Mannequins in a theatre
Image: Time Out / Shutterstock

Inside the secret society of seat fillers, copping tickets to concerts, theatre and comedy for free

Behind the scenes, agencies are almost giving away tickets to West End plays and arena tours with struggling sales. Is it the dream gig for a last-minute punter?

Kyle MacNeill

They’ve infiltrated the world of entertainment. They hide in plain sight at our gigs and plays, our concerts and comedy nights. They operate alone or with a single accomplice, probably wearing fresh merch to mask their identities. They laugh along at jokes from comedians they’ve never heard of and sing along to songs they’ve never heard before, with all the zeal of a real fan. They could even be sitting right next to you. Or, perhaps, you might be one already. Not that you would dare tell us. Because you, like the rest of them, have a vow of silence and a licence to... fill.

Seats, that is.

Time Out has not, regrettably, uncovered the spy conspiracy of the century. But it is time to shine a spotlight on the secretive world of seat-fillers: the people who fill spare, unsold seats for struggling events looking to avoid an empty venue. But they have to remain totally schtum that they’re doing just that – otherwise, it’s curtains.

Anyone can join this inner circle; you just have to enlist online, scroll through a load of events priced anywhere from around zero to 15 quid, make your selection and turn up on time, solo or with a plus one. ‘I signed-up originally after my dad sent me a link and went to see a play for free with a booking fee,’ says Alice*, a 27-year-old teacher living in London. ‘I’d never heard of it before but it was a really good experience.’

Go to any gig that’s not sold out and, chances are, there will be at least a few members of the audience like Alice who are also members of seat-filling clubs. But good luck figuring out who they are. To paraphrase a classic Transport For London advert: ‘Spotting a seat-filler is easy. They look just like you’ (the original was about ticket inspectors, trainspotters will note).

The Audience Club has donated more than £250,000 to charities and arts-related causes 

Behind every secret agent is, of course, a secretive agency. In the UK, a small troupe of ‘papering’ organisations run the show, all helping to allocate tickets on the cheap for slow-selling productions. ‘Seat filling agencies provide ‘‘bums on seats’’ for performances which require a boost in numbers,’ explains Ellen Hill, director of The Audience Club. ‘Producers, venues and agents provide complimentary tickets and these are passed onto members for a small admin fee.’

The Audience Club was one of the first to arrive on the scene in London back in 2007. ‘The founder, Angela Hyde-Courtney, was in charge of seat-filling for the Oscars back in the 1970s when people were brought in to take the seats of celebrities while they went to the toilet or to the bar,’ says Hill. Hyde-Courtney noticed that theatres in New York did the same but due to low ticket sales and brought this concept over. Since then, The Audience Club has donated more than £250,000 to charities and arts-related causes including Blackheath Halls, Theatre Peckham and Lewisham Youth Theatre, helping young people experience theatre.

Another agency, Show Film First, actually started a couple of years earlier, but originally focused on finding audiences for films’ opening weekends. Now, they help pack out audiences across all genres of entertainment. ‘We get our tickets relatively last minute, sometimes a week or two before an event and sometimes on the day of the event,’ says Jessica Whitney, Head of Entertainment Partnerships.

The newest kid on the block of seats is Central Tickets, founded in 2017 with an aim of making seat-fillers more valuable for venues. ‘We saw an opportunity to cultivate a different type of seat-filler who could meaningfully contribute to the sector,’ says managing director Lee McIntosh. ‘This could involve sharing demographic data for social campaigns, gathering feedback, or generating sales for full-priced inventory in addition to seat-filling bookings.’ Central also focuses on conscious projects, offsetting carbon from audience journeys, working towards getting B-Corp certification and donating to NHS Charities Together for each ticket sold.

West end at night
Photograph: Shutterstock

We weren’t lying about the whole secret thing, either; all of these agencies get their members to agree to a long list of rules in exchange for being part of the club. And that, along with guaranteeing that you’ll actually turn up, includes being discreet. ‘The first rule of The Audience Club is you don’t talk about The Audience Club,’ Hill explains. ‘Venues don’t want us to shout about the fact that we are offering free tickets to their shows and events, so we don’t advertise or have a presence on social media.’ 

‘There was small print in the email which said you weren’t allowed to tell anyone there that you hadn’t paid which I thought was funny,’ Alice confirms.

