The American Prospect: Ticketmaster’s Dark History
Just over 28 years ago, Taylor Swift was a precocious Montessori preschooler growing up on a Pennsylvania Christmas tree farm, and Eddie Vedder was the Most Important Musician in America, Kurt Cobain having bequeathed to him the (unwanted) title with his suicide that spring. Bill Clinton himself called Vedder to the White House to ask him for help with “messaging” around Cobain’s death, and the rock star in turn confided in the president that he was having trouble with a rapacious corporation named Ticketmaster, which appeared to be operating an illegal monopoly. A few weeks later, the Clinton Justice Department invited Vedder’s band Pearl Jam to be the star witness in an antitrust investigation inspired by the case. The band obliged.
But no sooner had they agreed to participate in the probe than their lives began to resemble a kind of pop culture Book of Job, replete with biblical floods, mysterious plagues, possible burglaries, and crippling self-doubt. And 11 days after canceling a Ticketmaster-free 1995 summer tour due to “pressures” they feared “would ultimately destroy the band,” Pearl Jam’s handlers at the Department of Justice issued an unusual two-sentence press release announcing the end of its investigation.
For years, the Ticketmaster saga, which cost Pearl Jam millions of dollars, would haunt the band. A 1996 Rolling Stone piece improbably cast the battle as a calculated effort on Vedder’s part to buy anti-consumerist cred. Admiring critics mused that “the band whined too long and loud about Ticketmaster” to maintain the “enormous momentum it built up from 1991 to 1994,” even as these critics whined about the increasingly unbearable cultural vacuity promulgated by the blitzkrieg consolidation that followed the DOJ’s abandonment.
Thousands of concert promoters, radio stations, record labels, talent agencies, and other music industry gatekeepers were swallowed by a small clique of deep-pocketed financiers in the years following the closure of the Pearl Jam case. As the speed of music file transfers onto ever-tinier devices threatened to depose the entire industry, moguls jockeyed bitterly over their slices of a shrinking, shape-shifting pie.
And yet the strange and awesome power of Ticketmaster, a company built around the novelty of a printer that could instantaneously produce a cardboard entry pass into thousands of concerts from the convenience of the nearest Sam Goody, grew as every other part of the business seemed to shrivel. Ticketmaster’s parent company is projected to gross $16 billion in 2022, more than the entire U.S. record industry grossed in 2021. Despite sponsoring almost no live events in the year following the outbreak of the pandemic, its stock price went up.
The debacle surrounding the “verified fan presale” for Taylor Swift’s 2023 concert tour highlighted Ticketmaster’s vexing combination of apparent incompetence and totalitarian control. Ticketmaster has portrayed its systems as the victims of an“unprecedented” (if wholly predictable) mismatch of supply and demand; the Department of Justice and numerous state attorneys general are investigating. But while Swift herself has professed empathy for fans stymied in their quest to see her live, she has resisted publicly shaming the ticketing monopoly, as she has other foes. Virtually no pop star has even attempted to blow the whistle on the concert cartel in the years since Vedder tried, and failed.
Though Cobain’s death presaged a cultural vibe shift away from anti-corporate rock, the critic Steven Hyden recently wrote that “the moment when it was clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that an era had ended was Pearl Jam’s depressingly futile fight against Ticketmaster.” But this futility was wholly manufactured. Then as now, Ticketmaster has triggered allegations of predatory pricing, questionable kickbacks, anti-competitive collusion, and merciless retaliation against anyone who challenged its dominance. When the Justice Department dropped its investigation in 1995, it had nothing to do with the merits of its case, and everything to do with unalloyed political corruption, meted out in classic bipartisan fashion by a menacing confederation of lobbyists, propagandists, shady characters, and one extremely powerful former Texas senator who is currently promoting a book called The Myth of American Inequality.
And as you might expect, the saga begins long before Seattle invented “grunge.”
