Congress, Ticketmaster and Taylor Swift: How we got here
Last week, a congressional committee used the shrill megaphone of Twitter to issue a Clint Eastwood-style threat against a company selling Beyoncé tickets: “We’re watching, @Ticketmaster.”
How did we get here?
Batches of tickets to Beyoncé’s Renaissance World Tour went on sale this week. Congress is watching closely because of the spectacular Ticketmaster meltdown when Taylor Swift tickets hit the market last fall. Millions of fans went ticketless.
But congressional concerns go beyond Beyoncé.
Ticketmaster controls “a vast share” of the concert ticket market, “60 to 80 percent, depending on who you listen to,” said Bob Lefsetz, a music-industry analyst.
The ticket broker’s 2010 merger with Live Nation wedded its ticketing business to a concert promoter with more than 200 top-drawer acts, dozens of venues and exclusive ticket-selling deals at thousands of concert halls.
Now, “you have a company that is running the shows, that owns and operates venues, that manages artists and that handles the ticket sales,” said Dean Budnick, co-author of “Ticket Masters,” an industry history. “And I think that rubs Congress the wrong way.”
The Justice Department is said to have opened an antitrust investigation. In a rare flourish of bipartisanship, Congress seems united behind the idea that Ticketmaster and Live Nation add up to a monopoly.
Ticketmaster leaders disagree.
“Since the merger, Ticketmaster’s market share has gone down, due to increasing competition within the ticketing industry,” Joe Berchtold, Live Nation president, told The Hill.
America’s capitalist system depends on competition: Multiple companies vying for the customer’s business, a contest that drives prices down and customer service up.
“Consolidation and power in the hands of the few can create problems for the many,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee last month.
President Biden himself weighed in, urging Congress to “lower the huge service fees that companies like Ticketmaster slap onto tickets for concerts or sporting events that can easily add hundreds of bucks to a family’s night out.”
The Live Nation merger has endured for 13 years. Why all the fuss now?
Two reasons: $5,000 Springsteen tickets, and the day Swift broke the internet.
When Springsteen fans queued up online in July 2022 for tickets to a historic tour, they found that “face value” surpassed $5,000 in some instances.
The culprit was “dynamic pricing,” a system that sets prices based on demand. The idea is to sell each ticket at full market value. Price it too low, and scalpers will snatch it up and pocket the profits. Dynamic pricing redirects the money to the artist.
Fans pounced on Ticketmaster. But Springsteen had chosen dynamic pricing. “I mean, he acknowledged it a few days later,” Budnick said.
Jon Landau, Springsteen’s manager, told The New York Times “our true average ticket price has been in the mid-$200 range,” not $5,000.
Tempers cooled — until tickets went on sale for the next Swift tour.
In November, Astone Jackson went online with a special code meant to guarantee him access to a presale of Swift tickets for “verified fans.” This was another Ticketmaster program, also designed to steer tickets into the hands of fans.
Jackson, a verified Swift fan from Columbus, Ohio, endured a day of heartbreak.
“I’m waiting in the queue,” he said. “It says you’re sitting in maybe 2,000th place. And by the time you get to number one, it crashes, or you freeze.”
Jackson patiently rejoined the queue, again and again. After hours of patience, he reached the front of the line. He selected two tickets and hit the checkout button. The tickets were gone.
After many more tries, he gave up.
“I am a ticketless, sad, heartbroken man,” he said.
As it turned out, even mighty Ticketmaster could not handle demand for Swift’s Eras Tour, scheduled for spring. Company leaders blamed an unprecedented cyberattack from hackers and bots.
“We invited a million and a half on that day to come and buy those tickets, but it’s kind of like having a party. Everybody crashed that door at the same time with 3.5 billion requests,” said Michael Rapino, chief executive of Live Nation.
Swift, like Springsteen, bears some blame for the breakdown. She approved the verified fans effort to protect fans from scalpers. She also agreed with Ticketmaster to have millions of tickets go on sale on the same day.
“She did want to blow up the internet, and she literally did,” Budnick said. “Ticketmaster should have said no.”
Swift later said of Ticketmaster, “we asked them, multiple times, if they could handle this kind of demand and we were assured they could.”
And why would Swift want to break the internet?
“She wanted to be able to say she sold out stadiums around the country” in a single day, Lefsetz said.
Another Swift fan who tried and failed to procure a ticket to the Eras Tour is Carolyn Sloane, an economist at the University of California, Riverside.
“I tried to register for the presale, and I don’t think it even verified me as a real person,” she said.
Swift and her team probably regret trying to break the Ticketmaster single-day sales record, which they did, Sloane said. “But I think it’s unfair to direct all that ire at Taylor.”
Fans come to Ticketmaster with unrealistic expectations. By one estimate, Swift would have had to perform 900 stadium shows to meet demand for tickets to her tour.
That imbalance of supply and demand seeds chaos when an artist of Swift’s stature announces a tour. It drives ticket prices into the stratosphere.
“And it gets back to what makes people think it’s worth it to pay $500 to see Taylor Swift or Beyoncé. And there’s nothing rational there,” said Steve Waksman, a music professor at Smith College and author of “Live Music in America: A History from Jenny Lind to Beyoncé.”
Beyoncé and Swift are wealthy beyond imagining. Yet, to build on that income, they and most of their millennial peers need concert revenues. The advent of music file-sharing with Napster in 1999 triggered the decline of lucrative album sales.
“Pre-Napster, they would tour to promote an album they were trying to sell,” Sloane said. “Now, they release an album to tour.”
All of a three-figure ticket price goes to the artist. Service fees, often totaling 20 percent of face value, mostly go to the venue, with smaller shares earmarked for credit card fees and Ticketmaster itself.
When fans complain, Ticketmaster takes the heat.
“Ticketmaster is a cover for the acts,” Lefsetz said. “Ticketmaster does nothing that the acts don’t approve of. The acts are the ones that set the price.”
Springsteen and Swift have publicly complained about Ticketmaster, but such outbursts are rare. Ticketmaster’s market dominance leaves artists few alternatives, analysts say.
“If you don’t choose to use Ticketmaster as your ticketer, as an artist, you can potentially get locked out of every good room in the country,” Sloane said.
Congress and the Biden administration could try any of several reforms to solve the concert ticket problem. They could crack down on the scalper market that drives up prices. They could restrict the resale of tickets for profit. They could print the buyer’s name on every ticket, as airlines do. They could break up Live Nation.
They could. But industry analysts don’t think they will.
“This is a business that nobody in Congress understands,” Lefsetz said. “They want to grandstand to the public, which is irrational and doesn’t understand, either.”
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