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6 Ways to Fix the Broken Concert Ticketing System

By Marc Hogan
Buying a ticket to a show shouldn’t feel like getting ripped off in a cryptocurrency scam. While Ticketmaster has been taking flak from concertgoers and artists alike since the Clinton administration, tensions hit a new high heading into this year, with issues involving Bruce Springsteen, Taylor Swift, and Bad Bunny tours all directing fresh ire toward the world’s biggest concert-ticket seller. The Department of Justice has opened an antitrust investigation into Live Nation Entertainment—the world’s biggest concert promoter, artist management firm, and more—which merged with Ticketmaster in 2010. And a Senate panel recently held a hearing on Ticketmaster’s chaotic rollout for Swift’s upcoming Eras Tour.
A business sector that has been a magnet for criticism since the days of P.T. Barnum won’t change its ways overnight. The sources of the latest outcry, from $5,000 Springsteen seats to Swift breaking the internet, don’t lend themselves to one-size-fits-all solutions. There are multiple factors at play—namely, Ticketmaster’s vast market sway on one hand, and the out-of-control resale market on the other—and measures designed to address one side could also end up making the other one worse. Ultimately, the cold logic of supply and demand means that not everyone will be able to see their favorite live act; the interests of artists, ticketing platforms, concert promoters, venues, and would-be attendees aren’t perfectly aligned, to say the least. But here are several approaches—some so small that they’re already happening, some almost dauntingly huge—that ticketing companies, public policy makers, and the music community could follow to make buying concert tickets a slightly less infuriating experience.
It’s worth taking a moment to zoom out here. In the pre-internet 1980s and ’90s, concert tickets were mainly sold over the phone, at venue box offices, and at ticket outlets that were often found in department stores. The need to wait in line or frantically redial a phone number gave the most passionate ticket buyers a potential edge over speculators. But resellers, from casual hawkers to full-time professionals, still circumvented laws and limits. Then, in the 2000s, the shift online handed several advantages to the pros, who could now remain anonymous and physically distant while taking advantage of special presales. Brokers began using automated bots to snag thousands of tickets and resell them at an inflated price. New York and federal laws banning the use of bots to buy tickets for scalping were passed in 2016, but don’t seem to have done much to slow the practice.
In 2017, Ticketmaster introduced Verified Fan, a program billed as a tool for keeping tickets out of the hands of resellers by requiring ticket buyers to sign up in advance. But even that line of protection offers no guarantee that everyone could snag the most coveted tickets. When Ticketmaster opened up Verified Fan presales for Swift’s Eras Tour last November, tickets became available at the same time in each market for all of her then-52 U.S. tour dates, which helped Swift to set a record for the most concert tickets ever sold through Ticketmaster in a day. But many fans faced technical difficulties, long waits, and general futility. In a blog post that has since been deleted, Ticketmaster said that bot attacks and people without Verified Fan codes quadrupled the site’s previous peak traffic, leading to slower queues as engineers worked to keep the servers humming.
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By contrast, in February, Ticketmaster staggered the Verified Fan presales for Beyoncé’s Renaissance Tour. Despite ticket prices so lofty that some American concertgoers are flying to Sweden for a cheaper deal, Beyoncé’s tour rollout has begun with no major technical glitches. Spreading website traffic across several weeks rather than cramming it into one mad rush seems to have been good for Ticketmaster’s systems. Larry Miller, the director of the music business program at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, says, “For tours that are obviously going to face impossibly high demand across the board, the idea of not putting the entire tour on sale at the same time seems to be working.” Ticketmaster also did more to communicate with customers, and outlined new actions it was taking in the “arms race against abusive ticket scalping.” Maintaining all this could help music lovers snag the next hot ticket without seeing a dreaded 404 page—though they still might have to cross an ocean to afford the cost of admission.
Anyone who has bought a ticket to a major concert, theater, or sporting event will be familiar with a litany of service fees, convenience fees, processing fees, facilities fees, and other itemized charges tacked onto the face-value price, typically right before purchase. Cleaning up these fees won’t address the larger entrenched causes of the current debacle, but it could make the ticket-buying experience a tiny bit less awful. Plus it has support in high places.
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden urged Congress to crack down on fees for entertainment event purchases. According to a Government Accountability Office report cited by the White House, those various combined fees can add up to more than half of the face value of the ticket itself. Both Ticketmaster and the National Association of Ticket Brokers, which represents resellers, are on the record as supporting some form of increased fee transparency. Specifically, Biden asked for legislation to ban excessive fees, require fees to be disclosed in the ticket price, and reveal “holdbacks” that shrink the number of tickets for sale. (The latter provision’s potential effects have been the subject of some debate: In a 2020 letter to Democratic congressman Frank Pallone, Pearl Jam argued that a holdback provision in a piece of legislation known as the BOSS Act would benefit ticket scalpers more than it would ordinary showgoers.)
