How a Taylor Swift tour thrust antitrust concerns into the spotlight
(The Hill) – Taylor Swift fans have bad blood with Ticketmaster after the platform canceled the general sale for the pop star’s upcoming tour following a chaotic presale this week, bringing new light to an issue that supporters of antitrust reform already knew all too well.
Critics have been warning against the company’s dominance since merging with Live Nation in 2010, and the latest fiasco with Swift’s upcoming tour, which sparked outrage among her massive fan base, gave ammunition to lawmakers trying to revamp antitrust laws to pile on the pressure.
The building momentum from Swift’s fans comes as the Biden administration has pledged to take a tough stance on competition. The New York Times reported Friday that Ticketmaster is facing a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation over whether it has abused its market power.
The probe reportedly predates the sale of tickets to Swift’s tour, but the high-profile nature of the incident thrust the issue into the spotlight.
“The enormous interest in this performer and in this episode, concerning the availability of tickets to see her perform, is a big example of what we see so often in American public life — that policy change, action, often is catalyzed by a single event,” said William Kovacic, a former Federal Trade Commission (FTC) chairman and a George Washington University law professor.
“There are all sorts of issues and matters that don’t immediately filter down to the country on a broad scale, but this does. And suddenly you have an uproar and legislators listen to that. Government agency officials listen to that,” he added.
In addition to the reported DOJ probe and pressure from Congress, Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti (R), said Wednesday that he would launch an investigation into Ticketmaster after complaints that the ticket sale process for Swift’s tour “did not go smoothly.”
Ticketmaster said issues arose due to unprecedented demand for tickets for Swift’s tour, her first in five years, which follows the release of four new studio albums and two re-recordings of her earlier works.
More than 2 million tickets were sold for the tour in the first presale day on Tuesday, breaking Ticketmaster’s record for the most sold in one day, Variety reported, citing a company announcement.
On that day, the website crashed. Ticketmaster said it had sent codes to 1.5 million fans to participate in the presale, directing 2 million others to a waitlist. The company said it decided on the amount of people in each group based on its historic data on fans participating and buying tickets.
Despite the company using a system aimed at organizing the amount of customers buying tickets in the presale, fans lamented online Tuesday that the website kept crashing, and wait times for their turn to buy tickets were hours long.
On Thursday, Ticketmaster said it would cancel the general sale slated for Friday “due to extraordinarily high demands on ticketing systems and insufficient remaining ticket inventory to meet that demand.”
Although Ticketmaster said the issues were due to the high demand, advocates for antitrust reform say that the company is the problem.
“Because they have very little competition, [Ticketmaster] doesn’t feel pressured to invest in their product at all,” said Krista Brown, a senior policy analyst at the anti-monopoly nonprofit American Economic Liberties Project.
That purported lack of competition leads to website crashes and higher prices and fees for customers, Brown said.
“They really are not afraid of losing the fan base, because the fan base doesn’t have somewhere else to turn,” Brown added.
Swift joined the chorus of pushback herself, posting an Instagram story Friday saying it’s difficult for her to “trust an outside entity” with her relationships with fans and “excruciating” to “just watch mistakes happen with no recourse.”
“I’m not going to make excuses for anyone because we asked them, multiple times, if they could handle this kind of demand and we were assured they could,” Swift said, adding that it “pisses [her] off” that even the 2.4 million people who got tickets “feel like they went through several bear attacks to get them.”
A spokesperson for Ticketmaster did not respond to a request for comment.
This is not the first time users have reported issues with Ticketmaster. Brown said “most people have a Ticketmaster horror story,” either over technical issues of tickets “disappearing” when in the checkout cart, or prices jumping due to “dynamic pricing” or “unapparent fees” attached to tickets at the end of the purchasing process.
In 2019, the DOJ found that Ticketmaster had violated provisions in the consent decree crafted at the time of the approved merger. The department entered into a new agreement with the company, extending the decree to 2025 and adjusting some of the agreement’s language.
The DOJ is now probing whether the company is complying with the new agreement as part of its inquiry, the Times reported.
“It’s unquestionable that the Ticketmaster-LiveNation merger created a monopoly, and I applaud the [Jonathan] Kanter-led Antitrust Division at the Department of Justice for their investigation,” Sacha Haworth, executive director of the Omidyar-funded Tech Oversight Project, said in a statement.
Lawmakers that have been critical of the consolidation of power among a few companies used the chaotic sale for Swift’s tour to elevate their concerns.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted a “daily reminder” on Tuesday that “Ticketmaster is a monopoly, it’s [sic] merger with LiveNation should never have been approved, and they need to be reigned in.”
“Break them up,” she added.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), on Wednesday shared a statement on Twitter that he made back in 2009 while serving as Connecticut attorney general about investigating Ticketmaster. On Friday, he tweeted that “it’s time for DOJ to hold this bully accountable” and to either enforce the terms of the merger agreement to protect consumers or “break up this malign monopoly.”
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, sent a letter to Michael Rapino, the company’s president and CEO, on Wednesday pressing him over concerns of anticompetitive behavior.
Klobuchar has been pushing for antitrust reform, mainly for a vote on a duo of bills aimed at reining in the power of tech giants. The proposals have advanced out of the Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support, but they are not out of the woods yet, with no floor vote date confirmed.
More broadly, Klobuchar and other proponents of reforming antitrust laws argue that the DOJ and FTC do not have the resources they need to challenge behemoth companies amassing dominance in their sectors.
The swell of pushback from Swift’s fans, though, could help ramp up pressure, Brown said.
“It has kind of been an antitrust crash course for all the Taylor Swift Fans, which obviously there are many,” she said.
“Public pressure actually matters, and that’s something that often times gets overlooked.”
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