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A tale of Ticketmaster, Swifties and monopolies

The war over Ticketmaster’s role in selling tickets for Taylor Swift’s 2023 tour holds lessons for India

Taylor Swift. (Getty Images)

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There are few stars in today’s fragmented pop landscape who can generate near-nuclear levels of buzz with a simple tour announcement, and one of them is Taylor Swift. So when the country-turned-pop-star announced that she would be hitting the road in 2023, her fans—who call themselves “Swifties”—immediately started prepping for the high-stakes game of speed and logistics that is getting a ticket. Google alerts were created, money was saved up, the sale date was added to calendars. When they were invited to sign up for a “verified fans” pre-sale a week before The Era Tour went on sale, 3.5 million people applied. One fan even started a disinformation campaign to convince people that the sale had been postponed (it hadn’t).

But there’s one thing the Swifties hadn’t accounted for. To sell the tour tickets, Swift had tied up with Ticketmaster, the American music fan’s perennial bête noire. And the ticket-buying process they had designed turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. When the first pre-sale tickets went up on 15 November, supposedly only for “verified fans”, there was so much traffic that the website essentially collapsed. Many fans couldn’t even log in. Some of those who could were stuck in a queue of over 2,000 buyers that appeared to be frozen. A second pre-sale for Capital One credit card holders was pushed to the next day and was again plagued with problems. One fan compared the process of getting a ticket to “all-out war”.

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And then, Ticketmaster announced that it was cancelling the public sale scheduled for 18 November due to “extraordinarily high demand” and “insufficient remaining ticket inventory”. The company tried to put a positive spin on things, noting that it sold 2.4 million tickets—a Ticketmaster record—and partly blamed the chaos on “the staggering number of bot attacks”. But fans—who saw tickets go up on resale sites for thousands of dollars even as they were stuck in a frozen queue—were on the warpath. Twitter exploded.

Swift released a statement, essentially throwing the company under the bus. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got involved, calling Ticketmaster a monopoly. On 18 November, the US justice department announced an investigation into Live Nation Entertainment, the world’s biggest concert promoter, which also owns Ticketmaster. And just this week it was reported that Taylor Swift fans are planning to sue the company for fraud and price-fixing. It seems like the perfect storm is brewing for Ticketmaster but it’s more likely that the Swifties are going to learn a lesson that is all too familiar to fans of acts like Pearl Jam, and plenty of the company’s would-be competitors: Ticketmaster is bloody hard to beat.

By the early 1990s, Ticketmaster had become a juggernaut, acquiring industry pioneer and leader Ticketron in 1991. It had also come to be despised by many fans and artists due to the high hidden service fees that inflated the cost of tickets but exclusivity contracts with most of the country’s major venues ensured that discontent never bothered the bottom line. Then, in 1994, grunge band Pearl Jam—riding high on the success of 1993’s multi-platinum album Vs—decided to go to war. They filed an anti-trust complaint against the company, triggering a federal investigation. The band also launched a public relations blitz, laying bare the enormous leverage that exclusivity contracts gave the company over artists and venues, and how it abused that leverage.

But when the band did get to testify before a Congressional sub-committee, they were treated as a novelty. The investigation went nowhere, and after two nightmare tours that were ticketed by smaller competitors—locked out of most major venues, plagued with logistical problems—Pearl Jam limped back on to the platform. Similarly, when (pre-merger) Live Nation tried to sell tickets itself, it not only struggled to build a reliable system but also realised that audiences were so trained to using Ticketmaster that concert attendances dropped the minute their concerts weren’t on the site.

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Having failed to beat Ticketmaster, Live Nation joined them, the two companies merging in 2010 to create a corporate behemoth which, through exclusive contracts with venues and artists, controls the lion’s share of the live music industry in the US, with clout all over the world. And despite fines and lost lawsuits regarding unfair pricing practices as well as allegations of incentivising scalpers (third-party resellers), its stranglehold on live music has only grown. Fans and artists may despise the company but they also have nowhere else to turn.

Whether the Swifties and the Biden administration succeed in their attempt to rein in what comedian John Oliver called “one of the most hated companies in the world” is yet to be decided but it holds an object lesson for stakeholders in the Indian live music industry, whether artists, fans or venues. As the industry rapidly grows and matures, it’s ripe for the same sort of takeover that Ticketmaster pulled off.

And it’s not just Live Nation’s entry into the Indian market in partnership with local ticketing giant BookMyShow that should have you worried. Indian ticketing platforms of all stripes are looking at the same sort of exclusivity contracts and service fee economics that Ticketmaster pioneered. They are looking at the leverage of Live Nation Entertainment and crafting their own fantasies of monopoly. But unless things are far worse than we know, we are not locked into the same path as the American music industry. Avoiding that fate, though, will require more than an Indian Pearl Jam or Taylor Swift to take on the corporations.

It will require organised fan engagement, and, most importantly, a government committed to protecting consumers against big business. If history teaches us anything, I will be recycling this column in a few years, as yet another David tries to take on an undefeated Goliath.

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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