Pluralistic: Live Nation/Ticketmaster is buying Congress (30 Apr 2024)

Originally published at: Pluralistic: Live Nation/Ticketmaster is buying Congress (30 Apr 2024) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

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The Capitol building. Before it sits a vast pile of hundred dollar bills in rubber-banded packets. Behind it is a set of stadium concert lights. Overhead hangs a crooked, dirty sign bearing the Live Nation wordmark. The Capitol building is a-crawl with vivid green tentacles.

Live Nation/Ticketmaster is buying Congress (permalink)

Anything that can't go on forever eventually stops. Monopolies are intrinsically destabilizing and inevitably implode…eventually. Guessing which of the loathesome monopolies that make us all miserable will be the first domino is a hard call, but Ticketmaster is definitely high on my list.

It's not that event tickets are the most consequential aspect of our lives. The monopolies over pharma, fuel, finance, tech, and even beer are all more important to our day-to-day. But while Ticketmaster – and its many ramified tentacles, like Live Nation – may not be the most destructive monopoly in our world, but it pisses off people with giant megaphones and armies of rabid fans.

It's been a minute since Ticketmaster was last in the news, so let's recap. Ticketmaster bought out most of its ticketing rivals, then merged with Live Nation, the country's largest concert promoter, and bought out many of the country's largest music, stage and sports venues. They used this iron grip on the entire supply chain for performances and events to pile innumerable junk fees on every ticket sold, while drastically eroding the wages of the creative workers they nominally represented. They created a secret secondary market for tickets and worked with ticket-touts to help them run bots that bought every ticket within an instant of the opening of ticket sales, then ran an auction marketplace that made them gigantic fees on every re-sold tickets, – fees the performers were not entitled to share in.

The Ticketmaster/Live Nation/venue octopus is nearly impossible to escape. Independent venues can't book Live Nation acts unless they use Ticketmaster for their tickets. Acts can't get into the large venues owned by Ticketmaster unless they sign up to have Live Nation book their tour. And when Ticketmaster buys a venue, it creams off the most successful acts, starving competing venues of blockbuster shows. They also illegally colluded with their vendors to jack up the price of concerts across the board:

When Rebecca Giblin and I were writing Chokepoint Capitalism, our book about how tech and entertainment monopolies impoverish all kinds of creative workers, we were able to get insiders to go on record about every kind of monopoly, from the labels to Spotify, Kindle to the Big Five publishers and the Google-Meta ad-tech duopoly. The only exception was Ticketmaster/Live Nation: everyone involved in live performance – performers, bookers, club owners – was palpably terrified about speaking out on the record about the conglomerate:

No wonder. The company has a long and notorious history of using its market power to ruin anyone who challenges it. Remember Pearl Jam?

But anything that can't go on forever eventually stops. Not only is Ticketmaster a rapacious, vindictive monopolist – it's also an incompetent monopolist, whose IT systems are optimized for rent-extraction first, with ticket sales as a distant afterthought. This is bad no matter which artist it effects, but when Ticketmaster totally, utterly fucked up Taylor Swift's first post-lockdown tour, they incurred the wrath of the Swifties:

All of which explains why I've always given good odds that Ticketmaster would be first up against the wall come the antitrust revolution. It may not be the most destructive monopolist, but it is absurdly evil, and the people who hate it most are the most famous and beloved artists in the country.

For a while, it looked like I was right. Ticketmaster's colossal Taylor Swift fuckup prompted Senator Amy Klobuchar – a leading antitrust crusader – to hold hearings on the company's conduct, and led to the introduction of a raft of bills to rein in predatory ticketing practices. But as David Dayen writes for The American Prospect, Ticketmaster/Live Nation is spreading a fortune around on the Hill, hiring a deep bench of ex-Congressmen and ex-senior staffers (including Klobuchar's former chief of staff) and they've found a way to create the appearance of justice without having to suffer any consequences for their decades-long campaign of fraud and abuse:

Dayen opens his article with the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, which is always bracketed by a week's worth of lavish parties for Congress and hill staffers. One of the fanciest of these parties was thrown by Axios – and sponsored by Live Nation, with a performance by Jelly Roll (whose touring contract is owned by Live Nation). Attendees at the Axios/Live Nation event were bombarded with messages about the essential goodness of Live Nation (they were even printed on the cocktail napkins) and exhortations to support the Fans First Act, co-sponsored by Klobuchar and Sen John Cornyn (R-TX):

Ticketmaster/Live Nation loves the Fans First Act, because – unlike other bills – it focuses primarily on the secondary market for tickets, and its main measure is a requirement for ticketing companies to disclose their junk fees upfront. Neither of these represents a major challenge to Ticketmaster/Live Nation's control over the market, which gives it the ability to slash performers' wages while jacking up prices for fans.

Fans First represents the triumph of Ticketmaster/Live Nation's media strategy, which is to blame the entire problem on bottom-feeding ticket-touts (who are mostly scum!) instead of on the single monopoly that controls the entire industry and can't stop committing financial crimes.

Axios isn't Live Nation's only partner in selling this distraction tactic. Over the past five years, the company has flushed gigantic sums of money through Washington. Its lobbying spend rose from $240k in 2018 to $1.1m in 2022, and $2.38m in 2023:

The company has 37 paid lobbyists selling Congress on its behalf. 25 of them are former congressional staffers. Two are former Congressmen: Ed Whitfield (R-KY), a 21 year veteran of the House, and Mark Pryor (D-AR), a two-term senator:

But perhaps the most galling celebrant in this lavish hymn to Citizen United is Jonathan Becker, Amy Klobuchar's former chief of staff, who jumped ship to lobby Congress on behalf of monopolists like Live Nation, who paid him $120k last year to sell their story to the Hill:

Not everyone hates Fans First: it's been endorsed by the Nix the Tix coalition, largely on the strength of its regulation of secondary ticket sales. But the largest secondary seller in America by far is Live Nation itself, with a $4.5b market in reselling the tickets it sold in the first place. Fans First shifts focus from this sleazy self-dealing to competitors like Stubhub.

Fans First can be seen as an opening salvo in the long war against Ticketmaster/Live Nation. But compared to more muscular bills – like Klobuchar's stalled-out Unlock Ticketing Markets Act, it's pretty weaksauce. The Unlocking act will "prevent exclusive contracts between ticketing services and venues" – hitting Ticketmaster/Live Nation where it hurts, right in the bank-account:

It's not all gloom. Dayen reports that Ticketmaster's active lobbying in favor of Fans First has made many in Congress more skeptical of the bill, not less. And Congress isn't the only – or even the best – way to smash Ticketmaster's criminal empire. That's something the DoJ's antitrust division could power through with a lot less exposure to the legalized bribery that dominates Congress.

(Image: Matt Biddulph, CC BY-SA 2.0; Flying Logos, CC BY-SA 4.0; modified)

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