By Chris Riemenschneider
Recalling the bygone days when her waitress money from Bakers Square was enough to afford tickets to see Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar co-helmed a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday morning exploring Ticketmaster's alleged monopoly on the concert industry.
The Democratic senator and her Republican partner in leading the hearing, Mike Lee (Utah), accused Ticketmaster of breaking a "consent decree" with the U.S. Department of Justice that the ticketing company agreed to following antitrust concerns from Congress when it merged with the largest concert promotions company, Live Nation, in 2010.
Since that merger with Ticketmaster, Live Nation has also taken ownership or control of more than 200 concert venues around the country and become managers to many of the top artists.
That multifaceted dominance was cited by many of the speakers at Tuesday's hearing as a monopoly — an unchecked industry dominance that led to the breakdown that left millions of Swift fans in virtual cues for hours and still without tickets when her concerts went on sale in November via Ticketmaster.
"To have a strong capitalist system you have to have competition," Klobuchar said in her introductory remarks at the start of the nearly three-hour hearing in Washington, D.C. "We need to make sure we have competition to bring prices down and bring innovation in and stop the fiascos."
"As an ode to Taylor Swift, I will say we know all too well," Klobuchar added.
The president of Live Nation spoke and answered questions in the first hearing of the new 118th Congress, as did antitrust experts and competing CEOs from the ticketing company SeatGeek and Midwest-based promotions company Jam Productions.
Ticketmaster is the world's largest ticket seller. The company is responsible for about 70% of tickets sold for major U.S. concert venues, with around 500 million tickets sold each year.
"Today's Ticketmaster is best-in-class in conducting large on-sales, marketing concerts, preventing frauds and getting tickets into the hands of real fans," Live Nation president and CFO Joe Berchtold said in his opening testimony.
His competitors, however, said Live Nation/Ticketmaster have unchecked control over the industry, forcing many artists and venue operators to work with the $17 billion corporation even when they want to avoid it.
Jerry Mickelson, president of Chicago-based Jam Productions — which co-manages St. Paul's Palace Theatre and is a frequent partner with Minneapolis' First Avenue on larger concerts at the Armory or in local arenas — said his promotions company is often forced to use Ticketmaster in those larger venues.
"Pepsi doesn't earn money from Coke, but our competitor Live Nation earns money from selling tickets to our concerts," Mickelson said.
Under questioning from Klobuchar, Mickelson brought up the Twin Cities concert scene: He cited the difference in the volume and level of concerts at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul vs. Target Center in Minneapolis — the former a Ticketmaster-affiliated venue, while the latter uses competitor AXS for ticket sales.
"Look at the number of shows that play Xcel and you'll see they far exceed the number of shows that play Target [Center]," Mickelson said.
Xcel Center currently has 12 concerts on its calendar for 2023, including Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson and Live Nation-managed Madonna; Target Center has only five concerts currently booked, the biggest of which is Zach Bryan — a young country singer who titled his recent live album "All My Friends Hate Ticketmaster" in protest of the company's control of the industry.
Reacting to the hearing, Xcel Energy Center's marketing and communications director Kelly McGrath cited other reasons besides its Ticketmaster affiliation for dominating the market in concerts: "We are known by performing artists, promoters, and fans for great acoustics, tremendous customer service and a fan friendly atmosphere."
Adding further ire among fans, Live Nation often employs "dynamic pricing" for tickets to its concerts, including Springsteen's Xcel Center date, arbitrarily driving up prices to $500 or more via Ticketmaster based on demand.
Tuesday's hearing marked another high-profile foray by Klobuchar into the concert industry, after she successfully co-helmed the so-called Save Our Stages grant program for independent music venues such as First Ave in 2021.
A singer who performed at First Ave last year, Clyde Lawrence of the namesake New York band Lawrence was the only musician who gave testimony in Tuesday's hearing. He broke down the scant amount of money artists earn in Live Nation-run venues compared to what the company takes in from fees, concessions and often even artists' own merchandise sales.
"We have practically no leverage," claimed Lawrence, who said his band typically makes only $6 off the $30 advertised ticket price in a Live Nation/Ticketmaster-controlled venue — and gets nothing from the $12 added to the price in Ticketmaster fees.
Responding to Lawrence's testimony — and to the Live Nation CFO's claims of operating on an "artist-first" model — Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) bluntly stated, "For your band to make $6 out of a $42 ticket price doesn't strike me as artist-first."
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) backhandedly congratulated Live Nation's CEO: "You have brought together Republicans and Democrats," he deadpanned, but then laid into Berchtold.
"Your testimony today only solidified that cooperation, because as I hear and read what you say it's basically, 'It's not us,'" Blumenthal said. "The fact of the matter is Live Nation and Ticketmaster is the 800-pound gorilla. You have clear dominance and monopolistic control."
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) cited the merged company's enormity.
"I am not against big, per se; I am against dumb," Kennedy said. "The way your company handled the ticket sales for Miss Swift was a debacle. And whoever in your company was in charge of that ought to be fired."
Berchtold cited "an ever-going arms race" with so-called "bots" — automated, tech-savvy ticket resellers that scoop up prime seats — as the main culprit for why fans were stuck in virtual cues for many hours the day Swift's upcoming tour went on sale via Ticketmaster.
Live Nation's CFO also repeatedly denied his companies operate as a monopoly. "The ticketing market has never been more competitive," he said.
Tuesday's hearing could lead to action from the Department of Justice or legislation from Congress to limit Ticketmaster's dominance in the industry and changes in its practices.
It's not likely the hearing will do any good for Twin Cities Swifties, though. Fans who were not among the lucky minority to land tickets to her two U.S. Bank Stadium concerts June 23 and 24 via Ticketmaster are now looking at paying more than $400 for the cheapest seats on resale sites such as StubHub and SeatGeek; plus fees.