Live Music is Broken

Being a musician has always been a tough road, but if you’re not one of the biggest-selling acts in the world it’s never been more difficult in the modern era to earn a comfortable living. Ticketmaster / Live Nation has taken near-complete power of the industry via the acquisition of the competition… and now has a near-monopoly. 


The biggest act in the country wants to sell tickets for a major tour, and Ticketmaster is standing in the way. It’s June 1994, and Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard and bassist Jeff Ament are in front of Congress, providing testimony for a House Government Operations subcommittee hearing regarding Ticketmaster’s potential monopoly in the concert industry.

A few months prior, in October 1993, Pearl Jam had released their second album, Vs., and subsequently set the record for most copies of an album sold in its first week. A few months after that, in April 1994, Kurt Cobain died by suicide. Whether they liked it or not, Pearl Jam were now leading whatever the future of the music industry was, and instead of capitalizing on this, extending their tour of arenas and amphitheaters into the summer, they submit a measured protest to a handful of politicians. Gossard and Ament, two of the band’s founding members, grin as they’re sworn in. They’re wearing shorts. Vs., indeed.

What led to this moment was simpler than one might think. Pearl Jam wanted to cap the service-fee charge for their shows at $1.80, and Ticketmaster refused. (Usual service fees in this era were between $4 and $8.) Catching wind of the disagreement, the Justice Department prompted Pearl Jam to submit an antitrust complaint; by this point, Ticketmaster controlled around 90 percent of the ticketing market in the country, based on certain accounts. There was, briefly, the sense that some real antitrust repercussions might come of this. But none did.

“The whole thing was a joke,” Ament recalled to Spin in 2001. “The Department of Justice used us to look hip.” In the same article, singer Eddie Vedder summed up his feelings: “It was really amazing to be right up close and get absolutely stomped on by a huge corporate entity.”

Pissed off, Pearl Jam attempted to conduct their next tour, in 1995, entirely without using Ticketmaster. But because of Ticketmaster’s exclusive contracts with almost every American venue that a powerhouse like Pearl Jam would logically play at that point, the band ended up booked at a variety of odd, difficult places, like Boreal Ridge Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe and the Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego. The tour was an unmitigated disaster, and the band canceled it halfway through, having been strained to a breaking point. A few years later, they begrudgingly went back to Ticketmaster.

“When Pearl Jam did [their boycott] in the mid-’90s, they weren’t really cheerleaded for it in the media,” said Steven Hyden, author of Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation (and a Ringer contributor). “They were really perceived, I think, as this Don Quixote–type band, leaning into windmills.”

Almost 30 years later, the windmills are spinning faster than ever. In the 1970s, Ticketmaster became a player in the nascent computerized ticketing industry via innovation, but it eventually took near-complete power via a rather different method: acquisition of the competition. Ticketmaster swallowed up parties that nudged against its realm, like Ticketron, its main competitor, which Ticketmaster purchased in 1991. But the most notable acquisition came in 2010, when Ticketmaster merged with Live Nation, a juggernaut in show promotion and venue ownership/operation.

The Justice Department investigated that merger, ultimately approving it with certain restrictive conditions, which were later determined to have been “repeatedly” broken; after the merger, the behemoth increased its revenue every year until the pandemic hit. “It’s a vertical monopoly,” said Dean Budnick, who, with Josh Baron, wrote the 2011 book Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped. “You can’t convince me otherwise.”

But can the U.S. government be convinced? Congress is gearing up for another Ticketmaster hearing, and this time the face of the movement is a much different type of star than Pearl Jam. If anything comes from this fresh wave of interest in the ticketing business, it will forever be Taylor Swift who is associated with it (even if she has yet to engage with the antitrust conversation in any substantive way). In November, the first round of ticketing for her upcoming Eras Tour was a Swiftie train wreck, in which Ticketmaster’s system was underprepared and overloaded, leading to fan complaints of brutal queues and failed checkouts. Swift described the experience of getting tickets as akin to surviving multiple “bear attacks”—and this was just the presale. (The general sale was subsequently scrapped and replaced with a modified lottery system.)

To critics of Live Nation–Ticketmaster, the debacle was evidence of the anticompetitive nature of its domination. In an op-ed for Rolling Stone, Krista Brown, a policy analyst at the American Economic Liberties Project, which is leading a campaign to break up Ticketmaster, called this just the latest in a long list of actions by a corporation gouging fans to maximize profits. She cited the company’s embrace of the previously taboo secondary market, the control of a baffling number of venues, and ballooning service fees as having led to “a near-extortion ring.”

