The Taylor Swift ticket fiasco is refocusing a spotlight on Ticketmaster’s dominance
Ticket sales for Taylor Swift’s upcoming tour have not gone, in the words of the chart-topping singer, all too well.
Mixed messages, long wait times and temporary outages on the Ticketmaster website left scores of fans frustrated and empty-handed when the first wave of tickets for the 52-date Eras Tour, scheduled for next year and Swift’s first since 2018, went on sale on Tuesday.
Ticketmaster rescheduled additional rounds due to what it called “historically unprecedented demand,” saying “millions” had tried to buy pre-sale tickets and hundreds of thousands had done so successfully.
On Thursday afternoon, the day before tickets were due to open to the general public, it announced that the sale had been cancelled altogether due to “extraordinarily high demands on ticketing systems and insufficient remaining ticket inventory to meet that demand.”
The frenzy has brought renewed scrutiny to the giant Ticketmaster, which critics have long accused of abusing its market power at the expense of consumers. Would-be concertgoers have complained vocally about recent incidents with near-instant sellouts and skyrocketing prices, and artists like Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen have feuded with it over the decades.
One common complaint is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear alternative or competitor to Ticketmaster, especially after it merged with concert provider Live Nation in 2010 (a controversial move that required conditional approval from the U.S. Department of Justice).
Now Tennessee’s attorney general, a Republican, is opening a consumer protection investigation into the incident and Democratic lawmakers are asking questions about the company’s dominance — not for the first time.
Ticketmaster has not responded to NPR’s request for comment, but did publish a statement on Thursday called “The Taylor Swift On Sale Explained.”
“Taylor Swift’s tour sale is a perfect example of how the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger harms consumers by creating a near-monopoly,” tweeted Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), one of several lawmakers who has long called for investigation and accountability into the company, especially after becoming a subsidiary of concert behemoth Live Nation.
And he took some inspiration from the lyrics of Swift herself: “Consumers deserve better than this anti-hero behavior.”
Lawmakers have long been skeptical of Ticketmaster’s ‘reputation’
Various Democratic lawmakers have called for greater antitrust enforcement over the years, including urging the Justice Department to investigate the state of competition in the ticketing market as recently as April 2021 and March of this year.
Some also want to hear from Ticketmaster directly — including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust, and Consumer Rights.
Klobuchar announced on Thursday that she had sent a letter to Ticketmaster president and CEO Michael Rapino expressing concern about the lack of competition and asking about certain company practices.
“Ticketmaster’s power in the primary ticket market insulates it from the competitive pressures that typically push companies to innovate and improve their services,” she wrote. “That can result in the types of dramatic service failures we saw this week, where consumers are the ones that pay the price.”
Ticketmaster was only able to merge Live Nation under an antitrust consent decree, with certain conditions aimed at preventing it from abusing its market position. Citing numerous complaints, Klobuchar expressed concern about a “pattern of non-compliance” with those legal obligations.
She requested that Rapino respond in writing by Wednesday to a set of five questions, including: how much the company has invested in upgrading its systems to address demand surges, what percentage of high-profile tour tickets are typically available to the general public and whether it is aware of any complaints to government agencies about noncompliance in the past 12 months.
Klobuchar also notes that her concerns date back much further than that.
“I have been skeptical of the combination of these companies since you merged in 2011, when the Senate held a hearing into the merger,” she wrote. “At that hearing, you appeared as a witness and pledged to ‘develop an easy-access, one-stop platform that can deliver … tickets.’ And you said that you were ‘confident this plan will work.’ It appears that your confidence was misplaced.”
Critics don’t want Ticketmaster to just ‘shake it off’
Several Democrat lawmakers turned to Twitter to air their bad blood against the company, with many calling it a monopoly and calling for change.
“Daily reminder that Ticketmaster is a monopoly, its merger with Live Nation should never have been approved, and they need to be reigned in,” wrote Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). “Break them up.”
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the House Subcommittee of Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law, described Ticketmaster’s wait times and fees as “the symptom of a larger problem.”
“It’s no secret that Live Nation-Ticketmaster is an unchecked monopoly,” he added.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) wasted no time weighing in on the Swift fiasco.
“You’d think with their endless list of fees Ticketmaster could have a working website,” he tweeted on Thursday, reiterating comments he made on Tuesday. “Break up the Live Nation-Ticketmaster monopoly.”
Ticketmaster says the sale broke records — and its website
In its Thursday statement, Ticketmaster explained how it prepared for the pre-sale period, noting that 3.5 million people pre-registered for the Verified Fan program, the largest such number in its history and one that “informed the artist team’s decision to add additional dates” to the tour.
The company says that using Verified Fan invite codes has historically helped manage the volume of users visiting the website to buy tickets, though that wasn’t the case on Tuesday.
“The staggering number of bot attacks as well as fans who didn’t have invite codes drove unprecedented traffic on our site, resulting in 3.5 billion total system requests – 4x our previous peak,” it said, adding that it slowed down some sales and pushed back others to stabilize its systems, resulting in longer wait times for some users.
It estimates that about 15% of interactions across the website experienced issues, which it said is “15% too many.” But it also said a record-breaking number of fans were able to buy tickets: More than 2 million were sold on Tuesday for Swift’s tour, the most ever for an artist in a single day.
Ticketmaster acknowledged that in-demand sales pose technical challenges, and says that even if that were not the case, many fans would still be left without tickets.
“For example: based on the volume of traffic to our site, Taylor would need to perform over 900 stadium shows (almost 20x the number of shows she is doing),” it said. “That’s a stadium show every single night for the next 2.5 years.”
Ticketmaster’s largest shareholder also appeared to place the blame on Swift in an interview on Thursday.
Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media, which owns a majority stake of Live Nation, told CNBC’s Squawk on the Street that the company is sympathetic to fans but the demand was simply too great, which he suggested was due to the fact that Swift hasn’t toured in five years.
“It’s a function of Taylor Swift,” he said. “The site was supposed to open up for 1.5 million verified Taylor Swift fans. We had 14 million people hit the site, including bots, which are not supposed to be there.”
Fans did not take kindly to that explanation, if the outpouring of angry tweets has been any indication. Swift hasn’t commented publicly on the Ticketmaster fiasco, though a quick scan of her Instagram account shows that her bio still bears the lyrics from one of her latest hits: “I’m the problem, it’s me.”