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Better Than Revenge: Swifties Help Expose Ticketmaster’s Monopoly

Better Than Revenge: Swifties Help Expose Ticketmaster’s Monopoly

“There’s no nice way to tell 10 million Swifties, ‘There are no tickets,’” said Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino a day after the company’s colossal failure to deliver Taylor Swift tickets to fans who hoped to see her Eras Tour. He added: “So they do what they do and they go to social, and we deal with that every day.” 

But angry Swifties aren’t Rapino’s only concern. As its platform was melting down under the unprecedented demand for Swift tickets, news broke that a Department of Justice (DOJ) antitrust investigation into Live Nation had been underway.

This was welcome news for fans who experienced firsthand what it’s like to confront a monopoly. On social media, fans reported spending hours, even days, stuck in queues for tickets they had pre-registered to access. Some saw tickets in their online cart one moment, only to see them on the secondary market for three times the price the next. Some tickets reportedly reached $20,000 each. Other fans said they were kicked out of line altogether due to platform failures.

Swifties didn’t stop at social media: Tens of thousands sent letters to the DOJ as part of the campaign launched to break up Ticketmaster by the American Economic Liberties Project, where I’m a senior policy analyst. But unlike previous decades when motivated fan bases, artists, and independent venue owners asked the government to stop Live Nation/Ticketmaster’s abuses, current regulators may now take action due to good leadership and the attention Swifties drew to the company’s monopolistic behavior. 

The Taylor Swift debacle was extreme, and likely pushed up news of the DOJ investigation. However, it was just the latest evidence of Live Nation/Ticketmaster’s abusive dominance of the live events industry. Talk to artists these days — global superstars and indie performers alike — and they will detail how they’ve lost power and money because Live Nation/Ticketmaster holds all of the cards. 

It wasn’t always like this: In the decade before 1990, average concert ticket prices were under $20 in major cities, and venues remained independent — setting fair prices for their community. Then, in 1991, Ticketmaster acquired Ticketron, one of the company’s largest competitors. Even before the acquisition, Ticketmaster successfully cut into Ticketron’s client base. Then-CEO Fred Rosen estimated that one-third of the company’s sales growth came from acquisitions. 

The deal eliminated competitive pressures by handing Ticketmaster control of 90 percent of the ticketing market. The company reached a whole new stratosphere where no one else could fairly compete.

Over the next decade, Ticketmaster wielded its power to such an extent that artists began to revolt. Most notably, Pearl Jam fought to perform for fans on their own terms. Although their efforts also prompted a DOJ antitrust investigation, the agency dropped the probe, and Pearl Jam had little choice but to resume using Ticketmaster’s services, ceding to its monopoly power. 

Meanwhile, in the late Nineties and early 2000s, Live Nation — then known as SFX Entertainment — was growing to dominate the concert promotion and event venue markets. Concert promoters were historically small independent shops that often boosted the local music scene. But SFX (Live Nation) changed that. From 1996 to 1999, it spent $2 billion purchasing these independent players and consolidating the industry. When it sold to Clear Channel Communications in 2001, it controlled more than 130 venues. 

The pace of the rollup, which at one point included 20 acquisitions in less than a year, gave the DOJ no choice but to launch another antitrust probe. But that too was dropped. Journalist and Rock and Rap Confidential newsletter author Dave Marsh correctly pointed the finger at regulators — who for too long allowed the so-called free market rein – writing, “The result is one company, Clear Channel, controlling virtually all American venues and promoters.” Referring to antitrust, he continued, “Our government doesn’t enforce such laws.”

Together, Live Nation and Ticketmaster spent the next eight years controlling live events. Ticketmaster commandeered ticketing, and Live Nation dominated venues and concert promotion. Between 1996 and 2003, the average concert ticket price rose 82 percent (for comparison, the Consumer Price Index rose 17 percent.) 

As expected, Ticketmaster had an exclusivity contract with Live Nation that started when it was known as SFX. This agreement guaranteed Ticketmaster a massive revenue stream. But in 2008, Live Nation saw the potential to compete directly and cut out Ticketmaster as their venues’ and tours’ go-to ticketing service. It held the keys to the venues; why keep dishing dollars to Ticketmaster for a service they could create? When Live Nation’s contract with Ticketmaster expired in January 2009, Ticketmaster saw its revenue drop by 78 percent. 