“In the same way that people get frustrated with airlines—like, they don’t have a customer service line, because they are not afraid of losing people—Ticketmaster, it’s the same case,” Brown told me. “[They] don’t have to worry about keeping people happy.”

Ticketmaster’s strength has been uniquely scrutinized in recent decades in part because it’s easy for many to understand it as a corporate infection of the arts, a realm that most would prefer to remain free of capitalistic exploitation. Where things become more alarming, however, is when you try to apply the logic of the Ticketmaster situation to everything else around you. How different is Ticketmaster from any of the other mega-conglomerates that you pour money into on a daily basis? How different is it, exactly, from the increasingly powerful corporations we call pop stars?

There is some irony to the fact that the straw that might break Live Nation’s back has to do with Taylor Swift’s tour, because Live Nation is not the tour’s promoter. AEG Presents, Live Nation’s biggest rival, is, and it’s using Ticketmaster only because of the exclusive deals in place with almost all of the venues it wanted to book. “We didn’t have a choice,” an AEG representative explained to Rolling Stone.

What this means is that certain aspects of the ticketing fiasco that people are upset about aren’t directly the responsibility of Live Nation. Ticket prices, for instance, are set by the artist and promoter. And the service fees are not kept unilaterally by the ticketer—usually these fees are split among various parties, such as the ticketer, the promoter, the venue, and sometimes the artists themselves. The ghost beneficiary setup isn’t a bug; it’s historically part of the company’s design.

“I think that Ticketmaster, in effect, agreed to take it on the chin in return for these contracts with the venues,” Alan Citron, a former Ticketmaster president, said in Ticket Masters of the reason behind this kind of arrangement. “Part of the unspoken agreement, or maybe even spoken, was that we will be the face of ticketing. Buying a ticket is not a real enjoyable process. We’ll make it as good as it can be, and we’ll also take the bruises from people who don’t like the process.” Jerry Seltzer, a former Ticketmaster VP, noted, “We took all the shit for the promoters. [Legendary promoter] Bill Graham and others would say, ‘You know we can’t do anything about the service charges. It’s the ticketing company.’”

Consider the ongoing debate about Ticketmaster’s embrace of “dynamic pricing,” in which certain events are priced according to fluctuating market demand, and can surge to extreme levels. When fans found themselves staring down Bruce Springsteen tickets as high as $5,000, the logical target of their ire was the company attempting to sell them the tickets. But the excess money charged in dynamic pricing goes back to the same larger group as a regular ticket sale, just in higher amounts. The idea behind this system is ostensibly to prevent scalpers from taking advantage of any gap between the regular price and the aftermarket price, even if it leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. (Springsteen’s take: “Why shouldn’t that money go to the guys that are going to be up there sweating three hours a night for it?”)

That’s not to say Ticketmaster hasn’t limited the options available to (and potentially steered the ethics of) outside parties by virtue of its sheer control. When I brought up the idea of Ticketmaster serving as the punching bag for other complicit parties benefiting from their share of the pie, Krista Brown, the policy analyst, said, “That’s just such a classic Ticketmaster talking point, and I’ve heard it over and over again. … It’s like a race to the bottom. Live Nation created the ecosystem that exists, gave them these options, and all of them are terrible.”

But when it comes down to it, the most clear responsibility Ticketmaster had in the Taylor Swift situation was to create a system that could withstand the demand from fans of the biggest artist in the country. There’s the argument that, without any healthy competition, there’s little need for Ticketmaster to make sure its system works. At the same time, however, a collapse like the one that occurred in the Swift presale benefitted no one, Ticketmaster included. It cost the ticketer money and reputation—and perhaps worst of all for the company, drew further scrutiny to its business practices.

“Ticketmaster’s website failed hundreds of thousands of fans hoping to purchase concert tickets,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar in a statement announcing the upcoming hearing that she will be leading alongside Senator Mike Lee. “The high fees, site disruptions, and cancellations that customers experienced shows how Ticketmaster’s dominant market position means the company does not face any pressure to continually innovate and improve.”

