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Ticketmaster Faces the Music
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Ticketmaster Faces the Music

Senators accused the ticket giant and its owner, Live Nation, of monopolistic practices.

Happy Wednesday! If pulling off a near-impossible mission to destroy an unsanctioned uranium enrichment plant isn’t worth a Best Actor nomination, we don’t know what is.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • A lawyer for former Vice President Mike Pence found classified documents at Pence’s home in Indiana last week, CNN first reported Tuesday. In the wake of President Joe Biden’s classified documents scandal, Pence had hired outside counsel “out of an abundance of caution” to search for any such material of his own. FBI agents collected the material from Pence’s residence on January 19. Greg Jacob, a representative for Pence, wrote to the National Archives on January 18 that the documents must have been “inadvertently boxed and transported” when the former vice president left Washington, and that Pence was “unaware of the existence of sensitive or classified documents at his personal residence.”
  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy appointed Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky and Freedom Caucus members Reps. Chip Roy of Texas, and Ralph Norman of South Carolina to the powerful House Rules Committee, fulfilling one reportedly key promise to Republican holdouts who opposed his speakership.* The Rules Committee is usually stacked with members loyal to the speaker, but McCarthy’s appointments give anti-establishment lawmakers significant influence over which bills come to the floor and, in turn, the ability to drive the chamber’s agenda. “It’s not my goal to be on the Rules Committee and to stop everything that I don’t like,” Massie told The Dispatch’s Haley Byrd Wilt in an interview included in Uphill yesterday. “For me, I don’t think it would be productive or sustainable for me to do that every week.” Meanwhile, McCarthy on Tuesday blocked Democratic Reps. Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell from reprising their roles on the House Intelligence Committee, citing Schiff’s alleged dishonesty and Swalwell’s alleged involvement with a Chinese spy. Both Democrats dismissed the move as “political payback.”
  • After much back and forth, Germany will reportedly relent and send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine—and allow other countries to follow suit—after the United States reportedly agreed to send as many as 30 of its M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine despite previous concerns that training and maintenance requirements would render them impractical. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had reportedly refused to authorize transfer of the easier to maintain Leopard 2 tanks unless the U.S. also sent Abrams.
  • Walmart—the largest private employer in the U.S.—will raise its starting hourly wages from $12 to $14 an hour. The figure is still lower than the $15 an hour offered by rivals Amazon and Target, but the announcement in an internal company memo comes as companies are struggling to attract and retain employees in a tight labor market.
  • The Justice Department announced Tuesday two Florida residents had been indicted for allegedly vandalizing at least three pro-life pregnancy centers in Florida, spray-painting threats like “if abortions aren’t safe than niether [sic] are you,” “WE’RE COMING for U,” and “YOUR TIME IS UP!!” on the sides of the buildings. If convicted of the charges—which also included violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act—each defendant could face a maximum of 12 years in prison and fines up to $350,000. A number of crisis pregnancy centers around the country faced threats or violent attacks in the months leading up to and following last year’s Dobbs decision.
  • The Justice Department sued Google on Tuesday for allegedly violating antitrust law. The suit—joined by eight state attorneys general—claims the search giant eliminated rivals in the online ad industry and the company should be forced to sell off advertising technology products. This federal suit follows one filed by the Trump administration and nearly 40 states which alleged that Google manipulated its search results to give its own products preferential positions. 

Sparks Fly Over Ticketmaster

WASHINGTON, DC – JANUARY 24: Demonstrators rally against the live entertainment ticket industry outside the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Taylor Swift may not have snagged an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song yesterday, but the songwriter did receive a much rarer—and more peculiar—form of cultural recognition: A bunch of gleeful senators quoting her lyrics into the official record.

As fans of both Swift and C-SPAN—a small but mighty Venn diagram overlap—your Morning Dispatchers had a great time rolling our eyes as senators carefully quoted one lyric after another. But the bad blood against Ticketmaster long precedes the platform’s meltdown last year when tickets to Swift’s upcoming tour went on sale. For three hours on Tuesday, a panel of music industry and antitrust types told the Senate Judiciary Committee it’s time to take action against the ticket sales titan—though some analysts argue policymakers’ recent enthusiasm for aggressive antitrust enforcement may be misplaced.

In case you somehow missed the news: Sparks flew in November after Swift fans verified their identities and selected dates to the pop star’s upcoming “Eras” tour, only to find themselves in long digital queues, contending with glitching webpages, surging prices, and high fees. Ticketmaster provoked further outrage when it paused the sale, leading to increased scrutiny and questions about the company’s market share in the online ticketing industry. Some fans even filed a class-action lawsuit, alleging the company is a monopoly unconcerned with its customers’ experience.

