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Analysis: Taylor Swift ticket snafu turns up regulatory heat on Ticketmaster

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Taylor Swift poses on the red carpet for the 2022 MTV Europe Music Awards (EMAs) at the PSD Bank Dome in Duesseldorf, Germany, November 13, 2022. REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen/File Photo

Ticketmaster’s botched sale of tickets to Taylor Swift’s 2023 tour, the megastar’s first in five years, has led to calls for the company to be broken up – a proposal that antitrust experts say could find a far more receptive audience than in the past.

The U.S. Justice Department, which approved Ticketmaster’s much-criticized purchase of Live Nation in 2010, is different than it was 12 years ago. It has proven much more willing to file antitrust lawsuits against giant companies – including the ongoing December 2020 lawsuit against Google – and fight mergers, not all of which it wins.

In fact, the department has opened an antitrust probe into Ticketmaster’s owner, Live Nation Entertainment, the New York Times reported on Friday, saying that the agency’s staff members appeared to be conducting a broad probe and were talking to concert halls and other ticketing companies about Live Nation’s practices.

The Justice Department declined to comment. Ticketmaster did not respond to a request for comment.

A probe is well short of a decision to file a lawsuit asking a judge to break up a company. That is a long and difficult process in which the government has to prove a monopoly in court and that the company abuses its monopoly power, experts said.

If the Justice Department went that route, it would probably have to fight all the way to the Supreme Court. That would happen “sometime in our lifetime if we are fortunate to have long lives,” said William Kovacic, who teaches antitrust at George Washington University’s law school.

The fight to break up AT&T, for instance, took nearly a decade.

The American Economic Liberties Project, which has pushed for tougher antitrust enforcement, kicked off a campaign to break up Ticketmaster in October, before the latest debacle.

Some 38,000 people have used the group’s website as of Friday to tell the government to break up Ticketmaster, said Morgan Harper, a lawyer who is leading the project’s effort.

Taylor Swift said Friday it was “excruciating” to watch the ticketing problems unfold this week, and that her team had been assured multiple times that ticket sellers could handle the demand.

Ticketmaster previously said in a statement the Swift ticket sale problems were caused by unprecedented demand, much of it by bots trying to buy tickets to resell.

Ticketmaster has angered many artists and fans for decades. In the mid-1990s, the grunge band Pearl Jam decided to tour without Ticketmaster but found handling ticket sales on its own too unwieldy and soon returned to the service.

Ticketmaster’s merger with Live Nation was controversial in 2010 because Ticketmaster was already a behemoth and Live Nation, primarily a promoter at the time, was starting to move into the business of selling tickets, said Andre Barlow of Doyle, Barlow and Mazard PLLC.

“Live Nation was a new entrant, but it had the wherewithal to really compete,” he said.

A previous Ticketmaster fight with the department culminated in a December 2019 settlement that extended for another five years a consent decree that was part of the deal’s initial approval.

The new consent agreement barred Ticketmaster from “retaliating against concert venues for using another ticketing company, threatening concert venues, or undertaking other specified actions against concert venues for ten years,” the department said in 2019.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who tweeted this week that the company should be broken up, is not the only lawmaker to pay attention to Ticketmaster’s woes this week.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate antitrust panel, said Friday she planned a hearing on the matter, as well as long-running concerns about hidden fees. She did not give a date for the hearing but said it would be this year.