The problem with Ticketmaster, explained not by Taylor Swift

Protesters holding signs against Ticketmaster as well as a picture of Taylor Swift.
Protesters demonstrate against Live Nation Entertainment and Ticketmaster outside the US Capitol on January 24, 2023, in Washington, DC. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Let’s talk vertical mergers, corporate consolidation, and Taylor Swift.

Hello! I imagine if you are here to read about Ticketmaster it is, at least in part, because of Taylor Swift. If you somehow are not caught up, let me TL;DR you: Back in November, the rush to buy tickets for Swift’s upcoming tour following the release of her album Midnights caused Ticketmaster’s platform to have a bit of a meltdown. Fans trying to buy tickets faced nightmarishly long waits, and many people weren’t able to get their hands on them at all.

The incident sparked rage and confusion among Swifties across social media and a ton of media coverage, including at Vox. The Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled a hearing in late January in large part in reaction to Swiftgate to dig into competition — or, rather, lack thereof — in the ticketing industry. The Justice Department has reportedly opened an antitrust investigation into Live Nation Entertainment, the parent company born after Ticketmaster merged with the concert promotion company Live Nation in 2010.

It is neat that the Swift debacle has people paying attention to Ticketmaster and its parent company’s stronghold on the entertainment industry. But Taylor Swift isn’t why the DOJ is looking at Ticketmaster, and she’s not why you should be, either — at least not entirely.

“Live Nation-Ticketmaster is probably one of the best examples of a modern-day monopoly that blankets the live entertainment supply chain. The wingspan of the company is enormous. It extends from artist management through concert promotion through venue management down to primary ticketing and now, of course, secondary ticketing, all the way down to the consumer-facing fan markets,” said Diana Moss, president of the American Antitrust Institute. “We have a monopoly that covers an entire supply chain.”

The thing with a company being so big and having so much power is that it doesn’t have to try very hard to be good. It can set whatever rules it wants, and everyone — in this case, customers, artists, venues, etc. — has to go along because there isn’t really anywhere else that’s viable to go.

Ticketmaster has long been a superpower in ticketing, and one multiple parties have sounded the alarm about over the years — Pearl Jam tried to take on Ticketmaster in the 1990s, as did the String Cheese Incident in the early 2000s. The American Prospect has an excellent rundown of Ticketmaster’s complicated 40-year history here. Post-merger, concerns have gotten even greater that Live Nation Entertainment can’t be kept in check in terms of requiring artists to use its ticketing platform, charging fans high fees, and having an almost inevitable stronghold on the industry.

“Nobody likes Ticketmaster,” said Gary Witt, executive director of the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee, but the company is “fully willing to take on that dislike at the same time to be able to control and make that money.”

Hey, vertical mergers seem weird and kind of bad

The Live Nation-Ticketmaster tie-up that took place in 2010 is what is called a vertical merger, meaning a combination of companies operating at different levels of production. That’s in contrast to a horizontal merger, where two companies that do the same thing — say, T-Mobile and Sprint — combine. The argument the parties involved in vertical mergers often make is that they help create efficiencies. In the case of Live Nation-Ticketmaster, the argument goes something like it’s a good idea for venues, promoters, managers, and ticketers to share some infrastructure and control the whole chain top to bottom.

“Vertical mergers have always been given a lot of deference because they are alleged to produce lots of efficiencies,” Moss said. “All vertical mergers are sold on the basis of these benefits to consumers, which, by the way, rarely ever pan out.”

When the Justice Department gave the go-ahead for the merger, it said it had in place an agreement with the new Live Nation Entertainment that was supposed to stop the company from bullying behavior, such as retaliating against venues that went with other ticketing companies. That agreement worked, well, medium, as in 2019, the DOJ announced it was modifying and extending the agreement because the company was doing some of the things it said it wouldn’t.

“Live Nation-Ticketmaster has only acquired more market power in all of these market segments, has become more powerful, has absolutely engaged in conduct they’re not supposed to engage in that was prohibited by the consent order, and nothing is being done about it,” Moss said.

Ticketmaster controls more than 70 percent of the ticketing and live events market. Live Nation has much of the market for concert management, venues, and promotions covered. So if you want to get around using Ticketmaster, you’re in a pickle, whether you’re an artist, a venue, or just a person trying to see a show.