But Ticketmaster could build a castle with all the bricks disgruntled fans and artists have thrown at it over the years. Founded in 1976 to sell ticketing system hardware, Ticketmaster had allegedly cornered 80 percent of the entire ticketing market by 2010, when venues and promotion giant Live Nation merged with Ticketmaster in a multi-billion dollar deal. The Department of Justice allowed the merger to go through—but imposed a consent decree, wherein the combined entity, Live Nation Entertainment, promised not to engage in anti-competitive behavior.

Ticketmaster had already racked up plenty of complaints from artists and fans on its own. Venues sign exclusive contracts with Ticketmaster in exchange for cuts of the fees it stacks on top of ticket prices, leaving touring artists few venue options if they want to avoid the company—and the reduced earnings that come with it. Bands have been challenging its market dominance in court for decades, and, channeling an entire industry’s frustrations, country singer Zach Bryan recently dropped an album titled “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster.”

In theory, the Live Nation merger allowed the two companies to share infrastructure and provide a smoother experience for promoters, artists, venues, and fans. But some antitrust analysts had concerns. “Allowing the biggest venue and the promoter to be in common ownership with the biggest ticket provider potentially raises huge antitrust issues,” Bill Baer, who led antitrust enforcement at the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department in the Clinton and Obama administrations, told The Dispatch. (He was nominated to his DOJ post in 2012, after the deal went through.) “[It puts] one powerful ticket provider, Ticketmaster, in a position to up its service fees because it doesn’t face meaningful competition.” 

Sure enough, the DOJ in 2019 extended the combined company’s consent decree with a $1 million fine and some new rules after reports Live Nation had been pressuring venues to sign with Ticketmaster or risk losing access to Live Nation shows. At Tuesday’s hearing, soul-pop musician Clyde Lawrence said his band collects as little as $6 from a $42 ticket and argued the merger has given Live Nation even more power to squeeze artists. “If they want to charge us $250 for a stack of clean towels, they can,” he said. “And have.”

Call it what you want, but lawmakers are calling it a monopoly. “Live Nation is so powerful that it doesn’t even need to exert pressure,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. “It doesn’t need to threaten, because people just fall in line.” 

Others say the monopoly question is more delicate than Congress has made it sound in recent years, with Big Tech companies coming under the microscope. “We’ve started to use that term just to mean ‘big company that I’m currently mad at,’” argued Jennifer Huddleston, a research fellow at the Cato Institute. “When we’re looking at the debate over Ticketmaster—and particularly Ticketmaster and Live Nation’s merger—we really need to take that step back and look at this from the consumer welfare standard.” Which is to say: big doesn’t necessarily equal bad. Instead, market consolidation is a problem only when it leads to higher prices, lower quality, or less efficiency—all of which hurt consumers.

Live Nation head Joe Berchtold’s response to all the scrutiny? You need to calm down. The executive apologized for the Swift tour fiasco, but blamed it on high demand and attacks by bots trying to snag tickets for resale. He argued his company faces real competition—upstart SeatGeek, for instance, is breaking into the primary ticket sales game, though it’s still much smaller—and encouraged lawmakers to set their sights on preventing these bot operations and cooling the resale market. “Industrial scalpers breaking the law using bots and cyberattacks to try to unfairly gain tickets contributes to an awful consumer experience,” Berchtold said. “We need help passing real reforms to stop this arms race.” He also denied reports of retaliation against venues—though the DOJ reportedly began an antitrust investigation into Live Nation last year even before the Swift debacle.

Lawmakers didn’t buy Berchtold’s defense. Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee—apparently not holding a grudge over Swift’s past political opposition—called the bot defense “unbelievable,” noting Ticketmaster hadn’t seriously sought help for the problem until they were on the hot seat for something else. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois argued the post-merger consent decree “does not appear to have been effective” in preventing anticompetitive behavior, and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina suggested Ticketmaster get its problems under control before legislators cook up “a congressional prescription that’s going to have some bad side effects.”

The senators entertained a few policy proposals—Utah Sen. Mike Lee called Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy’s idea of banning ticket transfers to cut down on scalping a “nightmare dressed like a daydream”—but one idea that came up repeatedly was retroactively unwinding the 2010 merger. “As long as Live Nation remains the dominant promoter and ticketer, competition will continue to suffer,” said SeatGeek co-founder Jack Groetzinger. “The only way to restore competition is to break up Live Nation and Ticketmaster.” Complaints predate the merger, though, and some experts worry that even if formally separated, the two companies could continue to collude. But lawmakers also expressed interest in legislation requiring entities like Ticketmaster to be more transparent about the fees they charge. “We are very interested in actually doing something and not just throwing popcorn,” Klobuchar said.

Klobuchar also noted the DOJ could tackle some of these problems, if its investigation leads to a monopolization lawsuit or a stricter consent decree. “If [investigators] can show that a company is raising prices arbitrarily, then that should be the focus of the case,” said Mark Jamison, a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. “It should not be about size.” If the case hinges on Ticketmaster and Live Nation using market power to threaten venues and raise fees beyond what the market would otherwise bear, it wouldn’t be. 