TICKETMASTER’S CONQUEST OF THE CONCERT BUSINESS dates back to 1981, when it came under the control of one Burton Kanter, a famous Chicago tax attorney whose celebrity clients ranged from the band Creedence Clearwater Revival to Chicago’s Pritzker family, which had originally acquired the business with possible intentions of outfitting a New Orleans stadium it controlled with computerized ticketing systems. It is worth noting here that Kanter was swimming in underworld connections—which would become something of a leitmotif in the Ticketmaster tale—and that he had just five years earlier been indicted on charges stemming from his co-ownership of a CIA-connected Bahamas tax shelter called Castle Bank whose clients included the Las Vegas bootlegger-turned-developer Moe Dalitz, Ohio’s famed mobster Morris Kleinman, and various Teamsters pension funds, along with Hugh Hefner and Bob Guccione.(Kanter beat the charges, mostly because of an unbelievable blunder the IRS committed when he countersued the agency, though a tax court judge later ruled him guilty of having orchestrated a complicated kickback scheme.)
Kanter recruited a friend named Fredric Rosen to operate the firm, whose career before Ticketmaster is something of a mystery. Yet he proved shockingly well equipped for what then seemed the near-impossible task of taking on Ticketron, the deep-pocketed market leader of computerized ticketing. Rosen succeeded by forming a network of exclusive alliances with a small business community that other ticket agents had ignored: rock concert promoters.
The rock concert business was a collection of regional fiefdoms run by aggressively turf-conscious hustlers. Bill Graham ran San Francisco, Larry Magid controlled Philly, the developer Don Law controlled Boston, a New Orleans boxing promoter’s son named Lou Messina dominated Houston, and Dave Lucas’s Sunshine Promotions ran Indiana. Many of these promoters spent part of the 1980s operating under consent decrees following a slew of antitrust investigations.
Rosen gave promoters the opportunity to centralize control in their respective territories by brokering exclusive contracts between Ticketmaster and their favorite venues. And while some of those venues already had contracts with Ticketron, Rosen offered a powerful inducement in the form of the “service charge.” So long as Ticketmaster was free to levy whatever service charge it deemed appropriate, Rosen was more than willing to kick back a cut to promoters and venues, and even offer new clients cash advances of up to $5 million on the service charges they might bring in, according to a 1995 Associated Press article. In 1988, 17 of them founded a trade organization, the North American Concert Promoters Association (NACPA), which would later be accused of colluding with Ticketmaster to fix service fees.
Ticketmaster and its promoter allies wooed venues by outfitting their box offices with expensive ticketing machines and interconnected inventory management systems free of charge, and paying them massive advances on their portion of future fee revenues to entice them to sign exclusive contracts. Laws against predatory pricing were still enforced in those days; this could have been seen as an example.
In 1986, Boston super-promoter Don Law, a founder of NACPA, signed an exclusive contract with Ticketmaster promising him between 25 and 50 cents per ticket—sometimes more, depending on the venue—in exchange for his undying loyalty. By 1992, a Boston Globe investigation reported that the region’s ancillary fees were some of the most expensive in the nation, thanks to fees that typically comprised a quarter of the total ticket price. That year, Ticketmaster faced a class action suit stemming from the brazen “commercial bribery” tactics described in the newspaper’s investigation; the company responded by suing an attorney quoted in the piece for libel.
Ticketmaster also thrived by swallowing adversaries. It acquired seven competitors between 1985 and 1991, and maintained a joint operating arrangement with its biggest West Coast rival, the Bay Area Seating Service (BASS), with which it was allegedly conspiring to fix prices. (That case would be settled, with Ticketmaster donating $1.5 million in tickets to charity.)
Then of course there was Ticketron, wounded by Rosen’s deal-making but still kicking until 1990, when D.C. sports mogul Abe Pollin teamed up with then-upstart private equity firm Carlyle Group to buy it. Pollin promised to revitalize Ticketron, even poaching promoter Ben Liss to run it. But he announced plans to sell it to Ticketmaster barely a month later.
In 1992, a startup called Moviefone launched a competing service with backing from a British company. Moviefone later learned that the British company had conspired with Ticketmaster to sabotage the effort. Ticketmaster denied involvement, but Moviefone ultimately won a $22.7 million settlement over the dispute in arbitration; it stayed in its lane after that.