Many venues wind up almost obligated to sell on Ticketmaster because, if they don’t, Live Nation can use its promotional power to basically block the venue from getting shows. Artists find themselves in a similar predicament. “When you play a show at a venue that Live Nation either owns or is an exclusive promoter of, then the artist has no choice but to use Ticketmaster as the exclusive ticketing platform for the show,” said Clyde Lawrence, singer-songwriter of the band Lawrence, who has been outspoken about Live Nation’s control in the entertainment industry and testified in the Senate’s Ticketmaster hearing. ”Because of Live Nation’s breadth of involvement across the industry … it means that artists are very often having no choice but to use Ticketmaster.”

In January, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which in 2021 started using Ticketmaster competitor SeatGeek to sell tickets, switched back to Ticketmaster once again. Why the change had happened wasn’t entirely clear, but according to the New York Times, Barclays received fewer Live Nation tours after inking the SeatGeek deal. Live Nation told the Times it didn’t run afoul of any regulatory guidelines with the Barclays Center.

The power imbalance is such that many people in the industry are nervous to speak out. One person I spoke with for this story, who operates a ticketing platform, called me after we talked to ask me not to quote him if the story would paint Ticketmaster in a negative light. He was worried if his name appeared, it might harm his company’s relationship with Ticketmaster — a relationship the company needs to survive — or that Ticketmaster might retaliate.

“Some of us will speak out against this, others will stay silent because they don’t want the retribution that comes from doing it,” Witt, from the Pabst Theater Group in Milwaukee, said.

Ticketmaster isn’t better because it doesn’t have to be

To return for a minute to the Taylor Swift of it all, the problem for Swifties was how glitchy the sites were — that’s not entirely what’s on trial here, but it’s related.

One thing that is likely true is that the crush of so many people trying to buy so many tickets all at once likely would have wreaked havoc on any platform. It’s also true that because there isn’t a lot of tough competition for Ticketmaster, the company doesn’t have much incentive to do better.

“The volume of people on their platform during Taylor Swift was insane. I think very few platforms would be ready for that type of volume,” Brown said. “At the same time, given the amount of money they pull in and the commitments they make to artists and the fact that they’re paying their CEOs … millions of dollars, they do not invest enough to maintain the platform at an adequate level.”

Witt believes the ticketing market is ripe for disruption — but is held back by Ticketmaster’s dominance. “Ticketmaster has kept ticketing in the dark ages,” he said.

When you are a giant corporation with as tight a grip on an industry as Live Nation Entertainment, you can kind of do — and not do — whatever you want. There aren’t a bunch of competitors legitimately nipping at Ticketmaster’s heels, especially in the primary ticketing space, so it doesn’t really have to be a better platform to use.

“There’s no competition, and they know they don’t have to provide services that keep people happy on the artist side and venue side and customer side. They are not held accountable on a competitive landscape, and thus far, regulators have allowed for almost all abuses to go through with extremely minor ramifications,” said Krista Brown, a senior policy analyst at the American Economic Liberties Project, an anti-monopoly think tank that’s part of a coalition called Break Up Ticketmaster.

Buggy ticket sales and market dominance aren’t the only things Ticketmaster gives fans to complain about. The company often charges a litany of fees that don’t have a clear rhyme or reason (and generally don’t end up in the artist’s pocket). I recently went to buy tickets for a monster truck show in New Jersey (don’t worry about it) and was surprised to see the price of the two $20 tickets I was looking at had nearly doubled when I got to checkout, due to service fees, facility charges, and order processing fees. Those fees were also sort of hidden — I had to click a little drop-down arrow to see a breakdown beyond the total charge.

“There are some things that are great about Ticketmaster, but the fees are extremely, extremely high, which I’m sure every fan is aware of — higher than they are, in my experience, on other platforms, which I find interesting because, if anything, I would expect the biggest, most dominant company to undercut smaller companies,” Lawrence said. In Ticketmaster’s case, it apparently feels it doesn’t have to worry about undercutting competitors.

