Could Taylor Swift be responsible for breaking up Live Nation and Ticketmaster?
For anyone watching the three-hour U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, aside from frequent quotes of her lyrics, the connection between the pop star and the politicians’ probe is probably starting to feel tangential. And despite Live Nation president and CFO Joe Berchtold’s efforts to shift blame for Swift’s disastrous (yet record-breaking) ticket sale from Ticketmaster to scalpers and bots, most everyone else involved was focused on the m-word — monopoly.
The senators’ line of thinking is that if the Live Nation-owned platform didn’t have such market dominance (around 80% of large venues in the U.S. have exclusive Ticketmaster deals), greater competition would force the company to innovate and improve its services — potentially avoiding the kinds of issues that spoiled the Swift sale last November. But while disruptions to Swift’s highly anticipated North American Eras tour caused such a commotion that Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) felt compelled to call this hearing, by Tuesday it seemed only Berchtold wanted to explore the immediate problems that brought down the sale.
Instead, the lawmakers see taking on Ticketmaster as a winning political issue and an opportunity to reach constituents who have long complained about the ticketing giant. During the hearing, for example, Klobuchar railed against high ticket prices, saying, “To have a strong capitalist system, you have to have competition.” But would competition in ticketing actually drive down ticket prices when it’s the artists who set the price, as Berchtold said, and not Ticketmaster?
For the senators, it hardly matters. Perception is reality and poor perception could lead to serious issues for Live Nation and Ticketmaster. Whether or not the companies’ dominance is a problem in the market, Ticketmaster is widely so despised that it has clearly become an easy target for rare bipartisan political action propelled by incredible public support.
About an hour into the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) laid out a potential path for Democrats in the Senate, potentially with support from Republicans, to force Live Nation into divesting its holdings in Ticketmaster.
Since merging in 2010, the combined companies have been operating under a consent decree, promising not to leverage Live Nation’s touring content in a way that would punish venues for not signing up for Ticketmaster’s services. A Department of Justice intervention, in which the assistant U.S. attorney for antitrust goes to a federal judge with evidence “of monopolistic and predatory abuses,” Blumenthal said, would be the most obvious path toward an intervention forcing Live Nation to divest Ticketmaster. There’s recent precedent for this, too. In 2019, the DOJ punished Live Nation for the six violations by extending the term of the decree five years and forcing the company to pay the reimbursement of millions in investigatory and litigation costs. The DOJ also appointed an independent monitor and required Live Nation to install an internal antitrust compliance officer. If the DOJ caught Live Nation violating the decree again, the government would have a strong case to take before the government showing that the consent decree wasn’t effective and that the merger would have to be unwound.
Hinting that DOJ anti-trust attorneys appointed by Biden are once conducting another review of the company’s compliance with the consent decree, Blumental warned that any violations found during the current review would be grounds for splitting the company in two.
“If the Department of Justice uncovers violations of the consent decree,” Blumental said, “unwinding the merger ought to be on the table.”
Other senators during the committee threatened to take legislative action if the DOJ didn’t do something about Live Nation and Ticketmaster’s combined strength. Government witness Kathleen Bradish, vp for legal advocacy at the American Antitrust Institute, however, testified that any legislative remedy — like legislation to enhance and clarify U.S. antitrust laws and a regulatory framework to clean up the mostly unregulated ticketing market — would have to be coupled with strong antitrust enforcement action through existing antitrust law in order to break up the company.
Even if there is the political will to unwind Live Nation and Ticketmaster, that outcome is likely still a long shot. Still, even if the companies survive the DOJ probe and can eventually end the consent decree, it’s difficult to see how they repair their image going forward. To most senators on the panel, the company is an illegal monopoly openly operating in defiance of the world’s most powerful legislative bodies. And to most aggrieved fans, it’s screwing up their ticket buying and gouging them to see their favorite acts.