This week’s debacle with the sale of tickets for Taylor Swift’s upcoming “The Eras Tour” has already caused such an uproar, United States Senators and Congressmen are calling for investigations, while the Justice Department has reportedly opened a probe into the matter. It comes on the same week many Tyler Childers fans were also left jilted looking for concert tickets.
But this is not the first time that Ticketmaster practices have raised such an uproar that elements of the Federal government have chosen to get involved, and even well before the merger of Ticketmaster and live concert promoter and venue owner LiveNation in 2010.
In 1994, the Seattle-based grunge band Pearl Jam was one of the biggest things in all of music. Their debut album Ten released in 1991 became one of the most successful releases in history (now 13x Platinum), and their 1993 followup Vs. sold over 950,000 copies in its first week, which set a record for the most copies sold in a debut week—a record that would stand until Garth Brooks bested them with Double Live in 1998.
Amid the band’s incredible success, the Pearl Jam members decided to reign in the commercial aspects of their career to keep themselves grounded, and center the attention on the music itself. They ceased making videos for their singles. They refused to grant interviews to the press or submit for flashy photo shoots. They also decided they wanted to keep concert tickets affordable so their fans could see them no matter what. This ran Pearl Jam afoul of Ticketmaster, which ultimately shaped the very destiny of Pearl Jam in subsequent years, including when and how they released music, and even the band’s lineup.
The issues with Ticketmaster started on Pearl Jam’s Vs. tour, which commenced in October of 1993 to coincide with the release of the album. First, the band decided to cap ticket prices at $18 (yes, $18) in an effort to undercut scalpers and keep the concert experience affordable. The plan initially worked somewhat, but due to Pearl Jam’s comparatively cheap ticket price and their conscious effort to control prices, the fees that Ticketmaster was charging came into sharp focus.
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Chuck Philips ran a series of stories in the Los Angeles Times that exposed how Ticketmaster was gouging Pearl Jam fans with fees. Then when Pearl Jam played a pair of charity shows in Chicago and Ticketmaster charged service fees that ate into the charitable profits, Pearl Jam decided to put their foot down.
Understand, this wasn’t just 28 years before the Taylor Swift debacle, it was also 14 years before Ticketmaster would merge with LiveNation and would subsequently spend the next 13 years monopolizing every aspect of the live music business in the United States and beyond to where they not only had cornered the ticket market, but the entirety of the live music business at major events.
In 1991, Ticketmaster bought out its main competitor at the time called Ticketron. Then by taking out exclusive ticketing contracts with the majority of major venues, Ticketmaster had basically cornered the ticketing market in the United States by 1993. As Pearl Jam would soon prove, if you refused to work with the company or the venues they had exclusive ticketing deals with, you were basically dead in the water.
In an attempt to circumvent Ticketmaster, Pearl Jam tried to set up its own tour by utilizing outdoors spaces where Ticketmaster had no jurisdiction. They also tried to set up certain concerts as benefits since the Ticketmaster contracts with certain venues allowed charities and non-profits to do their own ticketing. Despite the band’s best efforts, the tour became a logistical nightmare. Eventually, Pearl Jam canceled the tour “in protest,” but in truth, it became impossible to pull off at the level that Pearl Jam was at without working with Ticketmaster, which according to the band, proved Ticketmaster was truly a monopoly.
Despite the Vs. tour being a disaster, the situation significantly helped raise awareness about the issue. Investigative journalist Chuck Philips continued to stay on the story, and was able to obtain copies of the contracts venues were forced to sign with Ticketmaster, and a legal monograph was drafted that concluded, “The pervasiveness of Ticketmaster’s exclusive agreements, coupled with their excessive duration and the manner in which they are procured, supported a finding that Ticketmaster had engaged in anticompetitive conduct under section 2 of the Sherman Act.”
Most notably, a United States House of Representatives subcommittee opened an investigation, and on June 30th, 1994, Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament came to Capitol Hill to testify in front of the committee. It caused quite a stir in both the national news, as well as entertainment news when two grunge rockers dressed in grunge attire appeared before Congress, giggling initially as they were sworn in by the subcommittee.
Pearl Jam’s moratorium on talking to the press except in rare circumstances made it difficult to get their message out about what was happening with Ticketmaster. Pearl Jam did not want to commercialize their plight, or use painting themselves as victims as a way to promote themselves. However, the congressional hearing was the perfect forum to let the public know the band’s stance, and their sincere concerns with Ticketmaster.
“All the members of Pearl Jam remember what it’s like to be young and not have a lot of money,” Stone Gossard told lawmakers. “Many Pearl Jam fans are teenagers that do not have the money to pay $30 or more that is often charged for tickets today. It is well known in our industry that some portion of the service charges Ticketmaster collects on its sale of tickets is distributed back to the promoters and the venues. It is this incestuous relationship and the lack of any national competition for Ticketmaster that has created this situation we’re dealing with today.”
