The Ledger is a weekly newsletter about the economics of the music business sent to Billboard Pro subscribers. An abbreviated version of the newsletter is published online.
Is Ticketmaster a monopoly that treats customers unfairly? Problems with Taylor Swift’s record-breaking The Eras Tour onsale this week has created choruses of complaints around the ticketing giant that have now led to a reported Justice Department investigation.
On Thursday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar sent an open letter to Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino detailing her “concerns about the state of competition in the ticketing industry and its harmful impact on consumers.” The problem, wrote Klobuchar, is a lack of competition “that typically push[es] companies to innovate and improve their services. That can result in dramatic service failures, where consumers are the ones that pay the price.”
Breaking up Live Nation and Ticketmaster wouldn’t necessarily have prevented this problem. It’s likely that any ticketing platform would have struggled with such a high level of demand. StubHub crashed in 2018 after University of Georgia fans flooded the site to purchase tickets to see their team play in the NCAA football national championship game — and that was just one game.
Ticketmaster blamed the outage on a surge of unregistered fans and billions of bots. According to the company, over 3.5 million people pre-registered for Swift’s Verified Fan credentials, the largest registration in its history. Typically, only a fraction of registered fans show up to buy a ticket. This time, “a staggering number of bot attacks as well as fans who didn’t have invite codes” resulted in 3.5 billion total system requests — four times the previous record number.
One could argue Ticketmaster could have been better prepared for such a high level of demand. Perhaps the company should Swift-proof the platform in anticipation of a flood of speculators and unregistered fans — Swift said Friday (Nov. 18) that her team “asked them, multiple times, if they could handle this kind of demand and we were assured they could.” Overall, problems on the platform are relatively rare given Ticketmaster’s volume of business, but we talk about them because they happen with high-profile concerts that attract large numbers of customers. Those attract the most attention and complaints online, which in turn attracts politicians. Ticketmaster is one of the few non-partisan issues in America in 2022.
Some observers have conflated the issues surrounding Ticketmaster’s market power, though. Rep. David Cicilline, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee, wrote about the Swift on-sale that “excessive wait times and fees are completely unacceptable … and are a symptom of a larger problem.” It’s fair for Cicilline to suggest that Ticketmaster does not invest enough in its platform to avoid the technical issues and wait times Swift fans recently experienced. That’s debatable, but it’s a defensible argument.
Fees are, however, an entirely different issue. Ticketmaster is a pioneer in the area of ticket fees but does not have a monopoly on the ability to charge them. More competition in ticketing would not prevent venues and promoters from adding to the face value of tickets. The ticket purchase is an opportunity for all parties involved to capitalize on fans’ demand for live music. As Bruce Springsteen’s controversial leap into dynamic pricing showed, leaving money on the table is an increasingly uncommon strategy in the modern music business.
Ticket prices occasionally get dragged into the argument, too. Politicians and consumers seem to want a form of price competition that doesn’t exist. Prices for an in-demand concert ticket won’t necessarily become more affordable if they’re sold at, say, StubHub rather than Ticketmaster. The laws of supply and demand say that prices for in-demand, scarce objects like a Swift concert ticket are going to be high no matter who’s selling them.
So, what tangible results might come from the calamitous The Eras Tour on-sale? Sen. Klobuchar’s letter points to customers’ desire for fair access to concert tickets. She asked Rapino, “Generally, what percentage of high-profile tour tickets are made available to the general public compared to those allocated to pre-sales, radio stations, VIPs, and other restricted opportunities?”
Klobuchar wants to know what percentage of tickets the average person has a realistic shot at getting without being the customer of a particular credit card, without buying high-priced VIP packages, without winning a radio station contest or without being a member of an artist’s fan club. In this case, Capital One is a sponsor of the Eras tour and offered a pre-sale to its customers.
But how do lawmakers regulate access? Do they establish rules that dictate what kind of marketing partnerships artists can and cannot establish? Would they tell American Express to stop giving such long-standing perks as pre-sale access and dedicated tickets to its credit card holders? If Congress really wanted to create a more level playing field for fans, they could do what the lawmakers in Victoria, Australia, did in 2021: pass a law that limits the resale value of a ticket to 110% of its face value. That could lower the number of resellers and bots clogging up Ticketmaster’s system for high-traffic on-sales like the Eras Tour. At the very least, price limits would bring a much-desired sense of fairness to the secondary market. Whether the U.S. Congress has the stomach to establish price controls on private companies remains to be seen.
A more likely outcome of the Eras Tour debacle is increased transparency. New York State legislators passed a law in June that improves transparency by requiring all-in pricing and prohibits revealing the ticket’s total cost — face value plus fees — after multiple clicks in a check-out process. The bill could have gone further: a requirement to disclose the percentage of tickets made available to pre-sales and VIPs was in an early form of the bill but not the final version.
But, again, are lawmakers willing to mandate such disclosures from private businesses? This would more likely be a voluntary disclosure done at the behest of the artist – Swift is exactly the kind of powerful artist who could persuade ticket sellers to reveal this information. Transparency wouldn’t immediately translate into greater access for the average fan, but it could fuel a larger conversation about how fans get access to concert tickets. That wouldn’t ease the pain of many Swift fans, but it would be a step forward.
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