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Justice Department sues concert ticket behemoth Live Nation-Ticketmaster

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Justice Department says it's time for a breakup of Ticketmaster and its owner, Live Nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BAD BLOOD")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause, baby, now we got bad blood.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And, you know, you know about this story because of Taylor Swift, whose recent tour crashed the Ticketmaster website and drew attention to the company's ticket prices. Now, the federal government, 29 states and the District of Columbia are suing the company. They call it a monopoly.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alina Selyukh is in our studios. It's a kind of live event. We tried to sell tickets, but the website crashed. Alina, good morning.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Perfect. Good morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So what makes this a monopoly?

SELYUKH: So the government says that Ticketmaster/Live Nation has tentacles in every part of live entertainment. They sell tickets. They promote shows. They own venues. They manage musical acts. They're essentially controlling which artists play on what dates at what venues, under what terms and fees, and then also how people get tickets to those shows and what fees they have to pay. No other competitor comes anywhere close, and what the government argues says this leads to higher prices and generally a worse experience for both artists and fans.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence for that argument?

SELYUKH: So the lawsuit cites a number of concrete examples. A lot of them actually echo what we heard last year in a Senate hearing. For example, New York musician Clyde Lawrence testified that artists who want to perform at a Live Nation venue have to hire Live Nation also as a promoter, which gives them little leverage.

CLYDE LAWRENCE: If they want to take 10% of the revenues and call it a facility fee, they can, and have. And if they want to charge us $250 for a stack of 10 clean towels they can, and have.

SELYUKH: The government's case also argues that Live Nation regularly acquires potential competitors and that venue operators feel pressure to sign on to Ticketmaster because they are afraid to lose out on concert tours run by Live Nation. At the hearing, one venue owner pointed out that the company even profits from ticket sales to competition, which is sort of like Pepsi earning money from people buying Coke.

INSKEEP: Wow. Just to be clear, in our live event here this morning, the towels are free. But what does the company say about this case?

SELYUKH: So Live Nation argues that all the typical frustrations about things like fees or availability of tickets, they would not be resolved by breaking up the company. It says that artists set the ticket prices before fees, that production costs are constantly going up and that ticket scalpers are really the menace of the industry. The company overall argues the Justice Department is veering away from many of the same things they considered and accepted back in 2010, when the government originally approved the merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster.

INSKEEP: Oh, so it was not so long ago that the Justice Department looked this over and said everything was cool.

SELYUKH: And they sort of put a lot of conditions on the deal that - now they're sort of saying the conditions did not put enough guardrails around the deal.

INSKEEP: How strong is the government's case there?

SELYUKH: The onus is definitely on the government. It will take years to shake out. I do want to add that the Biden administration is pursuing a number of these big anti-monopoly cases against major corporations, like Apple, Google and Amazon. And this is a rare case where it's directly asking to break up the company. And it's asking for a jury trial, which is unusual for an antitrust case. It's quite dense. It's complicated. Perhaps...

INSKEEP: But there might be a Swiftie in those 12. That could affect things.

SELYUKH: Exactly. Perhaps the government is counting on sort of jurors being more open to hearing hours of all that, given that we're all kind of familiar with Ticketmaster, Live Nation, the murky, confusing world of tickets and fees. One of the senators last year actually made a glib comment that Ticketmaster accomplished a stunning achievement by totally unifying Republicans and Democrats in their frustration.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thanks for the update.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alina Selyukh is a business correspondent at NPR, where she follows the path of the retail and tech industries, tracking how America's biggest companies are influencing the way we spend our time, money, and energy.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.