Worth Your Time

  • A president whose signature catchphrase is “malarkey” should theoretically be almost too easy to satirize, but Biden has managed to steer clear of much lampooning during his first two years in office, Peter Funt writes for the Wall Street Journal. “Politics aside, the guy is a genuinely amusing character, with plenty of what comedians call ‘hooks.’ He’s an occasionally confused octogenarian, sometimes frisky with facts and inclined to spend five minutes telling a one-minute story,” Funt notes. “Yet, until recently, comedians haven’t ripped him nearly as much as his supporters might fear and his opponents would wish. So what’s the deal with that? ‘There’s a lot of sensitivity around Biden,’ notes Dana Carvey, the veteran comic who specializes in presidential humor. Mr. Carvey told me that for a while after the 2020 election, many liberal comedians felt they were in a ‘vise grip,’ squeezed between their own political views and the desire to get laughs. ‘Has politics gotten so serious and so entrenched that we have something bigger than our jokes right now?’ he asks. ‘Some comedy writers feel they can’t do something that will sabotage their party and let the bad guy get leverage. I don’t think any of this is spoken out loud. It’s just obvious.’”
  • Using critical race theory, gas stoves, and M&Ms as examples, progressive comedian Jeff Maurer expresses frustration with the left’s eagerness to mock conservative hyperventilation without acknowledging the kookiness that causes it. “When the right freaks out about M&Ms, Mr. Potato Head, Dr. Seuss, or a Twix commercial, we dismiss them as unserious,” he writes in his (explicit) I Might Be Wrong newsletter. “But it’s not like the left never obsesses over cartoons and dumb kiddie bull—t—we focus on that stuff all the g——-d time. It’s hypocritical to start a conversation about how the female rabbit from Space Jam is insufficiently ‘empowered’ and then mock those who prefer the thirst trap bunny from the ‘90s. We can’t invent the widely-despised word ‘Latinx’ as part of a relentless language-policing campaign and then dismiss Sarah Huckabee Sanders as frivolous when she bans the word immediately after becoming governor of Arkansas. We need to be consistent; either all of this stuff is a dumb culture war sideshow, or none of it is.”

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Toeing the Company Line

  • The whole gang got back together for last night’s Dispatch Live (🔒), sending David off (on his birthday!) to the New York Times. Over the course of an hour, they unpacked the indictment of a former high-ranking FBI counterintelligence agent, dove into the latest in the increasingly bipartisan classified document saga, and shared some touching reflections on David’s time at The Dispatch. We’re glad to know we’ll be able to continue beating up on him in the company fantasy football league and we’ll continue to have his insights on Dispatch podcasts and our members-only livestreams. Members who missed the conversation can catch a rerun—either video or audio-only—by clicking here.
  • On Tuesday’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah chatted with a man who knows a thing or two about special counsels: Rod Rosenstein. Tune in for a conversation with the former deputy attorney general about all the latest DOJ drama, and some of Sarah and David’s more tepid SCOTUS takes.
  • David certainly isn’t slumping to the finish line! On today’s episode of The Dispatch Podcast, he’s joined by Kmele Foster for an explainer-style look at the Twitter Files—and what they mean for Big Tech, the First Amendment, and more.
  • Jonah is joined by Duke University’s Bruce Caldwell on today’s episode of The Remnant for a conversation about the life and work of Friedrich Hayek, about whom Caldwell just published a biography. How did Hayek rise to prominence? What was he like as a man? How should we view his contributions today?
  • As noted above, Rep. Thomas Massie and two other Freedom Caucus members on the House Rules Committee could mean trouble for Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s agenda, Haley reports in Tuesday’s Uphill. “Because of a deal McCarthy made with his Freedom Caucus critics to secure the speakership,” she writes, “those three members could exercise veto power over GOP leadership’s plans—and can enforce the parts of the deal with McCarthy that assured a more open legislative process.” 
  • In this week’s edition of The Sweep (🔒), Sarah breaks down where the GOP primary contenders’ skills lie—and where they don’t. “Anyone who has worked with DeSantis can tell you that he isn’t a retail politician,” Sarah writes. “But the only real question is whether voters will care. Do retail politics matter anymore?” 
  • In Tuesday’s Boiling Frogs (🔒), Nick has some theories about why anti-vaccine sentiment seems only to be hardening. “Pandemic fatigue and political conformism are two factors in growing anti-vaxxism,” he suggests. “Another: Twitter. It might not be real life, but it can affect real life.”
  • On the site today, Charlotte digs into Russia’s notorious Wagner group, Keith Whittington looks at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ often hypocritical approach to intellectual freedom, and Jonah argues that honesty is the best policy when it comes to discovering classified documents in your private residence.

Let Us Know

Speaking of Taylor Swift and Ticketmaster, what do you consider the best concert you’ve ever been to? What made it so great?

*Correction, January 25, 2023: Rep. Thomas Massie is not a member of the House Freedom Caucus.

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.