In November, fans saved up hundreds of dollars and took days off work during pre-sales so they could wait in virtual queues to buy tickets to Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour. Some waited for hours on Ticketmaster’s website, only to see tickets they’d selected disappear from their carts or be booted out of line when the website glitched. Many of those lucky enough to secure tickets were hit with costly fees, and resellers began to list tickets online for more than $20,000. Fans hoping to snag tickets in the general sale were crushed when Ticketmaster canceled it.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate took up the Swifties’ case.
In a Judiciary Committee hearing on consolidation in the ticketing industry after the 2010 merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster, Senators questioned ticketing execs about whether Ticketmaster’s parent company, Live Nation Entertainment, has a monopoly in the industry. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Sen. Mike Lee, the chair and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights, took lead roles, with Lee joking, “To be honest, I had hoped as of a few months ago to get the gavel back, but, once again, she’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers. Nice of Taylor Swift to have written a song about this very situation.”
But the parties appeared united in their suspicion of Ticketmaster, indicating renewed bipartisan interest in antitrust actions.
“I want to congratulate and thank you for an absolutely stunning achievement: You have brought together Republicans and Democrats in an absolutely unified cause,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, told Live Nation Entertainment President and Chief Financial Officer Joe Berchtold.
Tuesday’s hearing isn’t the only probe targeting Live Nation Entertainment. Ticketmaster apologized on November 18 for the Taylor Swift incident, blaming unprecedented web traffic. But on the same day, the New York Times reported that the Justice Department had launched an antitrust investigation into Live Nation Entertainment. Elected officials across the country, from President Joe Biden to progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, a Republican, raised concerns about the company’s power. And it’s not just Taylor Swift fans who have been burned by the system: fans who bought valid tickets from Ticketmaster were turned away from a Bad Bunny concert in December, leading the president of Mexico to condemn the company.
At Tuesday’s hearing, Jack Groetzinger, the CEO of SeatGeek, a competitor of Ticketmaster that also sold some tickets to Swift’s tour, called to break up its rival. “There are three things that are clear to me and are clear to many others who work in our industry,” Groetzinger said. “Number one, a lack of robust competition in our industry meaningfully stunts innovation and consumers are who suffer. Number two, venues fear losing Live Nation concerts if they don’t use Ticketmaster. And number three, the only way to restore competition in this industry is to break up Ticketmaster and Live Nation.”
The hearing was the Senate’s first this year. Many Hill interns lined up outside the hearing room before it began, hoping not only to learn the ropes of their new roles, but also to learn about antitrust, an issue some told TIME that they became interested in after trying to buy tickets to see their favorite artists.
Attorney Jennifer Kinder booked a flight to D.C. so she could demonstrate outside the Capitol. Kinder, a longtime Swiftie, jumped through all the hoops of the botched presale trying to get tickets for herself and her preteen daughter. The chaos of the process led her to work on a lawsuit against Ticketmaster that she says more than 300 plaintiffs have now signed onto. “I’ve never done this before; I’m not an expert in antitrust,” she tells TIME. “It’s just getting to a point where being unregulated, they are a five-headed beast that no one can control.”
Kinder is among the Ticketmaster critics who believe that if the company is not held accountable soon, Americans will be priced out of attending their favorite artists’ shows. If the furious fanbase of one of the biggest pop stars in the world can’t move the needle, who can? “We have a shared community, easy ways for us to communicate via social media,” Kinder says. “Think of the indie artist, the up-and-coming artist that really has no opportunity to get their music out, and their voice out unless they participate in this corrupt system… We’re all impacted. Because if they get away with it here, they will go unregulated forever.”
Unfortunately for the Swifties, Taylor did not testify at Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, musician Clyde Lawrence spoke on behalf of artists. “Due to Live Nation’s control across the industry, we have practically no leverage in negotiating [with] them,” he said. “If they want to take 10% of the revenues and call it a ‘facility fee’, they can, and have… And if they want to charge us $250 for a stack of ten clean towels, they can, and have… In a world where the promoter and the venue are not affiliated with each other, we can trust that the promoter will look to get the best deal from the venue. However in this case the promoter and the venue are part of the same corporate entity.”
He also refuted Ticketmaster’s claims that artists set pricing strategies, saying, “To be clear, we have absolutely zero say or visibility into how much these fees will be. We find out the same way as everyone else, by logging onto Ticketmaster once the show already goes on sale. And in case you’re wondering, no, we, the artists, do not get a cent of that fee.”
Berchtold said that venues, about 5% of which his company owns, set service fees. Lawrence responded that the venues he’s spoken to deny that.
Berchtold repeatedly minimized his company’s influence on the industry, estimating that Live Nation Entertainment controls 50-60% of the market, a characterization other witnesses at the hearing disputed, with some accusing Ticketmaster of being a monopoly. A November statement from Live Nation Entertainment said, “Ticketmaster has a significant share of the primary ticketing services market because of the large gap that exists between the quality of the Ticketmaster system and the next best primary ticketing system.”
Skrmetti, the Tennessee official, is currently investigating the company and tells TIME that the evidence he’s found so far “is not consistent entirely with that statement.”
This isn’t the first time Ticketmaster’s conduct has been examined by Congress. In addition to a 2009 Senate hearing ahead of the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger, in 1994, a House subcommittee held a hearing on Ticketmaster after the band Pearl Jam filed a complaint with the Justice Department. Aerosmith manager Tim Collins also testified at the hearing. “Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s lead singer, said to me ‘Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but not everyone could get a seat on the train,’” Collins said during that hearing. “That’s the problem that Aerosmith and I have with Ticketmaster. Yes, they have an efficient and profitable system, but its monopolistic aspects are unfair and hurtful.”
Artists and fans are still singing the same tune, though lawmakers differ on whether or not the country needs new laws to crack down on companies like Live Nation Entertainment. Blumenthal has proposed the BOSS Act, which would require more transparency around ticket sales and resales.
Federal authorities could take direct action by dismantling Live Nation Entertainment, but that hasn’t happened to a major company since the 1980s, when the federal government splintered AT&T.
“I think they need to tear it up,” Kinder says. “I think they need to bust the whole thing up and make it start all over again.”
-With reporting by Eric Cortellessa/Washington
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