The Federal Trade Commission, too, has been exploring whether to require businesses to advertise a single price up front that encompasses all fees, an idea known as “all-in pricing.” The trade groups and artist advocates, in their written testimony to Congress, said that all-in pricing could ease one longstanding source of consumer frustration. Future of Music Coalition’s Erickson stresses, though, that the face value should still be listed alongside the all-in price, to offer a degree of transparency to fans about where the money is going. It’s a safe bet, he says, that fees aren’t contributing to a musician’s bottom line: “The face price is the only part that the artist has the ability to negotiate for any piece of.”
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Fees are a thorny issue that stretches back throughout Ticketmaster’s history as a business. Some industry watchers see it as the company’s role to play the bad guy, insulating artists, venues, and promoters from public outrage over their cut of the fees. (Live Nation’s chief financial officer, Joe Berchtold, in his own written testimony to Congress, deflected blame for high ticket costs. “Pricing and distribution strategies are determined by artists and teams,” he said. “In most cases venues set service and ticketing fees, and the majority of those fees go to the venue, not to Ticketmaster.”) Still, ending that last-second sense of sticker shock seems reasonably achievable.
With regulators, lawmakers, and Swifties breathing down its neck, Ticketmaster had plenty of incentive to avoid upsetting the Beyhive. But Ticketmaster’s dominance over the industry means it faces little pressure from market competition to make a better concert-going experience for fans, contends Carolyn Sloane, a labor economist who teaches a “Rockonomics” class at the University of California, Riverside. Sloane notes that the government could use its antitrust powers to intervene. “If you want it to change, you need a more competitive ticketing market,” she says.
Ticketmaster handles ticketing for 70 to 80 percent of major U.S. concert venues, depending on various estimates used by senators during the recent hearing. That puts it drastically ahead of AXS—owned by Live Nation’s closest competitor, Philip Anschutz’s AEG—or smaller rivals like SeatGeek, Eventbrite, and Tessera. (Live Nation has disputed claims about Ticketmaster’s monopoly power.) Live Nation’s biggest shareholder, John Malone, is also the largest stakeholder in Liberty Media, which owns satellite radio colossus Sirius XM and its streaming-music subsidiaries, Pandora and Stitcher. In 2021, Liberty sold its stake in broadcast radio goliath iHeartMedia, following outcry over what consumer advocates alleged was “insane corporate concentration.”
Critics of the $2.5 billion merger between Ticketmaster and Live Nation, like Senator Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have repeatedly argued that the combined entity’s dominance in live music hurts innovation. In written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee ahead of January’s hearing, a coalition of music industry trade groups and artist advocates including the Future of Music Coalition called for the breakup of Ticketmaster and Live Nation to reduce the competitive leverage that can lead to breakdowns like the Swift snafu. After news of the DOJ investigation, Live Nation put out a statement arguing that Ticketmaster’s dominance “is a testament to” its quality—a stance so at odds with most economists’ views on competition that it made one veteran antitrust champion laugh.
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It’s up to the DOJ to decide whether to prise apart Live Nation, observes Erickson. Congress could act as well, a route that Erickson believes would carry additional authority in whatever court battles are likely to follow. A bill that Senator Elizabeth Warren plans to reintroduce soon would streamline the unwinding of mergers. Some states are also considering legislation that would impose a strict new antitrust standard that could make it easier for legislators to intervene on potential monopolies at the state level.
“Ticketmaster-Live Nation is driving many of the most frustrating changes happening in live music,” Erickson asserts, citing the company’s alleged influence on fees, cuts taken out of artists’ merch sales, and unfavorable artist contracts. “Controlling that much of the industry is basically a license to be bullies.”
Reining in Ticketmaster’s consolidated market power would address one set of problems. But there’s also the issue of scalping, which reduces the pool of available tickets on the primary market and introduces markups that are sometimes sky-high. Fortunately, scalpers’ most egregious activities could be curbed without harming fans, artists, promoters, or venues.
Fielding Logan, head of touring at the country-centric artist management agency Q Prime South, wants to see an outright ban on scalping. “Make ticket scalping illegal, level the playing field, and get back to where it’s just normal fans competing for the same Taylor Swift tickets,” he says. In all likelihood though, as with other semi-licit industries throughout the ages, it’s difficult to imagine a prohibition having the intended effect even if it were politically feasible. Outlawing secondary sales would also make it difficult for legitimate buyers who are unable to attend the event to recoup the cost of their ticket.