In prepared testimony for the January Senate hearing, Live Nation Entertainment president and CFO Joe Berchtold said that in most cases venues set service and ticketing fees. It is worth noting that many venues are owned by or have exclusive agreements with Ticketmaster, and this points to a broader lack of transparency around what exactly is going on behind the scenes. When Vox inquired about the fee issue via email, Ticketmaster said venues “select a ticketer and help set fees and generally keep the majority of those fees” and didn’t provide further detail beyond Berchtold’s testimony. The company did not respond to follow-up questions regarding what it means to “help” set the fees or how fees on secondary ticket sales work.

Ticketmaster sells secondary tickets on its platform, too, meaning tickets that have already been bought by someone else and are now being resold. From a user perspective, it’s disorienting to have it all in one place and makes it hard to figure out the face value of the ticket. Also complex: dynamic pricing that ups ticket costs based on demand. Sure, supply-demand dynamics are often how markets work. Still, it’s a little bit wild to see tickets soar to thousands of dollars, especially when scalpers and bots are likely in the mix.

Ticketmaster and Live Nation Entertainment insist they have competition that makes them try to try. In his testimony, Berchtold said Ticketmaster has lost ground due to the “enormous secondary ticketing market, in which Ticketmaster has a modest market share and many strong competitors.” He said Ticketmaster has more competition now in the primary market as well from outfits such as SeatGeek, AXS, and Eventbrite, among others. “The bottom line is that U.S. ticketing markets have never been more competitive than they are today,” Berchtold said.

Nobody I talked to for this story thought Ticketmaster faced meaningful competition in the primary ticketing market, and many expressed concerns about just how much (very lucrative) ground Ticketmaster was gaining in the secondary market, too.

“They’re gaining a lot of market share in the secondary,” Brown said. “In primary, they give a cut to artists, but in secondary, whatever profit margin they have, they just hawk it.”

And so we’re stuck in a constant loop of Ticketmaster horror stories that, again, have nothing to do with Taylor Swift, and we can’t escape. See, for example, what recently happened with pop star Bad Bunny in Mexico, when hundreds of fans with tickets were unable to get into his concert. It’s a lesson no one can learn from. All those people, next time they want to go to a show, will probably still have to go through Ticketmaster, and Bad Bunny tickets will remain there, too.

“A lack of robust competition in our industry meaningfully stunts innovation,” said Jack Groetzinger, CEO of SeatGeek, at the January Senate hearing.

Antitrust action may be on the horizon — and it still might not be enough

As mentioned, the DOJ is now investigating Live Nation Entertainment and its activities in the years following the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger. That could result in an antitrust lawsuit, the outcome of which would be in the hands of a judge.

“The greatest outcome would be absolutely a breakup of Live Nation and Ticketmaster, probably also Frontline Management, their artist management company,” Brown said.

A breakup wouldn’t fix everything. Ticketmaster’s stronghold over the ticketing industry long predates the Live Nation merger, and it would still have a lot of control in the primary and, increasingly, the secondary market. It also wouldn’t guarantee an end to any funny business between Ticketmaster and Live Nation. “Because they are the sole players in a space that have any substantial market share, they would still have no reason to not still collude and act like the same company,” Brown said.

Moss, from the American Antitrust Institute, said she thinks legislative action is necessary as well to really tackle all the problems in ticketing. She pointed to legislation in New York that seeks to require ticket sellers to be more upfront about fees. “We can cross our fingers and hope that the Biden DOJ is going to take a more aggressive approach here, but you also have to consider in parallel all of these state-level initiatives,” she said.

The Taylor Swift tour drama has added fuel to the fire, but it’s hardly the only factor in the mix, nor is Swift the only artist who has people paying attention to this. Country singer Zach Bryan has become increasingly vocal about Ticketmaster in reaction to complaints from fans about the availability and prices of tickets to his shows. In December, Bryan dropped a live album titled “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster” to drive home his disdain, not that he’s really worried about hiding it.

It’s not a bad thing that we’re talking more about Ticketmaster and paying attention to the costs of corporations with so much power. The hard thing is that there’s not a lot most people can do about it. When companies gain so much influence, you really can’t get around them — even when they’re a disaster, and apparently, even if you’re Taylor Swift.

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