Last week, one of my favourite bands announced tickets would go on sale for two new shows at The Forum in LA. Tickets were on sale at the end of the week, and I busied myself making plans to attend. After attempting (unsuccessfully) to buy tickets, I have once again been left in the all too familiar state of sadness and rage. Ticketmaster, with their huge influence in the ticket market, are nearly impossible to avoid when trying to see live music. Issues of ambiguous “administration” fees, increasing ticket prices, exclusive ticket availability, oligopolistic behaviour and exposed compliance with professional ticket touts have all contributed to their tarnished image. And I have just about had enough.
From the beginning of the ticketing process, the issues that have come to define the modern live music experience were clear. The now standard two days of pre sale for corporate customers (American Express, Goldenvoice and Ticketmaster to name a few) preempted the wide release of the routinely extortionate ticket prices. Unsurprisingly, after failing to get tickets through the primary seller, I could instantly find plenty on sale for many times their face value in the pirate like world of professional touts that is the secondary market ( e.g Ticketsnow, Getmein, Stubhub, Viagogo, Soundwave).
Initially I was furious with Arcade Fire, the band who the tickets were to see. After seeing them rail against the “VIP room bullshit” at Coachella two weeks ago, it was massively disheartening to face the corporatisation of live music while trying to buy tickets to see their show. But my fury waned after realising that bands are also tied to Ticketmaster. Websites that wont crash, large host servers and access to large arenas are operational issues that are required to allow as many Arcade Fire fans the opportunity of seeing them live. These requirements eliminate every primary ticket seller but Ticketmaster.
I moved on to look for tickets for the Washington night of the tour, the nearest dedicated Arcade Fire concert to me here in Vancouver. The seat plan at the Gorge Amphitheatre points to further exasperation. While the cheap “General Admission” section is furthest from the stage, the standing room only pit area is the most expensive. Traditionally sold at a reduced rate due to the lack of personal space, cleanliness, a seat, and many other basic civilised needs, the pit area is the visible pulse of any live event. Pricing out all but the most affluent of fans from the often-disgusting-but-always-fun pit areas is as absurd as it is dangerous to an energetic and exciting atmosphere.
According to Ticketmaster, this has nothing to do with them:
“Ticketmaster sells tickets on behalf of promoters, teams, artists and venues, which means Ticketmaster does not set the ticket prices or determine seating location except under limited circumstances.” (Source: Ticketmaster)
Considering the merger between Live Nation and Ticketmaster in 2010, this position becomes questionable. The $800m (USD) deal was announced in February 2009, but “potential risk to competition” delayed approval for 11 months in the USA and Canada, and led to an initial negative ruling in the UK. The potential risk to competition is so huge, as Live Nation is the largest live events company in the world, and Ticketmaster is one of the largest ticketing firms. The new titanic business, Live Nation Entertainment, now own, control or have influence over every step of the live music process; from recording (Front Line Management Group), promoting (LIve Nation Concerts), ticketing (Ticketmaster) and ownership of venues around the world.
This almost complete vertical integration achieved by Live Nation Entertainment illustrates that, as is the case for the Arcade Fire Concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre, one firm is arranging the seat locations, setting the prices and selling the tickets on behalf of itself. Furthermore, the only competition visible has been over control of the largest arenas with rival entertainment behemoth AEG (Source: The Guardian). A contest that will have little, if any, effect on the consumer. Such a dearth of competition between a small number of firms, with massive vertical integration is thoroughly reminiscent of the Hollywood Studio System. Ticketmaster, as one of the many faces of Live Nation Entertainment, is part of an inescapable oligopoly that is in total control of the live music industry.
The rising ticket prices this has naturally resulted in have been explained with a very effective top-down narrative, emphasised by the oligarchy and largely accepted by consumers (myself included). This narrative follows that, since the digital music evolution, your favourite bands are making less and less. Widespread piracy is driving them to the poor house, and the only way they are now going to make any money is through charging more for live shows. For an example of the communication of this consumer-blaming narrative, see ex-Executive Chairman of Live Nation Entertainment, and Billboard’s number 1 Most Influential Person in music, Irving Azoff:
As subtle and graceful as this narrative is, there are a few small problems with it.
Firstly, the music industry as a whole has not been negatively affected by the digital media evolution (Source: CBC). Yes, CD manufacturers have suffered badly, along with many other middle men involved in the old school distribution chain. But the opportunity for artists to reach consumers directly has provided a huge new source of value. Furthermore, the businesses that were previously in control of the industry, remain in control. The threat of new media has helped them cement their position at the top of the chain. This is evident with the numerous mergers that created Live Nation Entertainment, and the consolidation of the “Big Six” major labels in 1988 into the “Big Three” that exist today. For the Irving Azoff’s strategising the increase in ticket prices, new media has never negatively affected their profit margins.
Also, increased ticket prices have not resulted in increased earnings for the majority of artists (Source: Alternative Press), and there is a complete lack of transparency surrounding the price setting system. The combination of these factors breeds suspicion over where the money is going, and what costs are needing covered. The OPEC-like control of this pricing mechanism further intrenches the oligopoly held by Live Nation Entertainment and AEG, and present another reason to question the predominant narrative.
Another serious challenge to this narrative is the dishonest and reprehensible practices exposed in the secondary market of ticket exchanges. In 2012, documentary program Dispatches investigated ticket exchange giants Viagogo and Soundwave. Undercover footage exposed Live Nation Entertainment allocating thousands of tickets directly to ticket exchange companies for resale at a huge markup. From these sales, 90% of the profit was returned to Live Nation Entertainment.
Considering these issues, it is clear that there are serious flaws with the current narrative perpetuating the oligopoly in live music. Firms like Live Nation Entertainment have ruthlessly busied themselves with taking as much profit as possible from the ambiguous prices, leaving artists with no more than before, while facilitating the mechanisation of professional touting through “ticket exchanges”. Supporting live music through the likes of Live Nation Entertainment, is doing little but increasing the profit margins of oligopolies.
So what can be done? While it is abundantly clear that a change is needed, I can not argue for people to stop attending live music. I know I will remain an unwilling, but regular Ticketmaster customer. One could hope for a live music Paramount Case, separating the control of the supply chain. But currently, this is as far as legislation wishes to go.
Thankfully there are companies like Ticketline in the UK that provide a small alternative when purchasing tickets. Ticketline do not take any money from the advertised ticket price, and their main source of revenue is flexible administration fees. But “small” is the key word here. As the market currently operates, Ticketline will never be a sizeable competitor for the likes of Ticketmaster.
I would love to see a more radical alternative based on defending the autonomy of independent venues, fair remuneration for artists and transparent ticket pricing. Organisations like the Association of Independent Music (http://www.musicindie.com/home), and the Association of Independent Festivals (http://aiforg.com/) in the UK would be perfect models for an Association of Independent Venues. This collection of venues could arrange by city, and invest in a local, tailor-made ticketing system that gave fair allocation to physical sellers as well as online channels. Ticket touting of every scale could be more effectively countered through varying the rigour of registration processes. Artists could be contacted directly or through independent record labels to arrange concerts. All of this would be in the pursuit of circumnavigating, and thus deconstructing, the oligopoly of Ticketmaster, Live Nation Entertainment and AEG. Yes this is a utopian dream of mine for the future. But I hope you will join me in reciting the words of Arcade Fire:
“We’ll scream and shout, till we work it out”