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Senators slam Live Nation, Ticketmaster over dominance

by TopBusinessView

Amy Edwards demonstrates against the live entertainment ticket industry outside the U.S. Capitol January 24, 2023 in Washington, DC.

Drew Angerer | Getty Images

The Senate Judiciary Committee slammed concert giant Live Nation on Tuesday, calling on activists and artists to speak to competition in the ticketing industry following a botched sale of Taylor Swift tickets in November.

Led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who helms antitrust investigations for the committee, senators grilled Live Nation’s chief financial officer Joe Berchtold about the company’s dominance in the ticketing business. Industry witnesses described a monopoly-like control over venues, artists and consumers.

“Ticketmaster should look in the mirror and say: ‘I’m the problem, it’s me,'” Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said, playing off Swift song lyrics.

Blumenthal said Republicans and Democrats alike agreed that something needed to be done. But the sides appeared to diverge on a path forward, with several Democrats seemingly open to establishing new legislation to help address the issues, while antitrust subcommittee Ranking Member Mike Lee, R-Utah, blamed what he deemed lax enforcement of existing laws.

Live Nation owns Ticketmaster, the world’s largest ticket seller representing around 70% of all sold tickets in the U.S. It also owns concert venues and promotes tours, leading many opponents to call its business a monopoly in the industry.

Live Nation, which merged with Ticketmaster in 2010, has faced longstanding criticism about its size and power in the entertainment industry. Opponents intensified their complaints in November when tickets for Swift’s “Eras” tour went on presale, plagued by disruptions and slow queues.

Live Nation was supposed to open up sales for 1.5 million verified fans ahead of general public ticket sales. However, more than 14 million users flocked to the site, including bots, spurring massive delays and lockouts on the site. Ultimately, 2 million tickets were sold during the presale and the general public sale was canceled, company representatives said.

“For the leading ticket company not to be able to handle bots is, for me, an unbelievable statement,” said Jerry Mickelson, the chief executive of Jam Productions, during Tuesday’s hearing. “You can’t blame bots for what happened to Taylor Swift. There’s more to that story that you’re not hearing.”

Swift, who has worked to bring all marketing in house, publicly slammed the company at the time for mishandling the sales process, albeit without mentioning it by name.

The Justice Department has opened an antitrust investigation into Live Nation’s practices, however, the probe predates the Swift ticket sale fiasco.

Live Nation Entertainment President and Chief Financial Officer Joe Berchtold and SeatGeek Chief Executive Officer Jack Groetzinger listen as Jam Productions Chief Executive Officer and President Jerry Mickelson speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing titled “That’s the Ticket: Promoting Competition and Protecting Consumers in Live Entertainment” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., January 24, 2023. 

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

Berchtold testified Tuesday that the company owns around 5% of U.S. venues and said Ticketmaster has lost, not gained, market share since its merger with Live Nation.

Clyde Lawrence, a singer and songwriter for the band Lawrence, called out Live Nation’s control over different aspects business, saying that at the end of the day the company is “negotiating to pay itself.”

Lawrence told lawmakers that if his band plays a Live Nation venue, they are required to use the company as the promotor and must sell tickets through Ticketmaster. That often comes at a higher upfront cost and lower backend splits for the band than if they worked with a third party promoter, he said.

Lawrence also spoke to a lack of transparency in added ticket fees that he said on average, range between 40% and 50% of the base ticket price. Berchtold on Tuesday said venues set the fee percentage, but agreed his company could be more forthcoming about that information.

Berchtold also highlighted what he said is a growing problem of ticket scalping.

Tuesday’s hearing extends a bipartisan focus on antitrust action by senators in recent years.

At the end of last year, lawmakers managed to pass a bill that would raise merger filing fees on large transactions, boosting funds for federal enforcers who review those deals. Klobuchar, who sponsored the bill, referenced that bill in her remarks Tuesday as a way to help those agencies challenge potentially anticompetitive deals.

Still, Congress has failed so far to pass some of the more ambitious pieces of legislation that would create new guardrails on competitive practices, specifically in the tech space. Despite bipartisan support, it shows how difficult it can be update or add to existing antitrust laws, which many lawmakers feel are not sufficiently enforced by the courts as currently written.

The LiveNation-Ticketmaster merger was approved by the DOJ under the Obama administration, with certain stipulations that the newly-merged company agreed to uphold, under what’s known as a consent decree. It required LiveNation to comply with certain requirements, like not retaliating against concert venues that used a different ticketing company, for a set period of time.

In 2020, LiveNation and the Justice Department agreed to update the consent decree and extend it to 2025 because the DOJ said the company took actions that it viewed as violating its earlier agreement.

The current antitrust enforcement regime under the Biden administration has made clear it much prefers structural remedies, or breakups, to behavioral ones, like consent decrees.

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