Last week, as I watched all the fuss surrounding Taylor Swift’s first tour in five years, I grew more and more curious about what the pop star was thinking. Fans were up in arms after a breakdown in the ticketing process. Politicians were taking swings at Ticketmaster. Journalists quickly confirmed that the Department of Justice had previously opened an investigation into Ticketmaster’s parent company, Live Nation. But why was Taylor Swift herself so quiet? Swift, after all, is one of the few people with enough leverage to change how things are done in the music business. So on Friday morning, I shot off a message to Tree Paine, Swift’s publicist, who I’ve known for a long time. This is exactly what I wrote:
“I’m interested in this Ticketmaster mess, particularly with regards to how it has renewed calls to take a look at the market dominance of the company. I’ve been reviewing the old consent decree after the Live Nation merger, but I also got to thinking that if there’s any artist with enough clout to boost an alternative to Ticketmaster, it’s Taylor Swift. So I’m wondering if she takes any responsibility for what happened, regrets going with Ticketmaster here, and has any plans to reassess the relationship in the future. I looked around and couldn’t find any statement from your camp about this topic so figured I’d try you. Please let me know.”
I never heard back from Paine, but coincidence or not, Swift put out a statement 45 minutes later. The star avoided explaining what went wrong—why, for example, many fans were unable to achieve “verified fan” status for special ticket access, or what happened to those who thought they would be advanced to the front of the queue because they previously held tickets for her canceled Lover Fest tour or had gotten “boosts” by purchasing merchandise. In her statement, Swift instead deflected blame, albeit with the kind of deft touch that they could teach in crisis management school.
Eventually, Swift nodded to a hopeful future without addressing what, if anything, would be different the next time. Swift knows how to write a break-up song. This wasn’t one of them.
Who’s the Anti-Hero?
Our conception of the concert ticketing industry really hasn’t budged much since the mid-1990s when Pearl Jam took on Ticketmaster by lodging a complaint with the D.O.J., testifying before Congress, and attempting to rally concert venues across the nation to do something about this corporate goliath. Eddie Vedder was the face of the uprising back then, but ever since, it’s typically been the artist on the other side of what we collectively imagine might be the problem.
We don’t like to think of our favorite musicians as complicit in corporate greed, nor does there seem to be much of an appetite for a prolonged and nuanced discussion about the economics of the music business even as acts like Animal Collective and Santigold cite the financial math and cancel tours. Instead, it’s much easier to find a villain.
Live Nation, of course, has become that villain. Back in 2009, when the nation’s largest concert promotion outfit announced an acquisition of Ticketmaster, competition regulators in the Obama administration had to decide whether to stand up to this proposed merger. They did so, but softly. Although there was concern at the time that the deal might result in higher fees and less innovation, the Justice Department chose not to block it. Instead, they aimed to solve specific worries through a consent decree: Live Nation agreed that for a period of ten years it wouldn’t condition live events on the use of Ticketmaster’s services nor retaliate against venues that used one of Ticketmaster’s rivals.
Near the end of that decade-long term, the Justice Department conducted a review and concluded that Live Nation had violated both the anti-retaliation and anti-conditioning provisions by effectively requiring venues to contract with Ticketmaster to obtain its live events. At the time, Live Nation C.E.O. Michael Rapino believed there was this “misconception” that the company couldn’t strong-arm venues, but it turns out the misconception was his. As a result, the consent decree was extended an additional five years with added language clarifying what the company was prohibited from doing. Additionally, in February 2020, the D.O.J. got Kirkland & Ellis partner Mark Ellis appointed as a monitoring trustee.
Apparently, the D.O.J. is again “investigating,” which shouldn’t be much of a surprise given how the consent decree basically acts as an open invitation to ongoing close scrutiny. Also, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Richard Blumenthal hardly need prodding by Swift fans to call for an antitrust review of Ticketmaster. They do that every few months. That’s no accident. In antitrust circles, the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger has become a symbol of why it may be better to block mergers instead of pursuing irksome, if largely toothless, oversight via settlements. That said, while Ticketmaster has amassed tremendous power, technological snafus and terrible product rollouts happen to even the best of companies, and it’s hard to identify anything that happened in the past week that’s a violation of competition law or the dictates of the consent decree. This seems like a convenient opportunity to hit the usual punching bag once more.
The Taylor Swift “Eras Tour” imbroglio doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know about Ticketmaster, but it probably is cause to revisit that old notion of the artist who stands up to a corporate villain in the interest of fans. After all, Ticketmaster really functions as an agent for the artist. To the extent that everyone has problems with Ticketmaster, I think it’s fair to assess whether the artist should shoulder some responsibility.
These days, musicians aren’t rebelling against high fees or even a lack of innovation in the ticketing industry. Instead, the marketplace scourge they speak up about are ticket scalpers. And even doing that isn’t quite about protecting the pocketbooks of fans as much as fussing over who’s getting the surplus value of those high-priced second-hand tickets. In recent years, many stars including Swift, Drake, and Harry Styles have worked with Ticketmaster and embraced what’s known as “dynamic pricing,” where the price of a ticket fluctuates based on demand the same way an Uber ride does. While there’s nothing wrong with that per se, and arguably it’s a good thing to better reward performers, the use of dynamic pricing does impact the availability of cheap tickets and injects some instability in the system. Many artists also seem to be fine with how Ticketmaster has extended itself into secondary ticketing services for major concert venues. In short, artists own this situation.
As I wrote to Paine, artists like Swift could theoretically promote an alternative to Ticketmaster if they so wished. But then again, that might ruin one of the most valuable services that the company provides to them: taking the fire when something goes wrong.
Same Ol’ Song
Since Swift’s statement, I’ve been closely watching the reactions by her fans because I don’t know of another star alive who can move this industry quite like she can. And if anyone is going to move Swift herself, it’s her supporters. I’ve seen a few comments like one from “Holly,” stating, “Raise your hand if Taylor’s statement confused you even more.” Notably, that tweet earned thousands of likes, which does go to show that at least a portion of her fans may be ready to face the uncomfortable truth that this situation isn’t so black and white.
However, I also see others speaking out against anyone who would dare “blame Taylor,” and an overwhelming majority expressing a sentiment like this one from “Allie,” stating, “[A]nyway, i hope taylor swift sleeps well tonight knowing the united states department of justice is literally on its way to take down ticketmaster for all of this and that karma is in fact the breeze in her hair on the weekend.”
We’ll see, but for the moment, I’m not sure that’s really what Swift wants, even if there are Swifties in the legal community ready to help out. Overall, I haven’t heard a single note this past week that sounds any bit different than the tune I’ve heard plenty of times before.