Pearl Jam asked Bill Clinton to take on Ticketmaster 30 years ago

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Pearl Jam was at the White House, and President Bill Clinton wanted some advice from the musicians. But first, the band had a favor to ask.

It was April 9, 1994, and Pearl Jam was at the height of its fame after releasing “Vs.,” its second album. Days earlier, Nirvana frontman and fellow Seattle native Kurt Cobain had been found dead in his home from suicide, and Pearl Jam was still reeling. But when it came time to meet Clinton, the band members had a calculated request: They wanted him to join their war against Ticketmaster.

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Most presidents become accustomed to celebrity encounters and the favors that sometimes come with them. Kim Kardashian visited with Donald Trump to discuss prison reform. Elvis Presley offered Richard M. Nixon assistance on his anti-drug campaign.

And 30 years ago, Pearl Jam asked for help at the start of a fight that’s still rocking the entertainment world today.

On Thursday, the Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Live Nation, the parent company of Ticketmaster since 2010, in an attempt to break up the entertainment giant. The Justice Department alleges the company has used its monopoly power to suppress competition. The lawsuit seeks to change the company’s business practices and essentially undo the 2010 merger.

It’s not the first time the Justice Department has investigated Ticketmaster. Back in 1994, when Pearl Jam was in the Oval Office with Clinton, the government was investigating the company for antitrust issues.

At the time, Pearl Jam was feuding with Ticketmaster after it was discovered that the company had been tacking fees onto its ticket sales and had added a service charge, which the company refused to waive, to a pair of charity concerts in Chicago. Meanwhile, the Cold War had ended a few years earlier, and the U.S. military had abandoned multiple bases across the country that it no longer needed. The situation gave Pearl Jam an idea.

“We were there specifically to find out whether some of the U.S. military bases that had recently been shut down could be used as concert sites,” frontman Eddie Vedder wrote in “Pearl Jam Twenty,” the band’s 2010 book. “It would have been a way to avoid using Ticketmaster, and it would have been a boon to local economics.”

Ticketmaster had deals with most of the country’s large music venues that required tickets to be sold through the company, but the bases would have no such obligation. The band hoped to be able to tour without Ticketmaster overcharging its fans, while helping towns reeling from the loss of the bases.

The musicians had reason to think Clinton would be receptive. His 1992 campaign had centered on the economy and the idea that the country could begin to spend domestically instead of on increased defense. Clinton was also a musician, having famously played saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992.

For Clinton, working with Pearl Jam made political sense, too.

“It never hurts a president to be associated with a wicked cool band,” said Jeff Engel, director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. Clinton was the first baby boomer president, “which means he’s the first president to have grown up with the existence of rock-and-roll. A large part of his appeal was the generational transition.”

But Clinton didn’t approve the plan.

“This is something no one had really tried to do before,” said Steven Hyden, a music critic and author of “Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation.” He added, “In a way, I think it proved their point that this was a monopoly. Not even the most popular rock band in America at the time was able to work without this company. It really showed the amount of power and pull that Ticketmaster had at the time.”

Clinton had an agenda of his own at the meeting with Pearl Jam. He asked the band if the White House should put out a statement in response to Cobain’s death. But Vedder “was too shell-shocked to offer any help,” he wrote in “Pearl Jam Twenty.”

The band’s White House visit ultimately ended with a conversation about the University of Arkansas’s national basketball championship victory over Duke days earlier, which both Clinton - a big Razorbacks fan - and Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament had attended in Charlotte.

Pearl Jam returned to Washington two months later to testify before Congress about its battle with Ticketmaster. Ament and rhythm guitarist Stone Gossard testified that Ticketmaster used monopolistic practices to raise prices, prompting Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) to write a bill requiring ticket distributors to disclose the fees they add to ticket prices.

Ultimately, the Justice Department dropped its investigation of Ticketmaster, and Pearl Jam canceled its 1994 tour in protest of the company. Dingell’s bill failed, and the midterm elections that fall gave the Republicans control of both congressional chambers for the first time in 40 years. When Dingell reintroduced the bill in 1995, the band met unsuccessfully with powerful Republican senators in an attempt to sway the vote.

Pearl Jam continued to boycott Ticketmaster by refusing to play venues the company had contracts with, or by hosting charity events and benefits because Ticketmaster’s contracts generally had a clause allowing bands to sell their own tickets for such performances.

“It’s really unique for an artist who is at the peak of their commercial success to essentially take a hatchet to the music industry,” Hyden said. “Usually, a band in their position would be trying to tour arenas or stadiums and maximize their moment for as much money as possible. And they really did the opposite. They sacrificed a lot of money and in a way alienated their fans because they weren’t able to tour as much as they would have if they just played ball.”

Much has changed in the 30 years since Pearl Jam’s meeting with Clinton. Ticketmaster has been involved in multiple controversies, including when its website crashed during Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour presale in 2022, and it’s fair to wonder how Pearl Jam’s scheme to circumvent Ticketmaster would have gone over had it been pitched more recently.

Last month, Pearl Jam released its 12th album, “Dark Matter,” and the band’s war against ticket prices is still going strong. Recently speaking on “The Bill Simmons Podcast,” Vedder floated the idea of new legislation to protect customers.

“It’s battling out-of-control capitalism,” Ament said on the podcast. “It’s just like everybody’s trying to make money off something all the time. I think we do as good of a job as anybody in terms of like we have a really loyal fan club and people that run it that really care about it and try really hard to get tickets in the hands of our fans.”

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