AOC on Ticketmaster: ‘Fans Are Being Absolutely Fleeced’

aoc-ticketmaster.jpg - Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
aoc-ticketmaster.jpg - Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Live Nation and Ticketmaster are once again facing severe backlash from music fans, this time following the disastrous on-sale period for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Eras tour that left thousands of Swifties angry as Ticketmaster’s website glitched and crashed due to the overwhelming demand for tickets. 

Customers lamented the same issues they’ve had for years with Ticketmaster, drawing in attention from politicians who are looking for answers. Last week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) sent a letter to Live Nation entertainment CEO Michael Rapino voicing her antitrust concerns. Last Friday, news broke that the Department of Justice was investigating Live Nation, with the probe starting before Swift’s on-sale even started. Multiple live music sources tell Rolling Stone that federal investigators had contacted them in the past several weeks with general questions about antitrust concerns with Live Nation.

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New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was one of the first politicians to criticize the live music giant over the latest controversy last week, tweeting a “daily reminder that Ticketmaster is a monopoly, its merger with Live Nation should never have been approved, and they need to be reigned in,” and calling for the merger to be broken up. 

Several sources in the live music business who’ve spoken with Rolling Stone have questioned how much a monopolistic environment impacted Swift’s on-sale, noting that Swift’s show saw unprecedented demand and could’ve overwhelmed any other ticketer. (Live Nation Chairman Greg Maffei told CNBC last week that it was expecting 1.5 million fans to enter the site during the on-sale period, but 14 million, including bots, visited. He further claimed that it would take 900 stadiums for Swift meet the demand Ticketmaster saw. )

In an extensive statement over the weekend, Live Nation said the concert promotion and secondary markets are extremely competitive, and that its dominance in the primary market is “because of the large gap that exists between the quality of the Ticketmaster system and the next best primary ticketing system.” Live Nation also said it operates under a consent decree, adding there’s no evidence of “systeming violations” of that order. Further, it added that Ticketmaster doesn’t decide ticket prices for events.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ocasio-Cortez, a member of Congress’s Committee on Economic Disparity and Fairness in Growth, expands on her call to break up the companies and touching on the problems of the wider ticketing marketplace, citing many of the complaints fans and other industry insiders have leveled for years such as hikes in fees and an out-of-control resale market. 

I was watching what was going on with the pre-release of Taylor Swift’s tickets. It came up on a more personal level; I actually have quite a few staff who were trying to get tickets that day. Between seeing their experience and seeing all the people online talking about it, I think it really showed how widespread the problem is and reflects the degree of market consolidation in this industry.

It builds upon the work I’ve been focusing on with the Select Committee for Economic Inequality. I’ve been focusing on monopoly power across markets. One of the things we’ve been increasingly seeing is that these price increases because of inflation and abuse of market power are due to market consolidation. It’s gotten so bad that we’re really seeing it affect our everyday lives, from how much we’re paying at grocery stores, to not being able to see our favorite artists without paying an arm and a leg.

I remember the merger being an issue way back when it was approved in 2010. That [era] largely has to do with my own political formation. There were a lot of decisions made at that time that really drew the distinction between a more neoliberal order and this emerging social movement with Occupy and everything else that really put at odds this intra-democratic party difference toward economic policy. Between the prices and the fees, every single person who bought tickets for the last 10 years has seen how much worse this has been getting.

I’m supporting unwinding that merger. I don’t believe it should’ve been approved in the first place.

alexandria ocasio-cortez

I’m supporting unwinding that merger. I don’t believe it should’ve been approved in the first place. My hope is that the DOJ investigation is going to reveal how grave the abuse of market share and power is, and how it’s played a role in the prices that everyday consumers are seeing. The big thing is how do they justify service charges that make up anywhere between 20 to 100 percent of the ticket’s price? That is really difficult to defend.

We saw even prior to the merger, you have the history of objections toward Ticketmaster’s monopoly power, dating all the way back with Pearl Jam back in the mid-Nineties. We already had concerns about Ticketmaster and monopoly power prior to 2010. But now you’ve got the nation’s largest ticket vendor with the nation’s largest promoter. Our concerns here can affect everyone. It could affect the artists from being able to conduct the shows the way they want, from promotions to the way that tickets are sold and structured. And it affects fans because they are being absolutely fleeced. You’re paying way more than just the base ticket price of going to the show, but additionally, what we’re seeing on top of that is the absolute explosion in the resale market.

It’s getting to a point where if you want to see one of these large acts, there’s so little protection for everyday people that if you go into a secondary market, we are no longer in this realm of someone even charging double of what a ticket was. Tickets are going as high [tens of thousands of dollars] after what was supposed to be a presale operation designed for people who are actually going to be using the tickets that they purchase.

This does not by any means feel like a competitive market.

Alexandria ocasio-cortez

When Ticketmaster and Live Nation merged, they had a consent decree that they were supposed to be operating under. They almost immediately violated the consent decree so badly to the point that it was re-negotiated in 2019. The idea that we’re in accordance with the consent decree now,’ this is not the same consent decree as the original. I think there’s selective discussion there. This does not by any means feel like a competitive market.

These exclusive deals Ticketmaster has reveals the lack of actual competition and [getting rid of those deals] is something to explore. It would be a really big deal to have this merger unwound. From promotion to ticket sales to venue accommodations and merchandise, all of these things from start to finish are under one entity, and it makes it very difficult for either artists or even the market itself to introduce choice. One thing that I hope would happen is that each one of those entities could even pursue their own arrangement. But having it all under one roof hits the entire supply chain of live music.

Artists can certainly play a role here not just making decisions on their own or how they conduct their shows, but also impressing on major players in the industry to make it more equitable for artists and fans. I do believe that unwinding the merger can help artists exercise that power even more, because there also becomes a role here where artists make their own decisions. But when a company controls so many aspects of the industry, that can result in increased pressure on the artists.

While the demand outpaces supply, you have scalpers coming in on that first round, In a lot of instances, you have people who are in the first round of ticket-buying with the express purpose of resale, and so this secondary market is increasingly becoming a primary market because everyday people aren’t even getting the chance to do it in the first place. To Taylor Swift’s credit, there was an attempt at having Verified Fan presales to combat some of those problems, but clearly it didn’t work in all circumstances.

And so, whether it is the government that comes into play here, whether it is artists that come into play here, there are absolutely rules and mechanisms that can be proposed that people can consider. For example, having a cap on resale value to try and set a limit for how much a ticket can be inflated on the secondary market.

These are measures that could happen privately, or if there is enough pressure and support through public institutions as well. All in all, this is becoming a major issue, and it’s going to require stakeholders from all ends who are committed to changing this problem to really come together.

This is not our first monopoly that we’re trying to oppose this year. For instance, we’ve taken on the meat processing industry, soy etc. What makes Ticketmaster different is that in this industry, there isn’t really a top four. Anywhere between 55 and 85 percent of meat processing in the United States comes down to four companies. When you look at an industry like ticketing, you barely have four. Ticketmaster is far and away the behemoth in the industry. When the concentration is in such a way, that’s distinctive.

Other industries have oligopolies; Live Nation is a true monopoly. And it’s affecting our culture if regular people can’t even see a live show for a major act in person anymore,  and this just becomes a domain for the wealthy. I think that that’s also something to consider, because If you can’t even see your favorite artists without paying [the equivalent of] a down payment on a house or a car, it’s so antithetical to what music really is.

As told to Ethan Millman.

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