Ticketmaster, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article, has provided a pretty straightforward defense of what went wrong. In a blog post that was temporarily deleted (and later edited and reposted) after Swifties swarmed it, the company said it believed that limiting the presale to “Verified Fans,” who had to receive a code ahead of time, would contain the demand to a reasonable amount. Instead, the post said, “the staggering number of bot attacks as well as fans who didn’t have invite codes drove unprecedented traffic on our site, resulting in 3.5 billion total system requests—4x our previous peak.” At an event that week, Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino said, “We invited a million and a half on that day to come and buy those tickets, but it’s kind of like having a party. Everybody crashed that door at the same time with 3.5 billion requests.”

There is some legitimacy to the notion that any ticketing agency would have faced immense struggle in attempting to navigate the mind-boggling level of fame and popularity that Taylor Swift now has. (Her new album, Midnightsbroke the record for largest overall week for any album; it took just four days for her to break the previous record, which was held by … her, for her 2017 album Reputation.) Dean Budnick, the Ticket Masters author, pointed out that Ticketmaster would have likely fared better if it had staggered the presale dates, instead of attempting to handle them all at once. Still, in a larger sense, the demand was unparalleled. “I’m not here to altogether defend Ticketmaster, I want to be clear,” Budnick said. “Get me going on service fees and you got me. But when it comes to this? I don’t know what they realistically could have done.”

It’s an interesting time to have a tour breaking records for demand. In a moment when there is apparently a legitimate secondhand market to support $300 nosebleeds (plus another $100 or so in fees) at Swift’s upcoming shows, there is a simultaneous dearth of interest at a concerning amount of concerts. If you’ve been out there this past year, maybe you’ve seen it, too: underfilled rooms, particularly for midlevel bands, have never felt more common. This summer, I went to see an international act at the top of their game, playing in support of an album awarded Best New Music by Pitchfork—once a guarantee of a certain level of hype—and the room was maybe half full. Something is just off right now.

Jay Marciano, CEO of AEG Presents, explained his take on the trend in a recent interview with Music Business Worldwide, saying that there was an initial reopening “euphoria” that was then quickly tempered. “As we started to move into summer 2022,” he said, “we had to look at the supply side: There were too many shows, and too many choices. Combine that with a little bit of that pullback on consumer sentiment, and it’s not a surprise to me that only the really hot artists and shows are guaranteed to sell—anything else closer to the margins is going to find things more difficult.”

And whether you can fill the room or not, the financial squeeze is still being felt. Substantial acts like Animal Collective and Santigold have canceled recent tours, citing a variety of factors, like inflation, supply-chain issues, and COVID concerns, which they say have exposed them to dire economic risk. Further down the chain, buzzy club-size acts like Wednesday and Squirrel Flower have spoken out against the predatory grind up-and-coming bands are expected to put up with. (“Ya’ll gotta do some DoorDash/instacart on your days off,” was one helpful response to Wednesday’s touring frustrations.)

The way legitimate superstar Lorde put it in a recent newsletter post, “Basically, for artists, promoters and crews, things are at an almost unprecedented level of difficulty.” Lorde added that, for someone of her stature, taking a hit on profits isn’t a huge deal. “But for pretty much every artist selling less tickets than I am, touring has become a demented struggle to break even or face debt,” she said. “The math doesn’t make sense.”

If you squint, it’s the same conversation being had in the country at large about the concern of the 1 percent piling incomprehensible wealth and stomping down the working class in the process. Overall inflation-adjusted music revenue is climbing back up in recent years after hitting a low in 2014, but in 2020, just 39 percent of active artists—those who released more than 10 tracks and garnered more than 1,000 monthly listeners at some point in the year—on Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company) made more than $1,000. Touring was long thought to be a reliable means of income for musicians facing the changing economics of the streaming landscape, but when that’s no longer a viable money-making option either, there’s the question of whether there’s still a legitimate middle class for artists.

Being a musician has always been a tough road, but if you’re not one of the biggest-selling acts in the world, like Lorde or Taylor Swift, it’s never been more difficult in the modern era to earn a comfortable living. (It’s no coincidence that the amount of working-class creatives in the U.K. has gone down 50 percent since the 1970s.) Meanwhile, last month, Live Nation reported a total quarterly revenue of $6.2 billion. It was a new record for the company.

When people talk about the influence of poptimism in the music industry, it’s generally a conversation about the way people think about music. The first shot sent from poptimism’s line was fired by Kelefa Sanneh, whose 2004 New York Times essay “The Rap Against Rockism” made the compelling case that critics and listeners were overdue to stop viewing all genres through the lens of tropes established when rock was king. His impetus was the scandal of Ashlee Simpson being caught lip-synching on Saturday Night Live, which was a possibly career-ruining incident, if you thought of live singing as a requisite for being an acclaimed musician. Sanneh’s point was that, for Simpson, a pop star in the making (albeit with a rock-ish, emo-influenced tilt), maybe that wasn’t an entirely fair judgment.