Throughout all this, countless legislators, erstwhile competitors, class action attorneys, and consumer advocates tried and failed to expose, break up, and/or impose utility-style regulation on Ticketmaster. Shortly after the Ticketron buyout, a California state senator sponsored a bill to cap ticket fees at 15 percent. In retaliation, Ticketmaster dragged one of his aides in for an eight-hour deposition, on the pretense of suspecting that the staffer obtained information from a source who was bound by a confidentiality agreement. “I found it very chilling that who we talked to in preparing a bill could be determined by the opponents of that bill,” said the aide. “These people play for keeps.”
LIKE VIRTUALLY EVERY ROCK STAR who emerged from the Seattle “grunge” scene, Eddie Vedder grew up in financial precarity, worked dead-end jobs to supplement his hobby, and felt impossibly guilty about the overnight fame he’d won almost instantaneously upon moving to Seattle to join a band that had lost its lead singer to a heroin overdose. As he explained to Spin magazine in 1995, Vedder merely wanted his shows to be accessible to “the father [who] works at a gas station” (a job he held in the 1980s), and just wants to give his kid one magical night that might inspire him “to pick up a guitar.”
Following the sudden success of their debut album Ten, mere months after deciding on a band name, Pearl Jam began to conscientiously avoid activities viewed as distractions from making and playing music—filming music videos, releasing“singles” and other forms of marketing—in favor of promoting themselves by playing free or cheap live shows. The trouble with this business model was that it required paying off Ticketmaster, which had by this point brokered exclusive contracts representing 63 percent of the concert seats in America, and 90 percent of 25 top markets with larger arenas.
Ticketmaster demanded a substantial service charge for any tickets distributed to concertgoers, regardless of whether or not the band was charging anything. When Pearl Jam planned a free concert in Seattle in 1992 and volunteered more than $125,000 to stage the show, Ticketmaster demanded an additional $45,000 to print tickets. The following year, Pearl Jam’s manager made a deal with Ticketmaster on a charity show, wherein the company agreed to donate a dollar of its $3.25 service charge to the charity. But Ticketmaster unilaterally reneged days before the tickets went on sale.
It was clear Ticketmaster was attempting to make an example out of Pearl Jam, as last-minute hiccups began to plague every show they scheduled. First, the company backed out of an agreement to itemize service charges on tickets in Chicago, according to later congressional testimony. Then it briefly disabled the ticketing machines for an event whose promoter had allowed the band to distribute some tickets to its fan club in Detroit. Promoters and venue operators began to report back that Ticketmaster reps had threatened them with legal action simply for working with Pearl Jam, and even threatened to run the band’s longtime road manager out of the business.
When Pearl Jam began planning a $20-per-ticket tour in the summer of 1994, NACPA, the promoter trade group, faxed its members, counseling them not to play along with the tour, its proposed pricing structure, or any of the methods it might propose to sidestep Ticketmaster’s control. “[Ticketmaster] views the Pearl Jam issue as an all or nothing proposition,” wrote the executive director, Ben Liss, the man previously tapped to run the ill-fated Ticketron.
A Justice Department investigator caught wind of the memo, and encouraged Pearl Jam to compile a complaint it could use to prompt a formal antitrust inquiry. A congressional staffer named John Edgell organized a hearing to attempt to explain to the public how an ostensibly benign printer of concert and basketball tickets had become the subject of such fear and loathing.
Witnesses at the hearing, held on June 30, 1994, painted a picture of an all-powerful gatekeeper that maintained a very literal stranglehold over live music events. The venues were bound by purportedly consensually negotiated exclusive contracts, but their enforcers were generally not the venues but the concert promoters, whom one witness described as operating an open cartel. Service charges were primarily set by Ticketmaster, and there seemed to be no limit to their size—the average Ticketmaster service fee in 1997 was 27 percent—or to the number of additional junk fees for processing, mailing services, parking, or even capital expenditures. So if Pearl Jam asked to set the price below what Ticketmaster felt the market would bear, one witness explained, there was nothing stopping Ticketmaster from imposing a 100 percent fee.