But what, or who, can you actually see as a seat-filler? You might have to let your imaginations run wild here, as a large amount of small print prevents us from listing actual names, so let’s just say that basically any event that’s a decent way from selling out could be deploying seat-fillers. It’s a guessing game that has become a regular feature in Popbitch, alluding to artists that have allegedly enlisted the help of the agencies to avoid tumbleweed moments at their gigs. 

Any event that’s a decent way from selling out could be deploying seat-fillers

To give you some clues to decode, McIntosh says that Central Tickets offers ‘everything from local pub cabaret to large-scale outdoor concerts.’ Whitney from Show Film First promises ‘large-scale music festivals, sport and big West End productions through to small gigs, regional comedy, theatre, film screenings and premieres.’ And Hill from The Audience Club teases ‘predominantly fringe and off-West-End theatre but also music, comedy, opera, cabaret, dance, talks, guided walks and more.’

Unsurprisingly, seat-filling took a backseat during the pandemic. ‘Our member numbers took a massive hit during Covid and we’ve been slowly working our way back up,’ Whitney says. While ticket sales have generally recovered, some artists are still seemingly struggling to fill seats. ‘There is often a mismatch between the scale of tours announced and actual ticket demand. Seat filling helps manage this discrepancy,’ says Michael Kill, the newly appointed vice president of the International Nightlife Association. 

Events, too, are spennier than ever, with eye-watering VIP packages and booking fees through the roof – and with the cost-of-living crisis still far from over, people are thinking twice about draining their Monzo for a Monday-night motive. ‘For a lot of West End theatre shows, the ticket prices are easily upwards of £100,’ says Anya Ryan, freelance theatre and comedy journalist. ‘In a cost of living crisis, that amount feels particularly extortionate and closes the doors of the arts to many, seat-filling services definitely provide an answer to a financial problem.’

A full audience
Photograph: Shutterstock

In this sense, seat-filling is opening doors. ‘The arts should be accessible for everyone, whatever their background, so if ticket filler services are a way of introducing people to the creative sector, they should be celebrated,’ she says. This can be genuinely fulfilling. ‘A woman in her sixties on her own took me aside at one of the West End theatres recently,’ says McIntosh. ‘She explained her life had changed as a result of being able to afford to go out and see things [as a result of being a seat filler].’

The scheme also encourages you to take a punt on something you might not as a regular punter – by giving fringe theatre, alternative music and indie film a go without the gnawing fear of buyer’s remorse. ‘You don’t have to be a die-hard fan to attend a gig,’ says Hill. Plus, it’s about more than just the ticket; the seat-fillers stand in as armchair critics, giving feedback that’s shared with the event producers. ‘They can help to shape a show in its early stages until it finds its feet,’ says Whitney. 

The main catch, though, is that all this manufactured demand can distort the entertainment market and affect artists’ morale. ‘It can create a false sense of popularity. An event that appears sold out might not have sold all its tickets at full price, which can be misleading for future marketing and tour planning,’ Kill says. Seat-fillers, after all, are meant to fill seats, not entire stadiums. ‘They should be used strategically to complement rather than replace traditional ticket sales methods,’ Kill says.

If ticket filler services are a way of introducing people to the arts, they should be celebrated

And does it change the energy in the room? Part of the magic of being in a crowd, after all, is knowing that you’re all just as devoted to the main act as each other. ‘A fuller auditorium makes for a better atmosphere for the whole audience,’ Ryan says. ‘I guess it might be a little frustrating to find out the person next to you has got a ticket for under half the price or even free, but think of the alternative: empty theatres are miserable.’

It’s true; most of us would probably rather be sandwiched by seat-fillers than be singing, laughing or dancing on our own. And while it’s natural to feel a little ripped-off for paying full price, they’re still spending their precious time. ‘Rather than seeing the people accepting the ticket filler spaces as fake fans, it is probably better to view them as potential fans,’ Ryan says. ‘They’ve still given up their evening.’

What the agencies argue, and the venues hope, is that these seat-filler tickets are gateway stubs, getting people into new forms of entertainment that they later pay full entry for. ‘I would personally go back to the venue or see something else the company did, so it seems beneficial for the theatre,’ Alice says. So, next time you’re at a gig and think you might be sitting next to a seat-filler? Don’t have a word; teach them the words, instead. 

*Name has been changed.

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