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Michael Hiltzik: With Live Nation lawsuit, government signals it's fed up with alleged corporate scofflaws

Michael Hiltzik, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Is there a better example of arrogant corporate behavior than flouting a government decree — not once but multiple times? That's the question raised by the antitrust lawsuit against the giant concert and ticketing conglomerate Live Nation alleging a raft of monopolistic practices.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday by the Department of Justice, 29 states and the District of Columbia, draws a picture of a company that has ruthlessly exploited its multiple roles as a dominant concert promoter, dominant owner or controller of concert venues, and dominant ticketing manager.

The combination allows Live Nation to exercise "control over which artists perform on which dates at which venues," as well as "how fans are able to purchase tickets ... and what fees those fans will pay," according to the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs' goal is to break up Live Nation — specifically, to force it to divest Ticketmaster, the ticketing service it merged with in 2010. To the federal officials and the states, the Ticketmaster deal was the original sin allowing Live Nation to build itself a near-monopoly in the live music industry.

This was predictable: Mergers that brought together content producers and content distributors have been a persistent headache for antitrust enforcers — witness the mergers of NBCUniversal with the cable company Comcast and AT&T with Time Warner, the owner of CNN, HBO, Warner Bros. and much more.

Seeing anticompetitive problems on the horizon, the U.S. and 19 states originally sued to block the Live Nation-Ticketmaster deal in 2010. The case was settled with a consent decree in which Live Nation promised not to condition the provision of live shows to venues that chose not to use Ticketmaster as their ticketing agent, or to threaten or retaliate against any venues contracted with a rival ticketer, such as StubHub or SeatGeek.

 

By 2020, the government said it had compiled evidence that Live Nation had been violating the decree for years by doing exactly what it had promised not to do. "Venues throughout the United States," the government alleged, "have come to expect that refusing to contract with Ticketmaster will result in the venue receiving fewer Live Nation concerts or none at all. ... This is a loss that most venues can ill-afford to risk."

The government sued again, this time settling the case with a deal that extended the initial consent decree by more than five years (to Dec. 31, 2025), imposed an independent monitor on the company, and set a penalty of $1 million for each violation.

Yet here we are again. Since the 2020 settlement, according to the new lawsuit, "Live Nation and Ticketmaster have committed additional, different, and more expansive violations of the antitrust laws." The consent decrees, the lawsuit says, have "failed to restrain Live Nation and Ticketmaster from violating other antitrust laws in increasingly serious ways."

Now the plaintiffs say they're serious. Live Nation has thumbed its nose at the authorities for more than 20 years, the lawsuit says. Live Nation and Ticketmaster got what they wanted in negotiations with the government in 2010 and "promptly consummated" their deal, but they "failed to live up to their end of the bargain." Yes, the government has needed some two decades to decide to take a stand, but it may be progress that's it's finally trying to do so now.

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