“What I was trying to write about in that essay,” Sanneh told me, “were the assumptions and prejudices within rock music—and how those assumptions and prejudices had come to color the way people listened to and judged all sorts of music.”

The influence of Sanneh’s essay on the poptimism ideology is often misunderstood, considering that the word “poptimism” is nowhere to be seen in the essay itself—and considering what poptimism soon became. Over the course of the next decade, the perception of the movement became less focused on an open-mindedness about every type of musician and more focused on an embrace of a previously critically castigated class of musician: the pop star.

semi-reformed punk who is now a staff writer for The New Yorker, Sanneh is an amusing representative for the movement. His 2021 book, Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, for instance, is not an attempt to demonstrate how great pop music is, but rather to show the way that a variety of ecosystems in music are essential and unique: “Part of the argument of the book is that each genre, each community, has its own assumptions and prejudices,” he said. “And so the idea is not like, ‘Oh, we need to get rid of all of these assumptions and prejudices.’”

The effusive praise doled out to pop stars by fans and the media since 2004 is generally viewed as a critical gesture, perpetuated by listeners and writers using a modern method of thinking to support “guilty pleasure”–type artists in a way that previous generations were too smug to embrace. But what if the poptimism movement is, at its core, more economic than critical? What if the main reason pop stars have been held up in the digital era isn’t a conscious intellectual choice and instead the increasing power imbalance in the music industry and country at large?

Steven Hyden sees it two ways. First off, that poptimism was a legitimate movement that was established in good critical faith. “I think that was totally valid and necessary,” he said. But beyond the earnest benefits, there has been something more sinister going on beneath the surface: “Simultaneous to [the anti-rockist poptimism movement], the old media started to collapse, and it was replaced by the internet. And what the internet was running on wasn’t poptimism—it was pure capitalism. It was this idea that if you get the most hits, and the most attention, that you are also the most worthwhile, and most worthy of discussion.” Hyden described it as a “perfect storm” scenario, “where the things that are the most successful get written about the most, and there’s this sort of backdoor justification for it that comes from this early-aughts poptimism conversation.”

The music media’s intense focus on what drives traffic isn’t just a reflection of what people want to click on—it’s a reflection of where the money increasingly is. Music is a business, and putting together an album worth writing about, and then installing a team around that album to facilitate a media strategy, is generally expensive. For the non–major label artists struggling on the margins of both the recorded music sphere and the live-concert industry, it should be no surprise that they’re less able than ever to fight for space with the Taylor Swifts of the world.

In talking about this, I found myself worrying about how the lack of money and resources for the expanding class of musicians who need day jobs in order to survive might affect the quality of the music they make. One of the only constants in the history of pop music is listeners worrying that pop music is getting worse, of course, but how would you know if the wolf is here, after many generations of people crying about it? Does it not stand to reason that, as the funds dwindle and the infrastructure fractures for many musicians, so, too, would the quality of their product?

“Income inequality is obviously a society-wide problem,” said Hyden. “But when it comes to art, I don’t feel like the people with the most money make the best music. I think that’s been disproven over and over again. And I don’t think that’s true now. A lot of the big pop records, I think, are boring as hell.” He brings up one of his favorite albums of this year, MJ Lenderman’s Boat Songs, which “probably cost, like, $200 to make.” (Notably, Lenderman is also a member of the band Wednesday.)

Aware that I was suddenly the grump of the conversation, I clarified to Hyden that, every year, I still find new music as profound to me as any other. Great art fights through. But more frequently than ever, I had to admit, the new music I put on just seems to wash over me. Yes, I’m getting older, and the vast majority of people tend to lose interest in new music as they age. Yes, my listening habits are not as disciplined as they used to be, now that my smartphone is always arm’s-length away. Regardless, the fact remains: Popular acts that are doing relatively well often come out sounding like background music. Like music to type to.

“To some degree, I agree with you,” he said. “It’s harder for records to stick now.” Hyden cites the “churn of the internet” as a factor in the changing way we interact with music overall: “If you’re not investing anything into a record, it’s also disposable. Like, if it took no effort to get, and you didn’t spend any money on it, you just added it to your thing—you pressed the little plus button—what stakes do you have in the record? You have no stakes in it.”