Beneath the superficial scourge of high fees lurked a murkier problem, as Aerosmith’s manager at the time, Tim Collins, meticulously explained. Ticketmaster, Collins said, offered artists no way of ensuring tickets were purchased by fans at all, and seemed in fact to have designed its system to be easily hijacked by professional scalpers and insiders, who were notorious for withholding large blocks of tickets for resale by “disreputable elements.” At a Los Angeles show where he and three assistants had taken it upon themselves to interview every attendee in the front section of the arena about where they’d gotten their tickets, Collins testified, every single one said they bought them from a scalper.
When Collins met with Rosen, who was both Ticketmaster CEO and minority owner, to negotiate a deal whereby Aerosmith would fund ticket distribution to its fan club in exchange for a “volume discount” on its service charge, Rosen tried to buy Collins off by offering the band an additional 50 cents per ticket, if he would agree to raise the ticket price and stop whining. “I told Mr. Rosen that his offer was like offering a cold man ice in the winter,” Collins told the committee.
THOUGH IT WAS COMPETING FOR COVERAGE with the first day of a preliminary hearing in the O.J. Simpson trial, the hearing made national news, mainly due to the fact that Pearl Jam members had testified in person. And though a lot of the coverage was superficial, the allegations raised by witnesses were substantive and disturbing. Rock music historian Dave Marsh described a litany of preposterous charges (including a parking fee for every ticket, whether the concertgoers arrived together or not), while characterizing Ticketmaster as “a ticket monopoly” that restricted “access to popular culture only for those who can pay very high premiums.”
Behind the scenes, Ticketmaster was working a dizzying array of angles. Rosen tapped Ticketmaster’s then-owner Paul Allen to coax his attorneys, which also represented Pearl Jam’s publicity firm, to drop the case. Ticketmaster’s captive venue owners retained the former law firm of Anne Bingaman, at the time the assistant attorney general for antitrust, to establish an astroturf group to defend the company’s honor in the media. There is evidence Ticketmaster tapped its onetime attorney Mickey Kantor, a close Clinton confidant then working as U.S. trade representative, to keep tabs on the case; it’s confirmed that Kantor had made calls on Ticketmaster’s behalf in 1992, while he was general counsel of Clinton’s presidential campaign. And two unrelated professionals involved in the case on opposite coasts separately told the Prospect that important legal documents began to disappear from their offices in the months after the hearing; both of them suspected break-ins.
By August 1994, Pearl Jam’s members were beginning to wonder if the company had somehow infiltrated the band itself. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese, who later called the Ticketmaster crusade “a waste of time,” was abruptly fired for vague reasons of philosophical differences. Abbruzzese’s lack of interest in the cause became a sticking point with the band.
A certain degree of paranoia was justified. Ticketmaster had apparently retained the services of one Marty Bergman, a freelance private investigator, sometime FBI informant, and renaissance con artist who had named one of his holding companies RICO, Inc. Bergman’s younger brother Lowell was a legendary investigative journalist, and Marty explained to committee investigators shortly after the hearing that he had been dispatched by his brother to produce a deep dive into the rock concert racket for 60 Minutes. This was a lie; Marty’s own 60 Minutes experience was limited to a small role in one 1991 investigation. Bergman’s second wife Laura Brevetti was an attorney at Ticketmaster’s New York law firm until1993, and had a track record of getting involved in her husband’s activities.
In any event, Marty Bergman convinced an array of investigators, including committee staffer John Edgell and attorneys with at least one outside law firm involved in the case, to divulge sources, documents, and wisdom they had gleaned on everything from kickbacks to scalper relationships for the “exposé” he claimed to be producing. “Marty was a con artist and he had me snookered,” remembers Edgell. “I spent untold hours with him.” At a certain point, it dawned on the congressional staffer that the colorful freelancer was working for the other side. “A few months later [60 Minutes anchor] Mike Wallace came to town, and I brought it up with him, and his jaw sort of dropped,” remembers Edgell. “And then I got a call from [60 Minutescreator] Don Hewitt, who just kept saying, ‘Marty Bergman is a bad man. A bad, bad man.’ Still, I felt so stupid.”
