Klobuchar leads Senate hearing on Ticketmaster ‘debacle’

Recalling the 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 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday exploring Ticketmaster's alleged monopoly on the concert industry.

The Democratic senator and her Republican partner in leading the hearing, Sen. Mike Lee of 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 nationwide and become managers to many 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 Taylor Swift fans in virtual queues for hours and 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 remarks at the start of the nearly three-hour hearing in Washington. "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 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 unrestricted 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 First Avenue on larger concerts in the Twin Cities — said his company is often forced to use Ticketmaster in 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 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 2023 calendar, including Bruce Springsteen, Janet Jackson and Live Nation-managed Madonna. Target Center has five concerts booked, the biggest of which is Zach Bryan — a country singer who titled his recent live album "All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster" in protest of the company's control of the industry.

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.

Singer Clyde Lawrence of his namesake New York band Lawrence, who performed at First Ave last year, was the only musician who testified Tuesday. He broke down the scant amount of money artists earn in Live Nation-run venues compared with what the company takes 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 of the $30 advertised ticket price in a Live Nation/Ticketmaster-controlled venue — and gets nothing from the additional $12 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.

"As I hear and read what you have to 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 here. You have clear dominance and monopolistic control."

Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., cited the merged company's size.

"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 "bots" — automated, tech-savvy ticket resellers that scoop up prime seats — as the main culprit for why fans were stuck in virtual queues for many hours the day Swift's 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.

Speaking after the hearing, Klobuchar raved, "It was so bipartisan, you couldn't even tell sometimes what party [the senators] are in."

She is working with Republican lawmakers to draft "specific ticketing legislation," and she believes the Department of Justice now has strong evidence from the hearing to use in an antitrust investigation.

"There are many remedies [the DOJ] can pursue," she said.

Klobuchar also is hopeful Live Nation/Ticketmaster will now improve on its own: "Live Nation did make some commitments in that hearing room." she said.

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 the singer's 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.