Mr. Berchtold Goes to Washington: The Senate Stage Manages A Foregone Conclusion (Opinion)

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Joe Berchtold, president and CFO of Live Nation, and Jack Groetzinger, CEO of SeatGeek, are sworn in during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Jan. 24, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

It felt like a witch hunt, or maybe more like a witch burning, than a fair hearing.

To say that yesterday’s Senate’s judiciary committee’s hearing, with its flashy title, “That’s the Ticket: Promoting Competition and Protecting Consumers in Live Entertainment,” came in with an axe to grind would be an understatement. To say that it was remotely fair or even-handed in the most minimal way, is risible. Rather, the committee had already decided that Live Nation and Ticketmaster together are a monopoly without a scintilla of a fair and balanced hearing.

Of the six so-called “expert” witnesses called on to testify, five were squarely in the anti-Live Nation/Ticketmaster camp before the gavel was even raised. Ticketer Seat Geek’s CEO Jack Groetzinger and Jam Productions’ Jerry Mickelson are straight-up competitors; Musician Clyde Lawrence wrote a New York Times OpEd decrying the LN/TM merger and the lack of transparency in their dealings; Sal Nuzzo is an SVP at the James Madison Institute, a libertarian, free-market think tank out of Florida; and Kathleen Bradish works for the American Antitrust Institute. The latter two, seemed to be on different ends of the political spectrum, but share a pre-conceived belief that TM/LN is a monopoly.

That left Joe Berchtold, Live Nation’s president and CFO, to field the fusillade of accusations in earnest coming from the grandstanding left, right and center with little or no time to answer — though the hearing was nearly 3 hours. Where were the many venues, managers artists, agents and others in this industry who would go on record to say they actually prefer Ticketmaster’s technology to other services based on its own merits? Or the buildings and artists who will say they have never seen any quid pro quo pressure from Live Nation to use their ticketing company?  Other names were submitted before the hearing, but they were dismissed outright because they might dispute the foregone conclusion.

Obviously, this isn’t a court of law where due process is actually the goal, and this may be par for the congressional hearing course, but what kind fair and just system do we have when a hearing is so stacked and the conclusion is reached before it even starts? Bi-partisan bloviating does little to engender equitable legislation.

There was so much information and context never proffered.  That Taylor Swift’s tour, for example, is actually promoted by AEG, Live Nation’s rival. That when the first consent decree was created, Live Nation gave up its proprietary Ticketmaster’s technology free to competitors. That venues have a major say in ticketing fees, which has nothing to do with the ticketer. And if they cut those ticketing fees, venues will raise their usage fees, which will likely cause artists to charge more–i.e. a zero-sum game.   

Seat Geek, whose CEO was on the panel, currently has tickets to Taylor Swift’s show at NYC’s MetLife Stadium going for $16,649. If that’s not part of the problem, then I’m not sure what is.

So too, though, is the accusation by musician Clyde Lawrence, who alleged that his band was charged $250 fee for 10 clean towels. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but how will that be achieved?   

Last week, I went with my family to a Clippers game at Arena. We would have gone to the Lakers, but their “cheap seats” were about four or five times the price, so we went to L.A’s “other” NBA team (who may not have a certain player named LeBron, but do have a better record). 

I compared Seat Geek and StubHub, which I sometimes use for concerts. Seat Geek seemed to have more offerings for this particular game. My nosebleed tix via Seat Geek were $18.00 a ticket. This seemed more than reasonable. Then the last screen in the purchasing process popped up with the “Fee per ticket” charge, which added $12.72 per ticket – or a whopping 70.6% service charge on what I was trying to keep to a thrifty night out with the fam.  And just because we were late, I also picked up a parking pass on Seat Geek – another $18 and $12.72 “Fee per ticket.”

Sure, if it was higher priced ticket, that fee percentage would have likely been less, but still what exactly was this fee for? There was no indication on my receipt.  Was that a venue fee? Or taxes or lucre for the original ticket holder? Perhaps the team or the athletes? Where is the all-in pricing that the panel seemed to advocate for?

I also had to process my Seat Geek ticket through the AXS app to get it digitally. Maybe AXS gets a cut? Or maybe they now have my data—as several senators were fixated on.

Ticketing, as the mantra goes, is hard. Ticketmaster has invested millions and millions of dollars in an attempt to make their solution convenient for consumers, foolproof for venues, and “friendly” to artists. And there’s a lot of forces at work – the artist, the venue, the promoter, they all partake in the revenues and ticket pricing. And when it gets to the secondary, all bets are off. Bots, furiously dedicated to staying one step ahead of the legitimate market, make it all much worse. 

There’s also this: You’re dealing with unprecedented demand with a tech-advanced, well-organized, highly motivated opposition that has zero scruples driven by greed and greed alone. If there’s one thing that could make all this better it would be controls that limit scavengers and profiteers and illegitimate platforms selling, there’s too much confusion for Joe Fan trying to play by the rules and buy a ticket. 

I don’t think anyone’s against fair competition in the marketplace. But before the Senate or anyone else makes recommendations or policy, it needs a fuller picture of the market, where supporters and detractors alike can make their cases, otherwise, history, as we all well know, is doomed to repeat itself yet again.