Meanwhile, Pearl Jam attempted a Ticketmaster-free summer 1995 tour, working with a startup called the ETM Entertainment Network to locate random venues too remote or unusual to have been bought.
In response, Ticketmaster attempted to “plant [local] news stories” that would undermine Pearl Jam, according to a former publicist for the anti-Ticketmaster coalition. These stories suggested Pearl Jam had nixed certain non-Ticketmaster venues solely because they didn’t perceive them to be cool, or highlighted the security risks of performing in nontraditional venues. In more obscure outlets, including two dubious newspapers that The Village Voice said “looked like they were thrown together overnight,” stories written and edited by Bergman cronies sold a particularly shameless conspiracy theory suggesting Pearl Jam’s crusade was a cynical plot to help Sony enter the ticketing market.
The remote venues that Pearl Jam selected introduced an array of hurdles, some suspicious. In Salt Lake City, where Pearl Jam had scheduled two shows on the Wolf Mountain ski slope, a torrential downpour amid cold weather forced them to call them off at the last minute. In San Diego, where the band made a deal to play at the county fair, the sheriff’s department compiled a 14-page report urging authorities to cancel the concert, using arguments and data provided by Paul Wertheimer, a “crowd safety consultant” and anti-moshing activist the band suspected of being on Ticketmaster’s payroll. Then in San Francisco, after Vedder got a mysterious stomach ailment seven songs into his set, the band concluded the tour was cursed, and canceled the remaining dates, reliably sending refund checks to thousands of disappointed fans and ultimately rescheduling the tour at Ticketmaster-sanctioned venues. “I’m way too fucking soft for this whole business,” Vedder told Spin.
THE WEEK AFTER THE TOUR CANCELLATION, on July 5, 1995, the Justice Department issued a two-sentence statement announcing it was “closing its antitrust investigation into [Ticketmaster’s] contracting practices,” though it would “continue to monitor developments in the ticketing industry.” Marty Bergman boasted to an attorney friend interviewed by The Village Voice that he had single-handedly “saved Ticketmaster from the antitrust investigation,” and that Ticketmaster was now “indebted” to him. In his recently published Pearl Jam biography, Hyden blames Generation X for sabotaging the probe, musing that the investigation “got crushed because [Pearl Jam’s] peers and even their fans, along with the federal government, lacked the resolve, energy, and imagination to come up with a better idea than simply allowing Ticketmaster to do all the bad things they were obviously doing.”
But Ticketmaster’s real savior appears to have been Charlie Black.
Black was a partner in the lobbying firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly—yes, that Manafort and Stone—whose wife Judy, a veteran tobacco lobbyist, ran the International Council of Shopping Centers. Black had worked on every Republican presidential campaign since 1972, and was in talks to sign on with the presidential campaign of his longtime friend Texas Sen. Phil Gramm when the unthinkable happened: The GOP won the House and Senate in 1994.
While Gramm was up for a powerful subcommittee chairmanship overseeing the budget of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the space program, in January he mysteriously swapped his spot for the chairmanship of the subcommittee overseeing the budget for Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary. Gramm made no headlines when, Edgell says, he threatened to slash funding to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. But after the Ticketmaster investigation closed, the Hill veteran figured it all out.
“Sure enough, the funding to the Antitrust Division was fully restored right afterward,” says Edgell, who had lost his committee job to the Republican Revolution and was working for a congressman “with zero interest” in antitrust. He thought about trying to get a reporter to write about the apparent quid pro quo, but “this stuff just happens so often in Washington … Charlie Black wouldn’t be doing his job if he hadn’t gotten [the investigation] dropped.”
Reached by email, Gramm and Black denied the allegations. Gramm’s assistant told the Prospect, “We know of no basis for the assertion in the inquiry.” Black wrote back directly saying he’d never worked for Ticketmaster and that his wife did not join the company until “a few years after” its antitrust investigation. But a 1996 SEC filing states that Judy Black joined the company as senior vice president of governmental affairs in March 1995, four months before the DOJ investigation closed.
