Bruce vs. Ticketmaster: A Bittersweet Victory?
In this day and age, when the answer to the question of "who rules?" is so glaringly obvious, a victory for our side is worth savoring, no matter how small. And so it is with the recent decision that, for once, a company like Ticketmaster actually owes us something!
This past week saw the Federal Trade Commission rule that the ticket-selling behemoth used "deceptive bait-and-switch tactics" while selling seats to 14 shows on Bruce Springsteen's 2009 tour with the E Street Band. The ruling demands that Ticketmaster, which is now part of Live Nation Entertainment Inc, pay fans "upward of a million dollars." It might not be the CEO's head on a pike, but it's a start.
The hubbub started back in early '09 when fans attempting to buy tickets on the Ticketmaster website were redirected to a site for TicketsNow, where the prices were three or four times as originally states. What's more, people who swallowed their pride and ponied up on the new site found out later that they had not actually purchased tickets, but merely the hope that they would get tickets. In essence, what they had bought was a really expensive lotto number! When TicketsNow eventually denied fans their seats, they didn't even offer full refunds! Pitchfork called it a "glorified scalping service," and that seems about right.
When the news reached Springsteen, he was reportedly outraged. In the days following he and manager Jon Landau released a press statement slamming Ticketmaster:
"The abuse of our fans and our trust by Ticketmaster has made us as furious as it has made many of you... Some artists or managers may not perceive there to be a conflict between having the distributor of their tickets in effect 'scalping' those same tickets through a secondary company like TicketsNow--we do."
The FTC called the revelations "pretty shocking" (which has got the be understatement of the month at least). What's really shocking, though, is how quickly Ticketmaster backed down and tried to make nice with Bruce. Days after the Boss took his battle public, CEO Irving Azoff released a statement of his own assuring everyone that the links to TicketsNow had been removed from the site, offering refunds and apologizing profusely to Springsteen.
It's a far cry from the company that viciously attacked Pearl Jam fifteen years ago when the band demanded the ticket-sellers lower their service charges by a whopping buck-fifty. Because Ticketmaster had exclusive agreements with the vast majority of stadium venues, they were able to basically strong-arm Pearl Jam into backing down.
Certainly, it's a moment that anyone who has been ripped off by a large ticket-seller (read: bought anything from them) can really appreciate. But at the same time, the victory may be ultimately pyrrhic.
One of the reasons the FTC's ruling seems like just desserts is that Ticketmaster recently became larger and more powerful than any company should be allowed. Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice decided that the proposed merger between Ticketmaster and concert promoter Live Nation did not constitute a monopoly. This, despite the fact that both are by far the largest in their respective fields, and the fusing of the two will essentially give one company unprecedented power over the two most important areas of the live entertainment business.
What this means is apparent. Concert-goers will now be ripped off even more. There is no scarcity of fans venting their frustration on the web. Music journalists and bloggers have slammed the deal. And, with the opportunistic exception of Billy Corgan, not a single musician has praised the merger.
In the same statement released after the TicketsNow scandal, Springsteen and Landau insisted that "The one thing that would make the current ticket situation even worse for the fan than it is now would be Ticketmaster and Live Nation coming up with a single system, thereby returning us to a near monopoly situation in music ticketing."
That's pretty close to what's now happening. As stipulated in the approved merger, Ticketmaster and Live Nation are to create two new companies to "compete" with the newly baptized Live Nation Entertainment. There is little chance in these new companies gaining any real traction in concert promotion or ticket selling. Ticketmaster already has five-to-ten year agreements with most venues in the U.S. (the same agreements that blocked Pearl Jam's case) and though 20 percent of these contracts are to expire in the next year, the Justice Department has refused to bar the new LNE from renewing these contracts. Rather, the DOJ has flaccidly committed to ensuring the company doesn't engage in "anti-competitive behavior."
Like most commitments from the government to working people, it's hollow. Says Sally Greenberg of the National Consumers League "We remain concerned that these two companies, with a history of anti-consumer behavior, will abide only by the letter, and not the spirit of the settlement agreement."
Over the past fifteen years, the average ticket price has more than doubled from $25 to $60. In a time when most fans are scratching what little they can just to keep their heads above water, this trend does not bode well. And with the power to set prices and lay out terms now consolidated in fewer hands, it's also a trend likely to continue.
Bill Pascrell, Representative for the 8th congressional district of New Jersey, stated it clearly when he said that "The FTC did exactly what the U.S. Department of Justice failed to do in its approval of the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger--put the rights of American consumers first."
Now, post-merger, the new Live Nation Entertainment is engaging in the same old arrogant posturing that everyone should probably expect. A statement released by LNE after the decision insists that Ticketmaster did absolutely nothing wrong: "We are gratified that the FTC found that Ticketmaster did not engage in any inappropriate transfer or diversion of tickets to TicketsNow or any other resale entity."
The brazenness is truly shocking. Orwell once warned us against people trying to rewrite the past to control the future, but it's doubtful that he foresaw a cabal that would openly rewrite the present even as they are condemned at the same exact moment.
But then, companies like Ticketmaster and Live Nation have always been able to buy their own reality. The rest of us just fly coach.
Alexander Billet, a music journalist, writer and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com), and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts website. His articles have also appeared in Z Magazine, SocialistWorker.org, New Politics, SleptOn.com, CounterPunch and PopMatters.com.
Contact him, or subscribe to his mailing list at firstname.lastname@example.org