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Opinion Ticketmaster’s Taylor Swift debacle was so bad it united the parties

Amy Edwards demonstrates outside the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, while the Senate Judiciary Committee was holding a hearing on live entertainment ticket industry practices. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
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If there is one thing Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Live Nation and its more famous subsidiary Ticketmaster made clear, it’s that almost everyone hates Ticketmaster. Republicans and Democrats competed to attack the live entertainment behemoth. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) called the company “the definition of a monopoly,” while Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) called the company’s handling of Taylor Swift’s ticket sale last fall “a debacle.” “I’m not against big, per se,” he said. “I’m against dumb.”

It’s not just because everyone loves Swift (though they should!). It’s that the company — which dominates the live entertainment business — offers a potent demonstration of how all of us except the wealthiest and most powerful are taken advantage of in our unequal economy, and how powerless we are to stop it from happening.

The hearing occurred because of the rage of Swift fans over Ticketmaster’s disastrous rollout of tickets for her widely anticipated “Eras” tour, which begins in March. Promised presale access, they found that it took hours to get into Ticketmaster’s website. Then, many discovered tickets to be unavailable, or dynamic pricing, or scalpers pushing the asking price into four figures. Instead of tickets, Swifties received a crash course in how little they mattered.

“What we’ve seen with Live Nation and Ticketmaster and Taylor Swift, specifically, is that this was the first time for many people [to understand] the impact of monopoly power. The impacts of monopoly power mean you won’t get great service, because monopoly doesn’t care,” said Morgan Harper, director of policy and advocacy for the American Economic Liberties Project. “If you are a fan or a small-business owner, you just have to take it.”

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Live Nation Entertainment is the result of a vertical merger between Ticketmaster and entertainment promoter Live Nation in 2010. It is the by far the most dominant player in the United States’ annual live music business.

It is frequently noted that Ticketmaster distributes tickets for an estimated 70 percent of live entertainment events in the United States, but that underestimates its reach. According to figures offered during testimony on Tuesday, Ticketmaster handles ticket sales for almost 9 out of 10 National Basketball Association and National Hockey League teams, not to mention a similar percentage of Billboard’s top 40 tours of 2022. At the same time, Live Nation is the nation’s largest concert promoter, represents artists and owns a number of venues.

In other words, if you want to go to a live entertainment event, the chances are high that you will need to deal with Ticketmaster.

Under a government consent decree they signed before the merger, Live Nation is not allowed to use its power to coerce venues into using Ticketmaster, threatening to withhold popular acts if they do not. There are constant complaints that it does so anyway, including by the Justice Department, which is currently investigating the entertainment giant for taking advantage of its market position. (The company, not surprisingly, denies all this.)

Ticketmaster claims the Swift mess occurred simply because of the extraordinary demand for the tickets by resellers who engaged in “industrial strength scalping.” Maybe, they’ve conceded, they should have staggered the sales to prevent their site from being mobbed by automated bots.

The senators weren’t buying it. “Our critical infrastructure in this country, whether it is utilities, electric, water, power, banking services, credit card processors, payment processors, health care companies, you know what, they get bot attacks every single day by the thousands,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told Joe Berchtold, the president and chief financial officer of Live Nation, at Tuesday’s hearing. “But they have figured it out.”

Vulnerability to bots isn’t the only issue. The company, like others in the space, adds junk fees: convenience fees, facility fees, order processing fees. These charges, according to a 2018 Government Accountability Office study, add an average of 27 percent to ticket purchases. But the number can go higher. More Perfect Union, a progressive advocacy group, tracked charges as high as 78 percent.

So who does this system work for? In a parable for our age of inequality, almost all the gains go to the top. Live Nation does great; it’s earning record profits. The most popular artists — many of whom are represented by Live Nation — also make bank from those opaque fees, while Ticketmaster takes the heat for the gouging and mistreatment of their fans.

But it’s punishing for less-than-world-renowned artists, who lack the power to negotiate with Live Nation. Ditto smaller industry players. Jerry Mickelson, the chief executive and president of concert promoter Jam Productions, testified on Tuesday that Live Nation’s industry stranglehold essentially ended his company’s ability to produce shows in indoor arenas.

The Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger, which should have never been allowed to happen, needs to be reversed. But whether Congress — not to mention the Justice Department — will do something or is simply playing to the concert-going peanut gallery remains to be determined. At least for now, Live Nation and Ticketmaster continue to put on a show of contriteness while, behind the curtain, continuing to profit from corporate consolidation and lack of concern for the welfare of their customers.