Fred Rosen, who donated $1,000 to Gramm’s presidential campaign one month before the DOJ dropped the case, told Dean Budnick in the book Ticket Masters, “Charlie Black’s firm was one of the firms we used in the early ’90s.”(Bizarrely, Pearl Jam interviewed Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly in January 1995 to promote its case against Ticketmaster on the Hill, but the band balked when Roger Stone, who made the presentation to the band’s management, wanted a million dollars to do the job, according to a longtime band representative.) As chairman of the firm, it would be unusual for Black to not know the identity of such a high-profile client affiliated with his wife.
By October 1995, Sen. Gramm had left the subcommittee chairmanship for a new post on the Finance Committee. His frenzied campaign fundraising was losing steam following revelations he had invested in a semi-pornographic movie in the 1970s, and within a few months he would back out of a 1996 presidential run to focus his efforts on winning re-election to the Senate. Gramm did win that race, and he would spend his third term allying with Bob Rubin and Larry Summers to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act (which had barred commercial banks from trading with consumer deposits), crush the regulation of over-the-counter derivatives, and slip a provision into a bill nicknamed the “Enron loophole,” exempting energy traders from government supervision.
As Gramm would later reflect after the titanic collapse of the financial system, thanks in part to many of the laissez-faire regulatory policies he helped create, “When I am on Wall Street and I realize that that’s the very nerve center of American capitalism and I realize what capitalism has done for the working people of America, to me that’s a holy place.”
THE ANTI-TICKETMASTER COALITION was stunned by the sudden abandonment. An investor in Pearl Jam’s alternative ticketing service ETM told newspapers he had been scheduled to present proprietary data substantiating Ticketmaster’s monopoly before DOJ investigators that week. A publicist hired by a consortium of rock bands to raise awareness of Ticketmaster’s anti-competitive tactics reached out to her contacts at the DOJ and found “they weren’t allowed to talk to us anymore.” She told the Prospect, “I think we all expected more from a Democratic administration.”
The vague explanation Attorney General Janet Reno later offered for dropping the probe involved the apparent discovery“that there were new enterprises coming into the arena” and so, by virtue of the theoretical existence of competition, “wedid not have a basis for proceeding.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, no “new enterprises” ever really made it into the arena. ETM shut downin 2000 after suing Ticketmaster for antitrust violations and settling. A service called NEXT Ticketing founded by Boston uber-promoter and longtime Ticketmaster loyalist Don Law was scrapped in 1999. A startup called Tickets.com founded with seed funding from Steven Spielberg merged with a rival after Ticketmaster sued the company for linking to its concert pages; it was driven out of the concert business and acquired by Major League Baseball in 2005.
But lack of antitrust enforcement aside, the most critical factor in ensuring Ticketmaster’s continued dominance over the concert industry was its relationship with Robert F.X. Sillerman, who unified the decentralized concert promotion syndicate into a behemoth that would come to be called Live Nation.
Sillerman was a Bronx-born radio station financier who curiously told reporters in 1999 that his family refused to tell him what the “X” in his name stood for until his 18th birthday. (It’s “Xavier,” and the “F” is Francis, a popular name among Catholics of the era, but Sillerman is Jewish.) A millionaire by age 21, Sillerman was reported in 1980 to have interests in 34 different companies, including a stock brokerage and the largest industrial flooring provider in New Jersey. But during the 1980s and early 1990s, he mostly bought radio stations, initially in a partnership with syndicated rock radio show host Bruce Morrow. A radio executive who “fell afoul” of him told Newsday in 1996 that crossing Sillerman had “caused me great pain. It has come back to haunt me. I’ve had feedback over the years, ‘Oh, you went after Bob.’”
Sillerman built four chains of radio stations between 1993 and 1995, using loopholes to sidestep strict federal caps on radio station ownership. After Congress repealed those caps in 1996, Sillerman became a billionaire almost instantly; three of his radio rollups were absorbed by fellow serial buyer Clear Channel Communications. “In some markets he’s Pac-Man,” a trade publication editor said at the time.
By that point, Sillerman had begun to pivot into consolidating Ticketmaster’s concert promoter cartel, starting with Cellar Door in D.C., Magid in Philly, and (current Taylor Swift promoter) Messina in Houston. At least 13 of the 17 charter members of NACPA were absorbed by Sillerman’s conglomerate SFX. He spent more than $2 billion on acquisitions, including one of a startup co-founded by Michael Rapino, who is today the CEO of Live Nation.
