpers that was exposed in a recent CBC News investigation.

In leaked emails obtained by CBC, several prominent managers demanded answers from Ticketmaster president Jared Smith. They were angry over the revelations the box-office giant is recruiting scalpers to help boost profits from the resale of large volumes of sports and concert tickets.​

Paul Crockford, who manages former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, wrote the initial email to Smith, which he copied to managers and agents of hundreds of acts including Drake, Depeche Mode, Sheryl Crow and Bruno Mars.

He said Ticketmaster's reported behaviour flies in the face of assurances Smith gave to a group of managers at a meeting this summer in the U.K.

"The impression given, from your side was that [Ticketmaster] do not support or engage with industrial sellers," he wrote in the message sent Sept. 19.

"Was this all just bollocks for public consumption when in fact you are taking a hypocritical and unprincipled stance and actually assisting scalpers?"

The emails flew on the very day CBC News and the Toronto Star released hidden-camera footage of Ticketmaster staff at a scalpers convention at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas back in July.

Watch: CBC News goes undercover to expose Ticketmaster's secret scalper program

CBC News goes undercover to expose Ticketmaster's secret scalper program. 1:21

Ticketmaster was promoting TradeDesk, a web-based software tool designed to help professional scalpers manage huge inventories of tickets on resale sites, including Ticketmaster. If a ticket is resold on Ticketmaster, the company collects fees a second time on the same ticket.

One salesman, unaware he was speaking with an undercover reporter, admitted that staff turn a blind eye to scalpers who use hundreds of fake identities and accounts to exceed Ticketmaster's own ticket-buying limits.

In a subsequent statement to CBC, Ticketmaster said that even before the publication of the story, it had already begun an internal review of professional reseller accounts and employee practices.

Demand for investigation

On Thursday, NDP innovation critic Brian Masse called on the minister in charge to launch his own investigation of Ticketmaster.

"Canadian consumers should not have to rely on investigative journalism to be protected from uncompetitive and potentially illegal practices in any sector of the economy," Masse wrote in a letter to Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development.

Masse has also sent a letter to the Commons industry committee, asking it to call the head of Ticketmaster Canada to testify. 

Bains has already asked Canada's Competition Bureau to investigate Ticketmaster and says that investigation is underway.

However, Masse told CBC News Thursday the agency lacks the resources and teeth to adequately probe the murky world of online scalping in Canada.

'Why facilitate brokers at all?'

In a response to the emails from band managers, Smith said TradeDesk is a resale "broker" tool that doesn't actually purchase tickets from the box office.

"The press has completely misrepresented what TradeDesk is and who uses it," his email said. "Neither it nor we facilitate mass purchase of tickets by brokers or anyone else. To be absolutely clear our priority is the artist and your fan."

The CBC report never said TradeDesk helps scalpers to buy tickets; only that it helps them manage and sell their inventory.

Mumford & Sons manager Adam Tudhope wasn't satisfied with Smith's explanation.

"From where do the brokers whom you're providing this tool ... get their tickets?" he asked in an email to Smith.

"Why be in the business of facilitating brokers at all?"

The band put its frustration into action, announcing to fans last week that it had successfully negotiated with Ticketmaster to block scalpers from listing resale tickets for the group's upcoming tour on the company's site.​

'I was pretty angry'

Four of the managers on the email chain who spoke with CBC News said they never intended their private communication to be made public but stand by their strong statements to Ticketmaster.

"I was pretty angry, and I did feel that maybe we'd been slightly hoodwinked," Crockford said.

"It was always hidden in the shadows a little bit and nobody really knew. Whenever you asked you were always told that they didn't have any relationship with power brokers or resellers or scalpers."

Paul Crockford, who manages former Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler, sent an angry email to the president of Ticketmaster the day CBC's undercover investigation into the company's secret scalper program was published. He copied his message to the managers and agents of hundreds of other musical acts. (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

Crockford says he feels deceived by Ticketmaster and believes that by helping scalpers to resell tickets, the box office strips artists of their ability to set prices for fans.

Several managers told CBC they are appealing to Live Nation, which owns Ticketmaster and has a near monopoly on artists, venues and ticketing around the globe, to stop facilitating the resale of tickets through scalpers, which inevitably drives up prices for fans.

Richard Jones, the manager of the Pixies and Teenage Fanclub, calls Ticketmaster a 'conflicted company.' (Rachel Houlihan/CBC)

"It was like a kid with his hand caught in a cookie jar," said Richard Jones, who was cc'd on the email chain and is the manager of the Pixies and Teenage Fanclub.

"They are a conflicted company ... The more the ticket is, the more they earn from the fees. So if a ticket is sold once, two times, three times at inflated prices, they get a greater percentage for each ticket."

'Do the right thing'

Tudhope says the North American ticketing system is "broken."

"The most important thing, from our point of view," the Mumford & Sons manager said, "is to keep the fans as informed as possible, and to encourage them at every turn not to buy from secondary websites, which is where scalpers and brokers ply their trade."

Similar to Mumford & Sons, Radiohead also recently insisted Ticketmaster not allow resale tickets for its shows on the site.

Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, performs on stage during their concert at the Rock-en-Seine Festival in Saint-Cloud, near Paris, back in 2006. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Radiohead manager Brian Message says Ticketmaster/LiveNation is so tied to artists, bands, venues and the box office that it has even more responsibility to protect fans from scalpers.

"They are very much within the music ecosystem," he said. "We want to make sure that fans do have good experiences and are not ripped off. So we think that Ticketmaster, therefore, has an obligation to do the right thing."

Ticketmaster/LiveNation didn't respond to request for comment on the managers' emails, and Ticketmaster president Jared Smith has declined repeated requests for an interview.

Send tips to dave.seglins@cbc.ca or rachel.houlihan@cbc.ca