WASHINGTON — For decades now, Ticketmaster has engendered bad blood from concertgoers angry over its fees but has managed to shake it off, growing into the largest ticketing company in America. But after crossing Taylor Swift fans, parent company Live Nation faced a Senate panel Tuesday intent on getting the company to admit, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem, it’s me.”
Live Nation drew the ire of thousands of Taylor Swift fans in the fall, after its website crashed when tickets for Swift’s upcoming “Eras” tour went on sale. Swifties also decried huge swings in the tickets’ prices and painfully long wait times. A similar debacle afflicted ticket sales for a Bad Bunny concert in Mexico City. As Swift apologized to fans, Congress swore to hold hearings, and on Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first.
Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation, a concert venue and promotions company, in 2010, creating a live events behemoth that controls nearly every aspect of putting on a show short of the singing and dancing. On Tuesday, senators criticized how that vertical integration created a market-dominating powerhouse with little concern for average fans.
“In an ode to Taylor Swift, I will say, ‘We know all too well,’” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who chairs the Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights. “Live Nation doesn’t just dominate the ticketing — about 70% of the big concert market — but also they own many of the major venues, and for the venues that they don’t own, they tend to lock in on three-, five-, seven-year agreements, which means that the competitors that are out there aren’t able to even compete when it comes to the ticketing.”
Subcommittee ranking member Mike Lee, R-Utah, also couldn’t resist the siren’s call of a Swift allusion, prefacing his remarks by thanking Klobuchar for pushing for the hearing. “I had hoped, as of a few months ago, to get the chair back,” he said. “But once again, ‘she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers.’”
The business of hosting, promoting, and selling tickets to concerts and other live events — Ticketmaster dominates pro sports ticketing, as well — is an odd one. According to the Los Angeles Times, Ticketmaster controls nearly 80% of the ticket market in the U.S., bringing in $750 million in annual profits. It seems like just a middleman between the musician and the concertgoer. But Ticketmaster’s real customers aren’t fans — who have little choice in how to buy their tickets — but the venues (often owned by Live Nation) and the musicians. And as some of those customers, including Garth Brooks and the Atlanta Braves, attested in written testimony, Ticketmaster has treated them extremely well.
“What I witnessed (working with Ticketmaster) was a true concern and care for ticket buyers,” wrote Brooks.
As some of Swift’s exes can attest, a tongue lashing may sting in the moment but leaves few lasting scars. Live Nation and Ticketmaster have a long history of essentially selling themselves as the bad guy to the public, allowing bands and arenas to scapegoat the company for their own greedy pricing decisions. Tuesday was more of the same, albeit under the glare of a congressional spotlight.
“Primary ticketing companies, including Ticketmaster, do not set ticket prices. We do not decide how many tickets go on sale and when. And we do not set service fees. Pricing and distribution strategies are determined by artists and their teams. Service fees, even if called ticketing fees, are retained mainly by venues,” said Live Nation President Joe Berchtold.
Berchtold does face a more tangible risk than just the verbal berating he received, however, if the senators decide to do more than take advantage of the extra media attention to get themselves on TV and instead turn to legislating.