Stone Gossard continued, “As a result, our band which is concerned with keeping the price of tickets low will almost always be in conflict with Ticketmaster, which has every incentive to try to find ways to increase the price of the ticket it sells.”
Jeff Ament spoke on how Aerosmith, The Grateful Dead, Garth Brooks, R.E.M., Neil Young, and others were also concerned how Ticketmaster had cornered the market, and how the company was using that monopoly to charge exorbitant ticket fees and force compliance to their practices. Pearl Jam wasn’t alone in their fight.
Though Pearl Jam’s appearance in front of the House subcommittee is what drew the greatest press attention, others spoke about the Ticketmaster monopoly as well, including Aerosmith manager Tim Collins.
“Last week, I was with Aerosmith in Italy, where the band is currently on tour,” said Collins. “We were talking about Ticketmaster, and how it relates to our concert business. Steven Tyler, Aerosmith’s lead singer, said to me, ‘Mussolini may have made the trains run on time, but not everyone could get a seat on that train.’ That is the problem that Aerosmith and I have with Ticketmaster.”
…a sentiment the fans of Taylor Swift, Tyler Childers, and scores of other artists are feeling in 2022 after not being able to score ticket through the Ticketmaster system, and instantly being presented with resell tickets for significant markups over face value.
What ultimately happened due to Pearl Jam’s testimony, and a Justice Department investigation similar to the one that has been launched in the aftermath of the Taylor Swift Ticketmaster debacle? Not much. Michigan Congressman John Dingell authored a bill that required Ticketmaster to disclose all the fees it was charging concert patrons. It was a small step in the right direction, but did nothing to cap the fees, stem the trend of increasing the fees, or addressing the circumstances that led to Ticketmaster being able to corner the market, and act as a monopoly in the first place.
Meanwhile, Pearl Jam fell on tough times and internal division due to their battle with Ticketmaster. Drummer Dave Abbruzzese was fired because he disagreed with taking on the ticketing juggernaut, and according to the band, the whole debacle affected the recording of their album Vitalogy. They did ultimately persevere and win significant credit from their core fan base for sticking up for them. But without the backing of Ticketmaster, Pearl Jam failed to retain their top status in popular music.
It can’t be underscored enough amid renewed calls for government intervention or regulation in live music events just how different the landscape is now compared to when Pearl Jam first addressed this issue in 1994. Not only does Ticketmaster continue to engage in monopolistic practices in regards to their ticketing business, they actually own many of the venues they have exclusive deals with, and promote the very concerts and tours that are booked at those venues due to the LiveNation merger.
In 1993 amid the scandal with Pearl Jam, Ticketmaster’s profits were $7.5 million. In just the 3rd Quarter of 2022, the combined businesses of Ticketmaster and LiveNation reported a profit of $4.03 billion off of total revenue of $6.2 billion. The company hosted over 44 million fans across 11,000 events just in 3Q of 2022 alone, and boasted in their earnings call, “3Q sponsorship revenue up 59% driven by festivals and Ticketmaster platform integration.”
In truth, Ticketmaster doesn’t have the entire live music market cornered. It’s only via the biggest venues, concerts, festivals, and sporting events where their monopoly reigns. Throughout 2021 and 2022, music fans have been frustrated attempting to score tickets at venues such as the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, or the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, both of which use the AXS platform for ticket selling as opposed to Ticketmaster, and also see outsized demand due to being destination venues fans will travel to from across the country.
Ticketmaster or not, whenever demand significantly outpaces supply, this is when the issues plaguing America’s broken and monopolized ticketing system become more obvious. According to LiveNation, for the Taylor Swift tour pre-sale, they saw 14 million individuals trying to purchase an available 1.5 million tickets. With such a supply/demand discrepancy, significant portions of the public will just not be able to secure tickets. And when platforms like Ticketmaster and AXS immediately present resell tickets from scalpers at exorbitant markups to fans as soon as they miss out on face value tickets, it chaps them even further, and creates the public uproar.
No matter the regulations or laws the Federal government may pass to attempt to address the very real issue of the Ticketmaster/LiveNation monopoly, it’s still impossible to facilitate 14 million Taylor Swift fans purchasing reasonably-priced tickets when you only have 1.5 million seats available. This problem goes well beyond Ticketmaster, and when demand outpaces supply, it becomes the perfect environment for scalpers to exploit the system.
But addressing the Ticketmaster monopoly at the top of the live event pyramid would significantly help to make the live music experience in America much easier. If Ticketmaster and LiveNation had any sense, they would address it themselves before the government gets involved, and figure out how to better facilitate the sale of tickets to high demand concerts like Taylor Swift and Tyler Childers. Because as we see here 28 years after Pearl Jam’s protest against Ticketmaster and testimony before Congress, things have only become worse in live music, and fans will always take the side of their favorite artists over large monopolies like Ticketmaster/LiveNation.