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Live Nation and Ticketmaster face an impending federal antitrust lawsuit. Will the government finally break up the monopoly?

The 2010 merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster is “essentially unfixable,” says a Northeastern antitrust expert. But could the Justice Department take the incredible step of breaking up the two companies?

A crowd of screaming fans at a large concert venue.
The 2010 merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster left fans and artists frustrated with ticket sales, promotion and venue operations in the live music industry. AP Photo/Marco Ugarte

The U.S. Department of Justice is expected to file an antitrust lawsuit against Live Nation, Ticketmaster’s parent company, in what could be a major blow to the biggest player in live music.

Whether it’s being brought because of the fallout from the Taylor Swift ticket fiasco or it’s the latest move in a more aggressive antitrust strategy, an antitrust case against Live Nation could be an opportunity to address a monopoly that’s harmed artists and consumers for 15 years, says John Kwoka, Neal F. Finnegan distinguished professor of economics at Northeastern University. 

It’s also an opportunity for the Justice Department to fix its own past mistakes, Kwoka says.

“The Justice Department, many of us thought, made a mistake by not preventing the merger [between Live Nation and Ticketmaster] in the first place, and in some ways what we’ve seen for 15 years is the logical consequence of not preventing the merger,” Kwoka says. “We’re now faced with a need to deal with the problems of past policy mistakes. It’s good for them to be willing to do that in the face of continuing complaints, but it is going to be a hard question, harder than to have stopped the merger in the first place.”

This is far from the first time the Justice Department has tried to reign in Live Nation in the wake of the merger.

In 2019, the Justice Department revised its consent decree against Live Nation to prevent the company from retaliating against venues that use competing ticketing services. But there are ongoing lawsuits alleging that Live Nation Entertainment coerces venues into not only using Ticketmaster but boycotting competing ticketing platforms.

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal, a spokesperson for Ticketmaster said the company has “more competition today than it has ever had, and the deal terms with venues show it has nothing close to monopoly power.”

Headshots of John Kwoka (left) and Andrew Mall (right).
John Kwoka, Neal F. Finnegan distinguished professor of economics at Northeastern University and Northeastern music professor Andrew Mall say that the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger has been damaging for both artists and fans. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University and Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Even before the merger, ever since the days of Pearl Jam’s failed crusade against Ticketmaster in the 1990s, artists and consumers have critiqued the company’s practices.

Fans have long criticized Ticketmaster for its hidden fees and dynamic pricing that create sky-high ticket prices. Meanwhile, artists have voiced concerns about how Live Nation’s near-universal control of larger venues makes it difficult to set ticket prices, find the flexibility to play different venues and earn money on merchandise.

Ticketmaster has more than 80% of the market for primary ticket sales in the largest venues and has exclusive ticketing contracts with many of those arenas and stadiums where high-profile acts perform, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“The merger in 2010 and the consent agreement that dates from that time, they just don’t seem to be addressing the major concern at the time, which was, are these two businesses, which operate in related but technically separate sectors, going to leverage their market capitalization in order to get business advantages in each sector?” says Andrew Mall, an associate professor of music at Northeastern. “The answer appears to be yes, and the answer also appears to be that it’s not great for consumers.”

If the Justice Department had not been able to curtail Live Nation and Ticketmaster in the past, what’s different this time around? 

Kwoka, who was involved in a 2009 DOJ lawsuit against Live Nation, says the agency really only has two options at this point: another rewrite of the consent decree or something more dramatic.

“If nothing else will do, you’re faced either with allowing a company to continue to misbehave or breaking them up,” Kwoka says. 

Although it can be challenging to break up a corporation, the Justice Department’s 1982 breakup of AT&T’s nationwide Bell system into seven regional phone companies set a precedent. Plus, Kowka says Live Nation’s vertical structure could make it less of a headache for regulators. Live Nation and Ticketmaster are integrated in some ways but remain discrete operations that would make it easier to disentangle.

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However, even if the Justice Department took that extraordinary step, Mall is not convinced that breaking up Live Nation and Ticketmaster would make much of a difference for the music industry, at least not in the short term.

“We end up with two big companies, each of which essentially have a monopoly in their respective industry,” Mall says. “It would need to be more like a Bell-style breakup where you break up Live Nation into multiple regional companies. That would be a breakup that would have the most dramatic effect, but I can’t see the DOJ recommending that.”