To regain leverage, Ticketmaster bought the largest artist management company, Front Line Management, giving the company more bargaining chips to negotiate with Live Nation. Front Line managed big acts, including Fleetwood Mac and Maroon 5. The defensive move worked. Within a few months, the two companies decided they had more to gain from one vertically-integrated system, and announced a merger. Live Nation CEO Rapino was finally realizing his dreams to turn Ticketmaster’s website into live music’s answer to Amazon.com. 

Artists, venues, and competing promoter and ticketing services alike knew the merger would spell the end of meaningful competition in live entertainment. “They’ll be the concert promoter, the ticketing company, the merchandise company, the agent, the manager — they’ll be everything,” said Jerry Mickelson, co-owner of concert promoter Jam Productions. Bruce Springsteen spoke out as well, writing in a message to fans: “The one thing that would make the current ticket situation even worse for the fan than it is now would be Ticketmaster and Live Nation coming up with a single system.” (Fast forward to this year and Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing” had expensive repercussions for Springsteen fans, and they were not alone).

Despite the outcry, the Obama administration’s top antitrust watchdog, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, negotiated a consent decree forcing the merging companies to make minimal divestments, license its ticketing software, and agree to non-retaliatory behavior, rather than blocking the merger. As Varney described it, this was “antitrust enforcement — only with a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.” And yet, Live Nation repeatedly violated the limited terms, according to the DOJ. 

What fans, artists, and independent venue owners experience today is the result of leverage that the merger created: ever-increasing ticket prices, fees that even the CEO of Ticketmaster described as indefensible, no customer service, fewer independent venues, less support for small and midsize artists, and no recourse when Live Nation/Ticketmaster doesn’t play fair.

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This abuse is possible because the merged company can bundle offerings or refuse service if entities do not accept their terms. For small or midsize touring bands, they will most likely play a venue controlled by Live Nation. That means they will be forced to sell the majority of their tickets through Ticketmaster, even if they have their own ticketing service to offer fans fee-free access. Being a musician has become a punishing career, which can largely be attributed to consolidation in the industry. For the vast majority of artists that don’t have Swift’s star power, there’s no way to survive without touring. When you account for secondary ticketing, handcuffed venue access, and the inability to control what fans are ultimately paying — this amounts to a near-extortion ring. 

Swift fans, however, shouldn’t feel hopeless. Thanks to their activism, coupled with previous advocacy and the work of other groups fighting consolidation, artists and fans face an improved regulatory environment. DOJ’s current antitrust leader, Jonathan Kanter, is a skeptic of the agency’s past approaches and seeks to reinvigorate antitrust enforcement at the federal level. Thus it’s no surprise to learn his agency has already been investigating Live Nation/Ticketmaster.

Congressional leaders from AOC to Senator Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee, have also spoken out about Live Nation/Ticketmaster’s harms and are demanding “structural remedies,” the technical term for breaking the company up by forcing it to divest entire business lines to restore competition. Klobuchar has also announced a hearing to investigate Live Nation/Ticketmaster. Multiple state attorneys general have opened investigations, a first step for potentially more lawsuits that could force the company to change its business model. 

In fighting previous attempts at government intervention, Live Nation/Ticketmaster has adopted arguments commonly used by monopolists. They reference their size as evidence of offering superior products. Along with failed antitrust regulators of the past, the company claims because of its size, it can keep prices low, but anyone who has seen Ticketmaster’s fees knows otherwise. Ticketmaster even tested some of these arguments in a late-night Friday tweet and corresponding blog post, which was briefly deleted, tweaked, then reposted with vaguer language. Swifties didn’t buy it, given the quote tweets and replies that followed, and it seems unlikely Kanter’s antitrust division will, either. 

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We’re in the beginning of what will be a long waiting game as the government moves through its processes, but current leaders seem unlikely to repeat their predecessors’ mistakes of accepting shallow promises from concentrated giants at face value. As music fans exit years of pandemic life and look to see their favorite artists in person, the public’s demand for a functioning fair market may create enough political pressure to ensure antitrust enforcers do not forget whom it is they serve. As once-Ticketron owner Abe Pollin put it, “Competition made this country great.” Here’s to hoping regulators let us experience its greatness.

Krista Brown is a senior policy analyst at the American Economic Liberties Project. 

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