Sanneh is similarly unconcerned with the way that music might be changing along with the industry. “Sometimes I have bits of what you’re talking about,” said Sanneh, “where, like, I hear so much music now. I hear more new music now than has ever been the case in my life. And that’s weird.” But generally speaking, he’s encouraged by the fact that the barrier for entry to make and release music has never been lower. “It seems to me like more people than ever have a chance to make some music and have it be heard,” he said. “And for someone who loves music as much as I do, it’s hard not to see that as a good thing.”

What will come of the Justice Department’s investigation into Live Nation–Ticketmaster is difficult to predict. It will be some time before a decision is made—and if there are any measures taken, none of them will be instantaneous. The infrastructure that props up the Live Nation empire is more than just a shared letterhead; it’s a business of relationships. The system in place to drive profits for the corporations involved is a handshake that will not be easily ripped apart.

Budnick, the Ticket Masters author, is somewhat skeptical that Ticketmaster will be broken up at all, given the fact that the Justice Department has already had multiple looks at the company in recent memory. But he believes there are modest, attainable rules that could be put in place to help roll back some of the extremities causing issues within the concert industry, like a national anti-scalping law, or a limit on how high service charges can be.

Brown, the policy analyst, is more optimistic in the prospect of a breakup. She believes that Jonathan Kanter, the assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice Antitrust Division, is more motivated than his predecessors, and noted his recent success in blocking the publishing merger of Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. “[The Live Nation–Ticketmaster merger has] been kind of a dark mark on the way that the Obama administration handled antitrust concerns,” she said, “[such] that I do have faith that something will be different this time.”

There’s more than just the future of the concert industry at stake. Brown noted that the way Live Nation has built itself up is “emblematic of where we are in terms of corporate power having far too much influence in our economies, our society, and our ability to make choices as citizens and consumers.” Any substantive action taken by the federal government to limit Live Nation would be a precedent of potentially large ramifications, given the rate at which mergers are factoring into the country’s genetic makeup. From 2009 to 2018, the number of corporate mergers reviewed by the Justice Department tripled, according to Amy Klobuchar’s 2021 book, Antitrust: Taking on Monopoly Power From the Gilded Age to the Digital Age. There’s no reason to believe this trend won’t continue unless it’s stopped by force.

“The effects of monopoly power can be felt everywhere, raising all sorts of questions for the American economy,” Klobuchar writes in Antitrust. “Why do farmers pay so much for seeds and fertilizer? Why is health care so expensive? Why is it so costly to ship goods by rail in certain places? And why are so few incentives in place for Big Tech companies to protect your private information? If you haven’t wondered about any of this, you need to.”

Regardless of how the investigation might ultimately impact the direct effect on the consumer level with something like ticket prices—which have gone up 20 percent since 2019—Kelefa Sanneh thinks that maybe ticket prices should go up. Maybe concertgoers could stand to reassess how much they feel a show is really worth. “Even if it’s in a tiny venue, big venue, whatever—a show by a musical act that you really like is something that you’ll probably remember for the rest of your life,” he told me. “So there’s a sense in which I suspect there’s actually some room for prices to go up, as much as no one likes to hear that. Because there really is nothing like seeing a great concert.”

When I spoke to Sanneh, I was on the fence about going to see the baroque-pop savant Weyes Blood that night, and I mentioned this in passing as an example of how it’s a tougher decision to go to a show than it used to be, given how expensive tickets have become. Later on, as we were getting off the phone, he said, “I think you should go to Weyes Blood. You’re not going to regret it.”

A few hours later, I decided to buy a ticket on the secondhand market—for $35, with an added 37 percent service charge, high in the balcony of the Theatre at Ace Hotel, a gorgeous former moviehouse in Downtown Los Angeles built in 1927. Weyes Blood, a.k.a. Natalie Mering, was performing in support of And in the Darkness, Hearts Aglow, her fifth album, which she has described as being the second in a trilogy about collective catastrophe. Dressed in a white suit, she performed with a large prop bomb dangling on a wire behind her—not so much a metaphor as a looming threat. In the opening number, “It’s Not Just Me, It’s Everybody,” she lamented: “We can’t see from far away / To know that every wave might not be the same / But it’s all a part of one big thing.” The show was worth every penny.

Nate Rogers is a writer in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles TimesGQ, and elsewhere.