Not everyone sold out happily. Cleveland’s Jules Belkin lamented in 1999 that “the major effect” of Sillerman’s shopping spree was that “ticket prices have risen dramatically … There is a history of what Sillerman does and it’s not entirely to grow an industry, but to grow it to where he can sell it.” Indeed, attendance at the top 50 concert tours plummeted from a high of 32.5 million tickets in 1994, the year Pearl Jam took on Ticketmaster, to 26.3 million five years later, while ticket prices soared by $10 just from 1998 to 1999. Belkin sold out in 2001.
It was the “relaxation of antitrust laws during the Clinton administration that led to SFX’s rise to power,” Jim Koplik, whose Cross Country Concerts was another charter member of NACPA, told the Hartford Courant in 1999 from his new post at SFX. By 1998, Sillerman was boasting publicly that his promoters were responsible for a quarter of the tickets Ticketmaster sold each year.
Sillerman was not shy about his intentions for this new empire. He told Wall Street analysts on an investor roadshow that Ticketmaster had offered to float SFX an extra $20 million a year in kickbacks, but he refused, wanting instead to carve out a whole suite of new charges just for promoters and venues. He would even tease the idea of a competing ticketing service, not an entirely idle threat, since Sillerman had acquired NEXT with its buyout of Don Law. But by November 1998, Sillerman and Ticketmaster had mended fences with a new exclusive fee-splitting agreement that also committedSFX to “use its reasonable best efforts” to exclusively employ Ticketmaster in every venue that hosted one of its events.
From then on, it was not entirely clear where one company ended and the other began. This remained the case even after Sillerman sold SFX in a stock swap valued at between $2.7 and $4.4 billion to Clear Channel in an audacious deal that broadened the concert cartel’s reach to nearly 1,200 radio stations. When the jam band String Cheese Incident found its fan club locked out of its usual allotment of tickets in 2002, it wasn’t sure which company to sue. As Mike Luba, one of the band’s managers, would say in Ticket Masters, “Were [Clear Channel] the bad guys, or was it Ticketmaster?”
IT’S DIFFICULT TO HYPERBOLIZE the cultural deadening that accompanied this lunatic frenzy of consolidation. Nearly all of Sillerman’s shopping sprees were financed with high-yield debt. Making the interest payments required an endless stream of layoffs. Radio stations across the country mercilessly fired local DJs and engineers and piped in hours of programming from San Diego, where moonlighting radio personalities went to sometimes absurd lengths to deceive listeners into believing they were local. Playlists became shorter and shorter; regional variations mostly disappeared.“Radio stations have lost their distinctive sound,” said the rock promoter Ron Delsener in a 2002 interview lamenting that“the same four [acts] are recycled so that all those cookie-cutter bands sound alike.” (Delsener was co-CEO of Clear Channel at the time.)
Throughout all this, Ticketmaster and SFX/Clear Channel—renamed Live Nation and spun off as a stand-alone concert business in 2005—continued to beat off regulators and class action attorneys. The DOJ announced an antitrust probe into SFX in 1998; nothing happened. In 2003, George W. Bush’s antitrust chief disclosed a probe into allegations that Clear Channel had retaliated against Britney Spears for hiring non-SFX promoters by removing her songs from radio playlists, a strategy internally dubbed “negative synergy.” Clear Channel spent millions on lobbyists and campaign contributions; the investigation went nowhere. The company would later famously deploy negative synergy on the Dixie Chicks in retaliation for lead singer Natalie Maines’s criticism of the Iraq War. Taylor Swift would later say the Dixie Chicks’ blacklisting had “terrified” her as a young musician.
As music sales plunged, radio flailed, and music monopolies faded as a political lighting rod, Ticketmaster and Live Nation decided to make their common-law marriage official. They announced a plan to merge in February 2009, just days after inciting the rage of Bruce Springsteen fans with a scheme to redirect customers to Ticketmaster’s recently acquired scalper marketplace TicketsNow, despite cheaper first-sale tickets being available.
