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Senators on both sides accuse Ticketmaster of misusing its power

At a Senate hearing, an executive from Ticketmaster parent Live Nation rejected the notion that it is a monopoly leveraging its position to shut out rivals

Joe Berchtold, president and chief financial officer of Live Nation Entertainment, at Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Senators from both sides of the aisle during a Tuesday hearing accused Ticketmaster parent Live Nation Entertainment of using monopoly power to dominate the ticketing and live events industry, as lawmakers grilled a top company executive who fiercely denied the assertion.

“This whole concert ticket system is a mess — it’s a monopolistic mess,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), calling Live Nation an “800 pound gorilla” that has “clear dominance, monopolistic control.”

Over nearly three hours, Senate Judiciary Committee members questioned industry experts and executives — including Joe Berchtold, president and chief financial officer of Live Nation — about whether a 2010 merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster allowed the company to unfairly grow its market share, and whether that dominance is hurting artists and consumers. The hearing comes a few months after the issue took center stage during a mad rush for Taylor Swift tickets late last year that resulted in scores of fans walking away frustrated and empty-handed.

The industry has “a lot of problems,” said Berchtold, adding that Live Nation has “an obligation to do better.”

But he rejected the notion that Live Nation is a monopoly, saying that competition has increased since its merger with Ticketmaster. Instead, he blamed the company’s recent woes on the proliferation of scalping and bots.

In November, millions of Swift’s fans, dubbed Swifties, flocked to Ticketmaster to secure tickets to the pop superstar’s first tour in years — but many walked away empty-handed after waiting hours on Ticketmaster’s glitching website. Their ire turned to Ticketmaster, which has long been criticized for wielding outsize power over ticket sales and the live entertainment industry, as the company apologized for the failure, citing unprecedented demand. Both Republicans and Democrats expressed outrage and questioned whether the company handled the rollout appropriately.

On Tuesday, some senators and witnesses argued that, with its market dominance, Live Nation has failed to innovate and improve, leading to failures such as the Swift ticket meltdown. Executives from competitors, who testified alongside Berchtold at the panel, argued that Live Nation has locked out rivals by securing long-term ticketing contracts with major venues. If arenas and other performance venues choose another ticketing company, Live Nation will not bring them popular acts, competitors alleged.

“Their biggest fear is if they leave Ticketmaster, they will lose content,” said Jerry Mickelson, president and chief executive of live entertainment producer Jam Productions, saying that the threat may not be explicit but is “implied.”

One of the terms of the merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster was that the company would not retaliate against venues that choose an alternative ticketing service. In December 2019, the Justice Department accused the company of violating those terms. The company subsequently agreed to extended court oversight.

Berchtold denied that his company uses threats and retaliation to keep its grip on the industry. “It’s not our business practice,” he said. “It goes against our fundamental focus on alignment with the artists.”

Federal authorities last year opened a new investigation into the company, although its scope is unclear.

Some senators did not mince words when referring to Live Nation’s market power, such as Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who accused the company of using its strength in live ticket sales to also dominate ticket reselling.

“You’re using your monopoly on the front end to create a monopoly in the resale market, where you’re forcing everybody in the resale market to come into your ecosystem effectively,” he said.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) asked every witness whether Ticketmaster is a monopoly. Almost everyone said it was. Berchtold said his company was not.

“So are they just making it up?” Cruz asked Berchtold. “Why does everyone else perceive you as a monopoly?”

The panel explored ways to improve the ticketing industry, including ways to curb scalping and bot attacks. But some senators and witnesses argued that the only way to fix the industry to force major changes on Live Nation.

“The only way to restore competition in this industry is to break up Ticketmaster and Live Nation,” said Jack Groetzinger, the chief executive of SeatGeek, a Ticketmaster rival.

While Tuesday’s hearing meandered through the thorny topic of antitrust law, it was also awash in Swift song references. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the lawmakers who called the hearing, said that she knows “all too well” that many industries are seeing a few companies increasingly dominate their markets — a reference to Swift’s 2012 song “All Too Well.” Blumenthal told Berchtold that his company “ought to look in the mirror and say, ‘I’m the problem, it’s me,’” a lyric from the song “Anti-Hero,” off Swift’s most recent album “Midnights,” whose popularity broke multiple records.

Lawmakers made references to Taylor Swift lyrics during a Senate Judiciary hearing focused on Ticketmaster’s business practices on Jan. 24. (Video: The Washington Post)

November’s system problems resulted in frozen queues and broken checkouts online for fans hoping to buy tickets to Swift’s upcoming “Eras Tour” — including many people who had signed up for presale codes. Many would-be buyers spent hours on the broken site, only to walk away without tickets. Ticketmaster halted sales and said unprecedented traffic, including from bots, contributed to the breakdown.

Responding to the chaos on Instagram, Swift wrote she empathized with fans, likening their experience to “going through several bear attacks.”

After the Swift problems, the company came under fire again in December after its system broke down during reggaeton artist Bad Bunny’s concert in Mexico City, resulting in ticket holders being denied entry. The company blamed an “unprecedented number” of fake tickets sold.

Across the street from the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday morning, a small group of protesters rallied with signs.

“There’s just so many problems that need to be addressed and I think the only way is for [Ticketmaster] to be completely broken up,” said Jennifer Kinder, a Texas-based attorney who started the fan-led lawsuit against Ticketmaster and helped organize the gathering of about half a dozen people. “I don’t see how they can remedy the problems.”

Karina Elwood contributed to this report.