Taylor Swift Ticketmaster fiasco is part of a bigger problem in the music industry

taylor swift in purple bodysuit
Taylor Swift fans were overjoyed when the artist announced her first tour since 2018. But that feeling was quickly dampened by Ticketmaster’s technical issues and fees. David Herlihy from Northeastern’s music industry program says the ticketing giant has no incentive to improve because of its essential monopoly on the industry. Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP

If you tried in vain to snag a ticket for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour, you’re not alone. 

Tickets for Swift’s tour went up for presale on Nov. 15 and the frustration that fans felt as they waited in queues for hours only to get charged exorbitant service fees by ticketing platform Ticketmaster quickly spread across the internet. On Nov. 17, Ticketmaster announced it had canceled public ticket sales for the tour due to high demand and “insufficient remaining ticket inventory.”

This is the artist’s first tour since 2018 and comes hot on the heels of her album “Midnights,” which had the biggest debut of any album in seven years. There’s no way fans were going to miss out.

But Swifties weren’t the only ones who were taking to social media to raise concerns. Lawmakers were quick to sound alarm bells about Ticketmaster as a whole.

U.S. Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island took to Twitter to call Ticketmaster’s fees and wait times “unacceptable” and “a symptom of a larger problem.”

“It’s no secret that Live Nation-Ticketmaster is an unchecked monopoly,” Cicilline tweeted.

The public furor around Live Nation and Ticketmaster hasn’t abated since then. This week the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing to explore whether the merger between the the two industry giants has hurt ticket buyers.

It’s not the first time lawmakers and fans have pushed back against Ticketmaster. As the largest ticketing platform in the U.S., Ticketmaster held a virtual monopoly on ticketing, and that was before it merged with concert promoter Live Nation to form Live Nation Entertainment in 2010. The idea of a merger between the world’s largest ticket marketplace and the world’s largest concert promoter was greeted with plenty of skepticism at the time. There was fear that the merger would create a monopoly on concert ticketing and create fewer options for fans and artists.

headshot of David Herlihy
David Herlihy, coordinator of Northeastern University’s music industry program. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

That fear has become a reality. Ticketmaster has contracts with 80% of major music venues in the U.S., and ticket prices are higher than they’ve ever been. Although artists set the price of tickets, service fees for Ticketmaster purchases can add up to 75% of the ticket price––and sometimes can even amount to the price of the ticket itself. 

“It’s bad for competition, it’s bad for the market, it’s bad for innovation,” says David Herlihy, coordinator of Northeastern’s music industry program and former frontman for Boston alt-rock band O Positive. “The lack of competition is very harmful. And you have these exclusive arrangements where a venue has an exclusive deal with Ticketmaster. So, if anybody wants to come in, they have to go through Ticketmaster.”

How did we get here? 

Herlihy, says the current monopolization of ticketing and concert promotion has its roots in the Clinton-era, when the government started to relax its policies on media ownership. Prior to Ticketmaster and Live Nation, there were regional concert promoters, each with their own ticketing, who “agreed to stay out of each other’s realm.” 

“There was this history of regional promoters, regional markets, which really paid attention to the regional genres and music scenes,” Herlihy says.

Platforms like Live Nation and Ticketmaster leveraged the nascent internet to offer nationwide services. They have become nearly ubiquitous to the point where artists and venues have to play ball or not play at all.

Live Nation Entertainment has faced allegations from the U.S. Department of Justice of strong-arming venues into using Ticketmaster. Even before the merger, artists and venues didn’t always have a choice of whether or not to work with Live Nation and Ticketmaster, as Pearl Jam learned the hard way in 1994.

The grunge band went to war with Ticketmaster over the service fees it was charging their fans. The band went so far as to file a civil complaint with the Justice Department, alleging the company’s monopolistic and anti-consumer practices, leading to an investigation into the company’s practices that, ultimately, went nowhere.

When they hit the road in 1995, the band played only non-Ticketmaster venues, an unprecedented move for a band as famous and successful as Pearl Jam was at the time. Pearl Jam was able to keep its ticket prices and service fees low, but the tour itself was a logistical nightmare. Kelly Curtis, the band’s manager at the time, told the Washington Post that it was a challenge to find venues that had adequate acoustics and could stage a large-scale rock show safely that didn’t work with Ticketmaster.

Ticketmaster’s stranglehold on most large venues meant that Pearl Jam, one of the biggest bands in the world, had to play “at weird places like a ski resort in Lake Tahoe and a fairground in San Diego,” Curtis said. “As far as L.A. or New York is concerned, it was almost impossible to book a show.”

“They paid a big price,” Herlihy says. “They were going against ‘The Man,’ and when you do that, then you have to book your own shows and promote your own shows and provide your own ticketing solution. … If you’re not going to go with the paved superhighway, then you’ve got to make your own back roads, and it’s just, it’s very, very, very hard to do.”

The tour ended up costing the band $2 million, and its refusal to play Ticketmaster venues meant that, for the next three years, Pearl Jam toured very little to promote its albums and, when it did, it played almost exclusively international shows.

In 1998, Pearl Jam returned to Ticketmaster and has used the platform ever since.

Herlihy admits there’s very little fans or even artists can do to change the situation.

“I can’t sue Ticketmaster,” Herlihy says. [Pearl Jam lead singer] Eddie Vedder tried. Pearl Jam tried and they were righteous, but it did not prevail.”

The only solution, he says, is to “break it up, force them to separate and get rid of the exclusive venue contracts,” and that requires a push from the government, although Herlihy is not optimistic. 

The 2019 DOJ report found Live Nation Entertainment’s practices were a violation of a consent decree the Justice Department had issued as a condition of its 2010 merger. Instead of considering the merger’s impact on customers, the DOJ and Live Nation Entertainment amended and extended the decree another five years past its original 10-year expiration date, to 2025.

“It’s got to be the government,” Herlihy says. “They’ve got to come in and say, ‘We’re going to break this up,’ and that’s a lot of fighting uphill.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu