Com­ing soon to a mu­sic fes­ti­val near you: the wrist­band racket

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Opinion - bboyd@irish­times.com

I n years past, a con­fer­ence deal­ing with mu­sic fes­ti­vals would at­tract a small crowd of rad­dled old pro­mot­ers, ea­ger-to-cash-in farm­ers, a few shady types, and the oc­ca­sional odd­ball strug­gling to speak sense amid all the shout­ing about profit mar­gins.

In con­trast, last week Lon­don’s 02 saw “1,000 del­e­gates com­pris­ing the largest and most se­nior group of UK and Euro­pean mu­sic fes­ti­val in­dus­try pro­fes­sion­als ever as­sem­bled un­der one roof” at the UK Fes­ti­val Awards and Con­fer­ence 2009. Given that Ir­ish mu­sic fes­ti­vals now have a sig­nif­i­cant UK in­put, what went down at the O2 could af­fect next year’s Ox­e­gen and Elec­tric Pic­nic.

Of course, the el­e­vated sta­tus of the Mu­sic Fes­ti­val Con­fer­ence is down to the ir­re­vo­ca­bly changed mu­sic econ­omy. More bands than you imag­ine (in­clud­ing a num­ber of head­lin­ing acts) stay afloat only thanks to the money guar­an­teed by the sum­mer fes­ti­val sea­son. As such, the multi­bil­lion-euro fes­ti­val in­dus­try wants to pro­tect it­self from en­croach­ing crim­i­nal threats.

A few years ago I was trudg­ing my way to the Glas­ton­bury site. My ticket was to be picked up at, say, Gate F, which was still a half-hour trek away. A cou­ple of peo­ple around me (ob­vi­ously crim­i­nal mas­ter­minds) sim­ply pulled down the wire and walked straight onto the site. Nat­u­rally I and many oth­ers fol­lowed.

Try that now at Glas­ton­bury and you’d be con­fronted by a tow­er­ing wall and scowl­ing se­cu­rity men. The Glas­ton­bury Wall is al­ways a hor­ri­ble sight, but if it means you’re not to go­ing to be tram­pled un­der­foot, or to have to queue for four hours for ev­ery­thing be­cause of the free­loaders, then so be it.

Fes­ti­val crime is now a ma­jor is­sue for pro­mot­ers, though you won’t find them hand­ing out press re­leases about it. It in­cludes the pil­lag­ing of tents, per­sonal theft, and ticket forgery by trained crim­i­nal gangs who know what they want and how to get it.

The con­fer­ence’s “Crim­i­nal In-Fest-Ation” fo­rum heard some star­tling ev­i­dence from Reg Walker of Irid­ium Se­cu­rity, which looks af­ter se­cu­rity at sev­eral ma­jor fes­ti­vals. Walker spoke about how 100 phoney wrist­bands had been seized at this year’s Read­ing Fes­ti­val. What wor­ried him was the high qual­ity of the fakes, right down to the bar­codes. “They’re highly con­vinc­ing and vir­tu­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able from the real item.”

Ac­cord­ing to Walker, a crim­i­nal gang staged a “test run” this sum­mer of th­ese fake wrist­bands. Now that they know the lie of the se­cu­rity land, they plan a ma­jor swoop next year.

“The amount of ef­fort and ex­pense they have gone to means it is not com­mer­cially vi­able to pro­duce th­ese in the hun­dreds,” he said. “I be­lieve it was a test run and that next year there is a plan to man­u­fac­ture them in the thou­sands. One or more of the ma­jor fes­ti­vals is go­ing to get hit un­less we deal with this now. This is the most se­ri­ous prob­lem and the most se­ri­ous chal­lenge we face in 2010.”

The fakes are sur­pris­ingly easy to fab­ri­cate. Ei­ther you get the wrist­band de­sign ahead of time from an in­sider, or sim­ply ar­rive early, get one of the first ones handed out and turn around the fakes in 24 hours.

There are pub­lic or­der is­sues if fake wrist­bands are mass-cir­cu­lated. As there is no ap­par­ent way of dis­tin­guish­ing the phoneys from the real thing, 60,000 peo­ple could de­scend on a site that is only li­censed (and has the wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties) for 40,000. And even if the pro­mot­ers close all en­trances when the 40,000 limit is met, that could still leave as many as 20,000 gen­uine pun­ters fum­ing out­side.

Part of the blame lies with the pun­ters who buy coun­ter­feit wrist­bands from touts out­side fes­ti­vals. (A well-known tout trick is to trawl nearby pubs while the fes­ti­val is on and “sell on” wrist­bands.)

It’s hard con­vinc­ing some fans that buy­ing a wrist­band at a knock-down price from some­one “who had to leave in a hurry” is help­ing or­gan­ised crim­i­nals. With fes­ti­val tick­ets so ex­pen­sive and sell­ing so quickly on their release – cou­pled with a cer­tain amount of peer pres­sure to get to the fes­ti­val – you can see why this is a lu­cra­tive mar­ket. The so­lu­tion: stick to the of­fi­cial web­sites and ac­cept no sub­sti­tute.

Real and fake wrist­bands are vir­tu­ally in­dis­tin­guish­able

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