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Would breaking up Live Nation and Ticketmaster actually lower concert ticket prices?

The U.S. Department of Justice’s effort to break up Live Nation and Ticketmaster has been a long time coming, following years of complaints from concertgoers who say they’ve been squeezed by exorbitant prices and hidden fees when trying to buy passes to see Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and other music megastars.

Ever since the government cleared the merger of concert promoter Live Nation and ticketseller Ticketmaster in 2010, there have been demands from consumer advocates to cleave them. The Justice Department argues that the combination is a monopoly that has resulted in harm for music fans and has clamped down competition in the multibillion-dollar live music market.

Live Nation says the arguments are off-base and will probably fail in court. Either way, it will take a long time for the case to wind through the legal system.

Why is the government suing Live Nation?

The Justice Department has raised concerns that Live Nation and Ticketmaster have retaliated against competitors and new entrants and locked out competition with exclusionary contracts.

“The result is that fans pay more in fees, artists have fewer opportunities to play concerts, smaller promoters get squeezed out, and venues have fewer real choices for ticketing services,” said Atty. Gen. Merrick B. Garland. “It is time to break up Live Nation-Ticketmaster.”

Beverly Hills-based Live Nation, the world’s largest concert company, has long been a target for government scrutiny.

When the U.S. approved the 2010 merger, it did so after the companies agreed to a settlement meant to ensure fair competition in the ticketing marketplace and prohibit Live Nation from retaliating against venue owners that decided to defect to competitors. The consent decree was extended and amended in 2019.

But this time, the government is going hard at the company. In its Thursday lawsuit, the U.S. accused Live Nation of various anticompetitive practices and said the company uses its market dominance to impose fees on consumers and pressure artists to use its services.

The suit comes amid a wave of antitrust action from the Biden administration, which has sought to curb the power of conglomerates and Big Tech. The U.S. government has filed other cases against tech giants including Apple, Amazon and Google, taking them to task for their alleged impact on competition.

Live Nation said that the lawsuit will not solve issues related to ticket prices, service fees or access to in-demand shows.

“Calling Ticketmaster a monopoly may be a PR win for the DOJ in the short term, but it will lose in court because it ignores the basic economics of live entertainment, such as the fact that the bulk of service fees go to venues, and that competition has steadily eroded Ticketmaster’s market share and profit margin,” Live Nation said in a statement.

Would breaking up Live Nation lower prices?

Several industry observers who spoke to The Times expressed doubt that the lawsuit would significantly reduce prices for consumers.

Brandon Ross, an analyst at research firm LightShed Partners, said that artists decide how much they want to charge for a tour and then the promoter buys the tour from them. Due to Live Nation’s large scale, it is able to take a lower profit margin, with most of the money going back to the artist, Ross added.

“There is an efficiency in having a large player in the industry,” Ross said. “If that goes away, then that’s going to come out of either the artist’s take, or the artists are going to charge consumers even more.”

Artists like Swift and Bruce Springsteen are able to charge big sums for tickets because the concerts are one-time events, and some people are willing to pay. Because of supply and demand, tickets resold on the secondary market can be much higher than face value.

But James Sammataro, co-chair of Pryor Cashman’s music group, said he believes the lawsuit could address issues such as excess ticketing fees.

“What’s really harming the consumer is all these excess fees and the restrictions on getting the tickets,” Sammataro said. “For most artists, these ‘increased prices’ aren’t really benefiting the artists. In many cases, it’s alienating their core ticket buyers and their core audience.”

There is a larger issue in the music industry of concert tickets being bought at face value by scalpers and resold on secondary markets for astronomical prices.

It’s leading to two classes of music fans: those who can afford to pony up and those who can’t.

Meanwhile, many promoters left the industry after getting clobbered by the pandemic, which shut down or restricted many live events. Some smaller music artists have also been hurt by the lack of competition among promoters and are not given opportunities to play at larger venues, Sammataro said.

“The overall effect is that it leads to a very tilted playing field where it’s difficult for promoters to compete,” Sammataro said. “And when you have a lack of competition, essentially like the basis of predatory pricing, ultimately there’s going to be long term gouging.”

Could the company actually be broken up?

Anything is possible, but there is one thing everyone agrees on: This legal battle will be a long fight.

“Antitrust litigation can be long and protracted,” said Eric Enson, an antitrust partner at Crowell & Moring. “I expect that this will be a matter of years and not months.”

Music industry expert Bill Werde, who runs the music business program at Syracuse University, cautioned that splitting up such a large enterprise wouldn’t be easy, and it’s unclear what the businesses would look like after being disentangled from one another more than a decade after merging.

“They make their margin in ticketing and sponsorships, so if you break up this company, … I don’t know how Live Nation the concert promotion business necessarily lives and thrives independent of this high-margin ticketing business,” said Werde, who also publishes a weekly newsletter.

But even if it could lose, there are reasons the government might be motivated to go after the company in an election year. As Werde and other experts were quick to point out, there’s nothing that unites people like hating Ticketmaster.

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