A leading musical act is attacking Ticketmaster. Condemning the company’s high fees and poor service, they are trying to mobilize their angry fans to force the government to end the ticketing giant’s dominance. The battleground is a highly anticipated tour with big money at stake. But the musician isn’t Taylor Swift, and it’s not happening now. It’s the grunge band Pearl Jam, and the year is 1994. The group wanted to keep ticket prices from rising above $20 (about $40 in today’s dollars), and that was impossible with Ticketmaster’s extra charges.
Whether it’s the musical trends (house) or the fashion statements (Doc Martens), the 1990s have been back in style for several years now. So it’s only fitting that Ticketmaster, the target of one of the most important antitrust fights of that period, is making headlines again. Today the company is even bigger than it was in the ’90s—but so too is the opportunity for change.
People have long been concerned about the power of Ticketmaster. As Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament of Pearl Jam explained before Congress in 1994, musicians have little choice but to use Ticketmaster because it “has exclusive contracts with most major venues for concerts and with almost all significant promoters of concerts,” so that “if you play any of these venues or if you deal with these promoters, Ticketmaster will claim that its contracts give it the exclusive right to distribute tickets for your concert.” Since it was “locking up all of the suitable venues and promoters,” the company “thwarted competition and left most bands without any meaningful alternative for distributing tickets.” Pearl Jam wanted antitrust enforcement against Ticketmaster, but that effort, like their attempt to tour for their 1993 album Vs. outside the company’s control, failed.
Today Ticketmaster controls even more of the music and entertainment industries than it did then. In 2010, the company merged with Live Nation, which owns concert venues and manages leading artists. This combination of ticketing and promotion enables a very specific kind of market abuse: Live Nation can retaliate against venues that don’t use Ticketmaster. The company can, as analysts from the American Economic Liberties Project described it, condition “the availability of its performers to independent venues on those venues using Ticketmaster’s ticketing services.”
When the merger was being approved, the Department of Justice understood the potential for abuse, and it required Live Nation to enter into a 10-year consent decree not to pressure venues in this manner. But the company, as many predicted, often ignored its own promises, and the DOJ extended the decree by five and a half more years. As it found in 2019, “Live Nation repeatedly and over the course of several years engaged in conduct that, in the Department’s view, violated” the prohibition on “retaliating against concert venues for using another ticketing company.”
That brings us to today. We know that one symptom of excessive market power is technological and innovative backwardness. There’s no reason to improve one’s products when you have the market locked down. It’s telling that as technology has revolutionized everything and brought down costs for services over the past decades, this corner of our economy has remained stagnant and far too profitable for owners. As the American Economic Liberties Project pointed out, “Tickets are expensive, and the added service charges can double the final price. Direct ticket sales for popular concerts are often sold out within minutes, but then they are somehow available secondhand for over 50 percent more than the original price. Simply put, Ticketmaster provides bad service at outrageous prices.”
But because the company’s Kafkaesque registration process to purchase tickets for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Eras Tour largely ended up benefiting scalpers and bots trading on Ticketmaster’s own secondary platforms, Live Nation may finally have created a PR nightmare from which it won’t be able to save itself by bullying businesses. The New York Times recently reported that the DOJ was again investigating the company. It’s clear that Live Nation isn’t following the pledges it made. Rather than try to nudge the company to act correctly through incentives, it’s time to reverse the merger and break up the Live Nation–Ticketmaster behemoth.