Springsteen posted a letter on his website opining that a Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger would be “the one thing that would make the current ticket situation even worse for the fan than it is now.” Yet somehow, Obama antitrust chief Christine Varney could not find it within herself to block the combination, asking the companies to instead sign a consent decree agreeing to divest certain (irrelevant) assets and promising not to retaliate against venue owners who chose to use competing ticketing services. An FTC regulator who sued Ticketmaster for deceptive practices regarding the Springsteen sale told the Prospect he was “stunned” by the merger approval.
For all its success at shareholder value maximization, the merger mainly cemented the public and regulatory acceptance of a collusive racket that dated back decades. And it likely surprised no one when the merged company broke the terms of its consent decree almost immediately by cutting off its concert tours from at least six amphitheaters that signed ticketing contracts with Live Nation’s only halfway significant rival, while simultaneously hatching an elaborate criminal conspiracy to sabotage a potential competitor by hacking into its databases to steal information. (Illustrating the toothlessness of the deal, the latter plot, which involved a scheme to punish the pop singer Adele for attempting to distribute a portion of concert tickets to her fan club, did not violate the consent decree.)
What had changed between Pearl Jam’s Ten and Adele’s 25 was the balance of power in the music industry. As record labels faded into irrelevance with the collapse in album sales—of the 50 top-selling artists of all time, Taylor Swift is literally the only one to have debuted after 2000—Ticketmaster/Live Nation had thoroughly occupied the power vacuum. Pop artists, according to Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino, now derive about 95 percent of their income from concert tours. In the process, the company replaced the old multimillion-dollar record contract with the “360-degree deal,” wherein artists cede Live Nation the rights to not just their concert tours, but virtually everything fans might buy, from T-shirts to bootleg recordings to credit cards. This radically altered industry power dynamics, even for the rare star capable of moving millions of albums.
As touring became a far more important revenue generator for musicians, Live Nation marketed “dynamic pricing” as an artist-friendly innovation. Live Nation was caught in 2019 conspiring with a representative for Metallica to route tickets to the secondary market and split the profits of the upselling with the band.
Live Nation suddenly became a grand prize for monopolists who understood its capacity for dominance. Eventually, its majority shareholder (with 33 percent ownership) would be the longtime financier John Malone and his firm Liberty Media, which simultaneously bought up the nation’s only satellite radio outlet SiriusXM, online radio company Pandora, and finally in 2020 a controlling stake in the radio giant formerly known as Clear Channel (though it ultimately exited that deal). After Wall Street split the radio venue and concert promotion sides of the business, Liberty Media got the Clear Channel band back together.
On a CNBC appearance about the Taylor Swift fiasco, Liberty CEO Greg Maffei was borderline gleeful noting that her promoter Lou Messina worked for AEG, yet “chose to use us because we are, in reality, the largest and most effective ticket seller in the world … even our competitors want to come on our platform.” AEG retorted in a statement: “We didn’t have a choice.”
Swift herself weighed in on Instagram, expressing that it was “excruciating for me to just watch mistakes happen with no recourse.” It was a startling admission from a star who has confronted monopolists from Spotify to Apple to the private equity firm Carlyle Group and won, and a testament to the powerlessness musicians feel going up against the seemingly untouchable giant.
But this time could be different. As early as 1996, Cobain’s widow Courtney Love was already regretting her failure to join Pearl Jam’s war, likening the musician she’d once nicknamed “Eddie Bedwetter” to Abraham Lincoln and telling reporters she was “embarrassed about how wrong I was about him.” Today, for the first time in decades, regulators are determined to fully enforce antitrust laws, and public tolerance of monopolistic abuses is increasingly waning. The Swift nightmare, as FTC chair Lina Khan pointed out in December, “ended up converting more Gen Zers into anti-monopolists overnight than anything I could have done.”
A taller order may be convincing stars and industry insiders to speak out against the leviathan that feeds them. As Love later reflected on the rock community’s sluggish response to Pearl Jam’s battle: “Nobody helped them. I sat there with a needle in my arm. Now it’s time for all of us to step up.”