Will the Taylor Swift-Ticketmaster Senate Hearing Actually Change Anything?

Taylor Swift, Ticketmaster
Gilbert Flores for Variety

Beyond the compilation videos of senators quoting Taylor Swift lyrics, what will be the legacy of January’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on anticompetitive practices in the live entertainment industry?

Congress has held a few such hearings over the decades, with Pearl Jam famously making an appearance in 1994 and concert industry execs testifying against the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger in 2009. With the arrival of the latest installment, titled “That’s the Ticket: Promoting Competition and Protecting Consumers in Live Entertainment,” which comes on the heels of the Taylor Swift ticketing debacle, some observers may feel that little has changed — in fact, promoter Jerry Mickelson was back before the committee on Jan. 24, echoing remarks he delivered nearly 14 years ago in opposition to the merger. So questions remain regarding what happens — or doesn’t happen — next.

As to whether a major artist can realistically mount a tour without using Ticketmaster, the short answer is yes — with one important caveat.

In 1995 Pearl Jam attempted to do so following the band’s dust-up with the ticketing company. Ultimately the group faced challenges at many of the venues that did not have exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster. As a result, multiple dates on the group’s “Sponsored by No One Tour” were either canceled or switched locations. By the time Pearl Jam resumed national touring in 1998, the band was again working with Ticketmaster.

However, a new major player has emerged since: AEG Presents, the country’s second-largest live-entertainment company (after Live Nation). Representatives of AEG did not testify last week, but the privately held, Philip Anschutz-owned company, founded in 2002, has its own in-house ticketing service, AXS.

Zach Bryan, one of today’s hottest country stars — who released his “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster” live album in December — is bypassing the source of said homies’ ire on his next arena tour by selling tickets via AXS. The company is using preregistration and a lottery system, hoping to avoid the issues that plagued Swift’s onsale.

Still, it’s exceptionally difficult for superstar artists on the stadium level to avoid Ticketmaster venues. As Mickelson noted at the hearing, 93% of NFL teams and their facilities have exclusive ticketing agreements with the company. When touring on that scale, few alternatives exist, although Judiciary witness Jack Groetzinger’s SeatGeek has contracts with two North American stadiums. In his testimony, Groetzinger revealed why his company ended its relationship with Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — just a year into a seven-year contract that SeatGeek won away from Ticketmaster. Barclays wanted to keep SeatGeek for sporting events but use Ticketmaster for concerts; some Ticketmaster critics say that’s an example of the company leveraging its Live Nation ownership to threaten Barclays (directly or tacitly) with a re duction of Live Nation tours unless it re-upped with Ticketmaster. Still, no direct evidence of such tampering has been revealed. Also, part of Ticketmaster’s appeal to facilities — beyond the service fees it shares with them — is its ability to market shows, reaching concertgoers through its customer database and the scope of its regional onsales.

The antitrust issue currently turns on whether the DOJ will determine that Live Nation and Ticketmaster are an anticompetitive monopoly and unwind the merger. The Judiciary Committee seemed supportive of such an action, although the DOJ has looked at it twice — most recently in 2020, when it extended the consent decree that accompanied its approval of the merger until 2025. It is reportedly revisiting the matter, but it’s unclear whether a third goround will yield a different result.

As for whether new legislation will emerge from the hearing, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights and a leader of the hearing, tells Variety, “We’re working on bipartisan legislation on that with some basic disclosures and some common-sense rules.”

During the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., alluded to the Better Oversight of Secondary Sales and Accountability in Concert Ticketing Act (aka the BOSS Act), which he introduced in the Senate in 2019. The bill focuses on transparency in ticketing transactions. It mandates all-in pricing, requiring primary and secondary ticket sellers to disclose all fees before customers place a ticket in their carts. Primary ticket sellers also must reveal the total number of tickets for sale to the general public, after industry holdbacks. The legislation would further hit the secondary market by ending speculative sales where someone lists tickets they don’t own.

Musician Clyde Lawrence was the lone witness who expressed reservations regarding all-in pricing. The co-leader of the band Lawrence previously wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling attention to the “lopsided deal mechanics of live shows.” At the hearing, he said, “We have absolutely zero say or visibility in how much these [service] fees will be. We find out the same way as everyone else by logging on to Ticketmaster once the show already goes on sale.” So he hoped the ticket price also would be itemized to ensure that his fans would understand the full breakdown of the cost.

Another solution was proposed by Mickelson, who pointed out that venues in the U.K. do not have exclusive ticketing deals with vendors, leading to a more competitive market. In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that the service fees in the U.K. were 10%-15% of a ticket’s face value, compared with 27% in the U.S. However, there may not be an appetite in the current Congress for government intervention in the realm of contractual relations.

All told, concertgoers can maintain some measure of hope for a better ticket-buying experience but shouldn’t hold their collective breath: To quote Klobuchar quoting Taylor Swift: Given the events of the past few decades, frustration is something that ticket buyers know “all too well.”

From Variety US