Story at a glance
- Ticketmaster provoked outrage this week among Taylor Swift fans when its presale of tickets for her upcoming tour descended into chaos.
- The fiasco illuminates a ticket-selling industry populated with scalpers, ticket-buying bots and desperate buyers.
- Over the last three decades, Ticketmaster has squared off with musical acts, lawmakers and the Department of Justice over its ticket-selling practices.
The great Ticketmaster meltdown of 2022, a Taylor Swift concert-ticket presale that more or less broke the Internet this week, left many fans ticketless and ticked off, along with some members of Congress.
Swifties, as Swift loyalists are known, may not overlap much with the presumably older, sensibly shoed and largely male crowd that populates a typical Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam show. But now, they have something in common: A run-in with Ticketmaster.
Ticketmaster is the music-industry behemoth concert fans love to hate — although, to be fair, much of what goes on in the dog-eat-dog world of scalpers, ticket-snatching bots and desperate buyers spins beyond the control of Ticketmaster or anyone else.
Bands, Congress and the Justice Department all have squared off with the ticket seller before. Here, then, are five of history’s biggest Ticketmaster dustups.
Pearl Jam Takes on Ticketmaster
Pearl Jam, one of the biggest names in rock music, began feuding with Ticketmaster in 1992. The band planned a free Labor Day concert for 30,000 hometown fans in Seattle. Ticketmaster sought a $1 service fee for every ticket, according to an investigative report in the Los Angeles Times. Instead, the band handed out tickets on its own.
In subsequent tours, Pearl Jam lowered ticket and T-shirt prices to offset fees. In the spring of 1994, the band announced it would only perform summer concerts at venues that capped tickets at $18 and service fees at $1.80.
Ticketmaster balked. Its customary service fees in that era ranged from $4 to $8.
Unable to work within the Ticketmaster system, Pearl Jam tried to tour outside it. Ticketmaster effectively organized a boycott of the tour, the Times alleged, with veiled legal threats to promoters. After a sporadic series of shows and negotiations, the band gave up.
The Justice Department launched a probe. Congress called hearings. The band accused Ticketmaster of wielding a concert-ticket monopoly. Ticketmaster countered by terming Pearl Jam’s protests a publicity stunt to spur album sales.
Band members testified before a House subcommittee. Following the hearings, House Democrats introduced legislation, dubbed the Pearl Jam bill, that would have required ticket brokers in entertainment and sporting events to print service charges clearly on the ticket or receipt.
The Pearl Jam bill died. In the summer of 1995, the Justice Department closed its investigation. Inside sources said Justice lawyers feared they couldn’t make their case.
Ticketmaster won the battle, observers said, but lost in the court of public opinion.
“Getting attacked by a superstar rock band is a lot like being accused of kicking your dog,” a Ticketmaster spokesman told Rolling Stone.
A Ticketmaster spokesperson noted Friday that the company continues to work with, and even collaborate with, the seminal grunge band in moderating ticket costs.
The String Cheese Incident Incident
String Cheese Incident, a Colorado jam band reminiscent of the Grateful Dead, followed the Dead’s lead in nurturing devoted fans and selling tickets directly to them.
In 2002, Ticketmaster cracked down, telling String Cheese Incident and other bands that they could no longer sell more than 8 percent of tickets to their own shows.
String Cheese sued. Ticketmaster countered that contracts with theaters gave the company exclusive rights to handle tickets.
A settlement allowed the band to sell large blocks of tickets for five years.
The agreement lapsed in 2009. The band found new ways to skirt Ticketmaster, brokering private deals with venues to sell blocks of tickets to fans with minimal markups.
“We’re scalping our own tickets,” Mike Luba, a band manager, told The New York Times.
In one highly publicized episode, dozens of band loyalists showed up at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in 2012 and bought hundreds of tickets in cash at $49.95 apiece, their face value, only to resell them from their Colorado headquarters at the same price — plus $12 shipping.
A Blockbuster Merger
In 2010, the Justice Department approved a $2.5 billion merger that united Ticketmaster and Live Nation, the industry’s largest concert promoter.
The new company, Live Nation Entertainment, controlled more than 200 major artists, more than 100 venues, and exclusive ticket-selling contracts at “thousands of U.S. venues, including most arenas,” Rolling Stone reported — not to mention Ticketmaster itself.
Live Nation Entertainment “is a colossus unlike anything the industry has ever seen,” The New York Times reported.
Corporate leaders said the merger would ultimately yield lower ticket prices and fees, streamlining an inefficient business.
“Strength is a good thing,” Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, told Rolling Stone.
Live Nation leaders trotted out a promising idea: dynamic pricing. Higher price points for the front rows would allow artists to charge less for the nosebleed seats.
Many in the industry remained skeptical.
“They’ve just received the biggest disincentive to reduce ticket prices ever,” David Viecelli, agent for Arcade Fire and other acts, told Rolling Stone.
On Friday, reports surfaced that the Justice Department has opened a new antitrust investigation of Live Nation Entertainment, an action that evidently predates the Taylor Swift fiasco. The investigation apparently reprises the focus of the 1994 probe inspired by Pearl Jam, asking whether the company holds an unfair monopoly.
Canadian Journos Uncover ‘Secret Scalper’ Plot
In a 2018 investigation, reporters from the Toronto Star and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) alleged Ticketmaster recruited scalpers to buy tickets and resell them on Ticketmaster’s website at a premium, netting fees for the scalper and Ticketmaster.
Reporters traveled to an entertainment-industry convention at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, posing as scalpers and toting hidden cameras.
On the convention floor, Ticketmaster representatives pitched the undercover reporters on the company’s “professional reseller program,” the CBC reported, assuring them that Ticketmaster “turns a blind eye to scalpers who use ticket-buying bots and fake identities to snatch up tickets and then resell them on the site for inflated prices.”
In a convention session, a Ticketmaster executive touted a new initiative called TradeDesk, an online “inventory management system” for scalpers, according to the CBC.
In response to the report, the ticket giant told the CBC it was “categorically untrue that Ticketmaster has any program in place to enable resellers to acquire large volumes of tickets.”
In a more revealing statement to NPR, Ticketmaster seemed to acknowledge some of what the Canadian outlets alleged. The company said it did “not condone the statements made by the employee as the conduct described clearly violates our terms of service,” and vowed “to proactively monitor for this type of inappropriate activity” in the future.
‘The Case of the $5,000 Springsteen Tickets’
Bruce Springsteen and Ticketmaster had come to blows before. In 2009, Springsteen fans paid hundreds of dollars over face value for tickets to his shows after Ticketmaster directed them to a reseller. The Boss had set ticket prices low on purpose. Much like Pearl Jam 15 years earlier, Springsteen felt Ticketmaster had thwarted him and his fans.
“The abuse of our fans and our trust by Ticketmaster has made us as furious as it has made many of you,” Springsteen said in a statement at the time. Ticketmaster’s chief executive apologized.
Springsteen fans hit the stadium roof again in the summer of 2022. Dynamic pricing, the system Ticketmaster had introduced to make prices lower, seemed instead to drive them higher. When Springsteen tickets went on sale for his next tour, some fans faced four-figure prices. The New York Times called it “The Case of the $5,000 Springsteen Tickets.”
Both Springsteen and Ticketmaster fired back.
“Regardless of the commentary about a modest number of tickets costing $1,000 or more, our true average ticket price has been in the mid-$200 range,” said Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager, in a statement printed by the Times.
Ticketmaster reported that only 1.3 percent of buyers had paid four figures.
Still, many Springsteen fans walked away from the sale feeling that their working-class hero had sold out.