Short of outlawing ticket resales altogether, Logan backs another proposal: Ensure that artists are allowed to make tickets non-transferable if that’s what they decide for their fans. It’s an idea that Ticketmaster has also supported in a blog post, and Erickson says most of the artist community is on board too. To avoid resellers, Pearl Jam made tickets non-transferable for its 2022 tour (except in New York and Colorado, where transferability is currently required by law).
When buyers can’t attend a show for one reason or another, the best option is probably a “fan-to-fan marketplace” where tickets can be resold at face value, ideally without fees. AXS and Ticketmaster each currently offer their own versions of this concept, the latter of which Pearl Jam used. But the issue of ticket transferability is one where the interests of defeating scalpers and those of scaling back Ticketmaster’s market dominance may be at odds. As Krista Brown, a senior policy analyst at the American Economic Liberties Project who has written about Ticketmaster points out, restricting resales of tickets to a marketplace operated by the company itself would only increase its hold on the buying and selling of tickets in general. “Obviously that’s helpful to Ticketmaster because they already capture the largest market share of primary sales, and it’s useful for them to keep everyone in their ecosystem,” Brown says. “Once you allow transferability, it can allow other services in.”
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Erickson suggests two other options for reining in the resale market. The first is a ban on the sales of “speculative” tickets, listed for sale before the scalpers actually own them, a practice that critics argue can drive up resale prices and leave some buyers with different seats than the ones they thought they were paying for. The second is a cap on resale prices, which could be negotiated between the artist, the promoter, and the ticketing company. (Lawmakers likely wouldn’t enact a cap themselves, but they could draft language clarifying that a cap negotiated by the various stakeholders wouldn’t itself run afoul of monopoly rules.) Finally, Ticketmaster has advocated for stiffer penalties for violations of the BOTS Act, the 2016 law outlawing the use of software to buy up large quantities of tickets before ordinary consumers.
Some combination of these steps should help artists keep concert prices low without allowing brokers to take a huge cut—while still preserving resale options for individuals.
One cause of anguish for live-music lovers is what’s called dynamic pricing, in which Ticketmaster continuously tweaks its prices in response to real-time supply and demand. Dynamic pricing is why you see Springsteen tickets selling for $5,000 on the primary market. The solution again is probably to put the performer in charge. “Let artists opt out of dynamic pricing,” producer Jack Antonoff told assembled reporters, including Pitchfork, at the 2023 Grammy Awards. Artists who want to get paid full market value for their performances, figuring that resellers were going to extract that profit anyway, can still go with airline-style dynamic pricing. Those who want their tickets priced at a level that’s accessible to the low- and middle-income buyers who make up a popular audience can set their ticket prices the old-fashioned way.
When Kathryn Dickel, co-founder and CEO of Midwestix, is asked what might fix concert tickets, her answer is blunt: “Dismantling capitalism.” Midwestix, a ticketing platform based in Des Moines, Iowa, has been in business since the early 2000s, but Dickel isn’t kidding. She says she has turned down buyout offers from venture capital firms and also declined an opportunity to enter the lucrative resale market, in favor of focusing on the 50 or so fairs, festivals, venues, performing arts organizations, and other events the company services throughout the region. The driving force behind starting Midwestix, Dickel says, was to improve the culture of her town and slow the exodus of friends and musicians to larger metropolises. “Our tagline is mission over money,” she says. “I live in the same thousand-square-foot house I grew up in.”
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According to Dickel, concertgoers have more power than they might think to change the current state of live music. “The only people that are gonna change it are consumers,” Dickel says. “And the only way consumers are gonna change it—because we’re in a capitalist system—is they’re just not gonna go to the concerts anymore. They’re gonna say, ‘Nope, I’m not gonna pay $5,000 for any shows. I’m not gonna pay 45 percent in service fees that I didn’t know I was gonna pay before I got into the process.’” (That’s one issue on which Dickel and former Ticketmaster CEO Fred Rosen agree, albeit from different perspectives. Defending the company’s business model in light of the Senate hearing, he told an interviewer, “It’s called capitalism.”)
Perhaps revamping the entire U.S. economic system is outside the scope of the debate over how to fix concert tickets. But a recognition that staying small can be meaningful, and that music has a value beyond money is important. More than a year after being acquired by Epic Games, artist-oriented music marketplace Bandcamp has continued its popular practice of forgoing its revenue share on “Bandcamp Fridays,” passing on more than $91 million to labels and artists in the process. Bandcamp has long said that it is profitable. As Future of Music Coalition noted late last year, Bandcamp’s continued success offers a lesson: “Small companies with business models that aren’t focused on mass-audience approaches can still be profoundly impactful for a significant population of artists.” To save live music, fans may need to start and stay small, building sustainable communities with a purpose beyond ceaseless, mindless growth. Taylor Swift didn’t begin her career playing the Meadowlands. Many of the musicians you love won’t end up there, either.
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