No one should feel bad for Taylor Swift. Her walls are lined with platinum albums, she’s worth a small country’s GDP, she’s the biggest pop star on earth and it’s not even close. But when tickets to her Eras megatour went on presale this week, it went about as badly as it could. Some fans got kicked out of the virtual line to buy tickets after waiting for hours. Aftermarket prices soared into the thousands—even tens of thousands—per ticket. And the website of Swift’s ticketing partner, Ticketmaster, bowed and crashed under the weight of the demand.
Ticketmaster’s meltdown was more than just predictable. It was exactly how the country’s concert ticket monopoly has operated forever—simply because it can.
Throw Swift’s presale debacle on the pile of complaints about Ticketmaster and the way it operates. Because of Ticketmaster’s fluctuating (or “dynamic,” to use the industry’s preferred euphemism) prices, fans trying to buy concert tickets for artists like Bruce Springsteen and Blink-182 have paid hundreds or thousands of dollars, far above what even loyal fans expected to pay. Earlier this year, a Harry Styles tour—another event Ticketmaster should have expected to be popular—crashed its ticket sale site.
If anyone should have the power to ensure their ticket sales go smoothly, it’s Swift. Her upcoming tour is on track to shatter records for a concert series. She’s doing five nights in Los Angeles’ enormous SoFi Stadium, breaking K-pop megastars BTS’ record of four sold-out shows at the 70,000-person venue. Last month, she became the first artist to claim every slot in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. She’s a pop star of galactic proportions.
If Swift thought the company selling tickets for her tour might screw up the presale, or if it couldn’t keep bots and ticket hawkers out of the queue like it promised, she could threaten to leave. You’d think the threat of losing what could be the highest-grossing tour of all time would force the ticketing company to take any and every action necessary to make sure Swift’s fans got the best possible experience.
That’s not what happened, because Swift doesn’t have a real choice in ticketing partners. Ticketmaster controls more than 70 percent of ticketing at major concert venues. Big artists that need to play big venues while touring can’t avoid Ticketmaster, even if they want to. For stadium-level stars like Swift, Ticketmaster is the only choice; the NFL uses the company for its ticketing, which makes it the primary ticketing service of the league’s stadiums as well. Ticketmaster’s monopoly power means Swift and her fans are stuck with the company’s predatory fees and terrible service.
Furthermore, Swift hasn’t been a passive victim of Ticketmaster’s gatekeeping. The “verified fan” deal Swift struck with Ticketmaster in 2017 was ostensibly intended to ensure her concert tickets wound up in the hands of fans, rather than the aftermarket scalpers and bots that had come to plague Ticketmaster’s online purchasing system. But unlike other megastars like Bruce Springsteen, Swift’s deal came with a catch: The more Taylor Swift merchandise fans bought, the better chance they’d have at snagging her concert tickets. Rather than pushing back against Ticketmaster’s monopoly the same way she fought Spotify’s atrociously low royalty rates, she forced her fans to buy her merchandise on top of Ticketmaster’s pricey junk fees, all for a decent shot at seeing her live.
It’s a bad scene, and it’s everyone’s fault. It didn’t have to be this way. The world in which Ticketmaster could have had actual, legitimate competition in ticketing vanished the day the Justice Department approved its megamerger with live music titan Live Nation. The 2010 deal combined the world’s largest ticketing company with the country’s top concert promoter, top artist manager, and second-biggest venue owner and operator. It was a monopoly play from the beginning, creating a single company that could control every element of a major tour, from the talent to the tickets. The Justice Department knew it, finding at the time that the merger would result “in less aggressive competition, less pressure on the fees earned by Ticketmaster, and less innovation for venues and fans than would exist absent the merger.” But it let the merger happen anyway, promising that a few tweaks to the behemoth’s behavior would be enough to tame its newfound power.
It wasn’t. The merger cemented Ticketmaster’s dominance far better than the company ever could have on its own. Now, money spent on many big concerts lands in one central coffer, allowing the combined Live Nation/Ticketmaster to tighten its grip on the industry more and more. The company continues to charge concertgoers outrageous junk fees because fans have nowhere else to turn, especially for major tours. It has been credibly accused of threatening to withhold major tours from venues that refuse to use Ticketmaster—exactly the kind of bad behavior lawmakers and artists feared when the merger was announced, and something CEO Michael Rapino has admitted is in the company’s best economic interest to do. Live Nation’s power to impose its monopolized ecosystem on the live music industry has shut out smaller venues, rival ticketing companies, and everyone else.
The Justice Department’s decision to bless the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger has been, correctly, derided for years. Academics found that the company’s post-merger power gave it the ability to hurt small venues, artists, and fans. Competition and consumer advocates blasted the Justice Department’s failed attempt to fix the merger: “Ticketmaster remains dominant, and it is using control over its platform and its top-to-bottom control over concerts and other live events to increase its dominance,” the group Public Knowledge wrote. The government itself found the company had abused the monopoly it permitted (although it did little to actually stop it).
The botched rollout of Swift’s presale reignited calls for Live Nation’s concert monopoly to be broken up. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted “Ticketmaster is a monopoly, and its merger with LiveNation should never have been approved.” David Cicilline, a Rhode Island congressman who has called on the Justice Department to reopen its investigation of the merger, said Ticketmaster’s monopoly status is “no secret.” Amy Klobuchar, the Senate’s antitrust hawk, sent a letter to Live Nation demanding answers. An already-running campaign to break up the company piled on. And now, the Tennessee attorney general, Jonathan Skrmetti, says his office is looking into the presale and that antitrust problems “could be an issue.”*
There’s one other agitated party. Ticketmaster might be used to criticism from advocates and Capitol Hill when it screws something up so publicly. But the company has never shaken a beehive quite like the Swifties. Swift’s fanbase is as rabid as they are loyal to the megastar, and the Eras presale nightmare focused the collective’s attention on a new enemy: Ticketmaster and its monopoly power. “We’re organizing to break up Ticketmaster. NOW is our best chance to make a difference through collective action!” tweeted Stephanie Aly, who runs the Swift fan site the Swiftiest. The Swiftiest has launched a campaign to take action against the company, including digital organizing and direct action to lawmakers. “Draw the cat eye sharp enough to kill a monopoly,” the site tells fellow Swifties, riffing on the opening line from her song “Vigilante Shit.”
Radicalizing Swifties to take down monopoly power likely wasn’t something Ticketmaster had on its bingo card, but it’s exactly what’s happening (with at least one fan wondering whether mobilizing an anti-monopoly movement was what Swift had planned all along). “I just feel like, in my heart of hearts, if anyone can stop Ticketmaster, it’s not the U.S. government. It’s Swifties,” one observer posted on TikTok. It’s a nice thought, and certainly collective action matters when fighting corporate power. But at the end of the day, this one is on the government. It approved the Live Nation merger that helped cement Ticketmaster’s power, and it’s the one that can unwind that deal if it finds, as it should, that the merger has been bad for artists, venues, and fans. Ticketmaster has no reason to change on its own—that’s what being a monopoly means. It’s time for the Justice Department to look in the mirror and admit: It’s me. Hi. I’m the problem. It’s me.
Correction, Nov. 17, 2022: This article originally misidentified Jonathan Skrmetti as being the Ohio attorney general. He is the attorney general in Tennessee.