“Working class people cannot afford to go to gigs anymore,” tweeted a Blink-182 fan in response to seeing the ticket prices for the band’s upcoming tour. Blink-182 has recently reunited and announced a world tour, but when tickets went up for presale on Oct. 12, fans were enraged to see that the prices were totally unaffordable for most regular working people. Reports indicate that prices ranged from around $200 to $600, making the cost of a Blink-182 ticket roughly equivalent to two weeks of rent. These prices are ridiculous in any case, but they sting even more considering Blink-182’s reputation for being pro-working class and anti-establishment. As another fan tweeted, “when Blink-182 said ‘works sucks, I know’ I didn’t think it would mean working to get their tickets.”
So what’s behind these eye-watering prices? Scalpers buying up and reselling the tickets once they’re sold out? Nope. These are the prices set by the primary retailer, Ticketmaster. In particular, these prices are set according to “dynamic pricing.” This is a euphemistic name for a predatory algorithm that automatically inflates prices when tickets are in high demand. The company has been using this system for several years now, and it means that Ticketmaster sells tickets for prices that, in past years, only scalpers on the secondary market would dare to ask.
But according to Ticketmaster’s absurd justification, this is good. If prices are jacked up to begin with, they argue, then secondary ticket brokers can’t buy them up and sell them at a profit. Indeed, dynamic pricing has curbed the secondary market for tickets. But this doesn’t make tickets more affordable or solve the problem of scalping—it just means that Ticketmaster itself is now the ultimate scalper.
The reason they get away with this is that they’ve attained a monopoly over the live entertainment industry since merging with Live Nation (another ticket retailer) in 2010. Now, this single conglomerate has unprecedented control over most of the live entertainment industry, including tickets, venues, and even the representation of artists. In fact, Live Nation is the producer for Blink-182’s upcoming tour, and as a result the band is playing almost exclusively at Live Nation venues. All of this control allows Ticketmaster to ask virtually any kind of price they want because fans have nowhere else to go. As a result, they have been swimming in profits: last quarter, they reported earnings of $6.2 billion! Making this even more outrageous, up to 78% of the cost of each ticket is made up by extra fees tacked on to the base price.
Of course, there is a certain limit to how high ticket prices could climb before nobody bites. But with all the market information that Ticketmaster has access to, they can set their prices at exactly that limit and make maximum profits. It doesn’t matter to them if this means that fewer and fewer people can afford to experience live music, or if fans have to make bigger and bigger sacrifices to see their favourite artists perform live.
Blame the artists?
This leads us to ask: what is to be done? Many journalists and fans, feeling rightly betrayed by artists who allow Ticketmaster to rip off their fanbase, have suggested that artists should simply do better. Vice News points out how country superstar Garth Brooks is known for playing as many shows as it takes to satiate demand and keep prices low, even if it means doing 12 shows in one city. This is very commendable, but as the same article notes, not every artist has the superstardom it takes to get 12 bookings at once—in fact, most artists struggle to get any bookings at all. Further, they often rely on tours to make their money since streaming services like Spotify pay them hardly anything, and as the saying goes, beggars can’t be choosers. While most independent artists aren’t profiteering off their fans anyways, they also probably couldn’t afford to turn down slightly higher ticket prices to save their fans some money.
And what about superstars who do have leverage, but don’t care to use it to protect their fans? For example, Coldplay, Harry Styles, and Taylor Swift have all used dynamic pricing for their shows long before Blink-182 did it. Because artists have to give permission to Ticketmaster to use dynamic pricing, many have argued that they should just turn down dynamic pricing and save their fans some money. Alex Rice, lead singer of the alt-rock band Sports Team, says that his band consciously tries to keep ticket prices low, and that, “If you’re not concerned about who is able to attend your gigs, you’re artistically bankrupt.” Similarly, Jules Jackson of The Big Moon says, “Artists of that size are already at the top of their game. They are going to sell out their shows regardless, so to scrape a bit of extra cash out of their fans just feels mean.” Indeed it is mean. But we shouldn’t be shocked that superstars are interested in making profit, even at the expense of their fans.
Unfortunately, music and musicians are not immune to the forces of capitalism. These superstar artists that can afford to sell cheaper tickets wouldn’t have gotten to that position without bending to capitalism. If an artist isn’t willing to sign on with the biggest and most competitive record labels, work with the biggest ticket retailers and venue owners, and so on, then they’ll be overshadowed by a musician who is. Under capitalism, artists don’t make it to the top on talent alone—they also need to be willing to work with the most profitable and cutthroat corporations like Live Nation or Ticketmaster. Further, it’s only natural that they will want to keep a sizable portion of the profits once they’re successful. Since ticket sales (unlike many other sources of income that artists get) go right into the artists’ pocket, they have a big incentive to succumb to dynamic pricing.
It’s perfectly reasonable to feel outraged at the betrayal of artists who want to make money off their fans, especially those like Blink-182 who got successful by opposing the status quo. But at the end of the day, pleading with artists to do the right thing by cutting into their own profits won’t fix the problem.
Monopoly capitalism is killing music, and us
Another solution proposed by some is the break-up of Live Nation and Ticketmaster as a conglomerate. This has been proposed by The American Economic Liberties Project, and the Democrats have even urged Joe Biden to investigate the monopoly. But this too is not a real solution.
The fact is that we live in an era of monopoly capitalism, and we cannot legislate ourselves out of it. While capitalism is portrayed by the bosses as a system of free and fair competition, one only has to think for a second to realize that in any competition, somebody has to win—and then the game is not so free and fair anymore. As a corporation dominates a corner of the market by producing more efficiently and making its commodities cheaper and cheaper, they will push out, acquire or merge with any remaining competitive corporations. The latter is known euphemistically as “horizontal integration.” Today, this process has happened so many times over that just a handful of corporations control the vast majority of the economy. To give an example, just 10 companies control almost everything we eat.
So if the government were to step in and break up Live Nation and Ticketmaster, market forces would incentivize mergers and acquisitions once again. The true root of the problem is the capitalist system, which gives a few corporations the power to deprive everyday people of artistic experience for the sake of profits.
We should also remember that the crimes of this monopoly go beyond dynamic pricing. Live Nation drags a long trail of death, injury, and worker exploitation behind it. In November of 2021, 10 people died and more than 5,000 were injured at the Astroworld Festival produced by Live Nation due to “crowd crush,” which reports show Live Nation didn’t do enough to prevent. After this, the company withheld pay from its employees to coerce them into signing a revised contract that would help Live Nation avoid liability for the tragedy. Back in 2013, seven people died at a Live Nation concert in Indiana and a concert staffer suffered brain damage in a forklift incident.
Further, the monopolization of the live music industry will make it even harder for new artists to land gigs, as Ticketmaster and Live Nation will prioritize artists that bring in tons of sales and leave the rest to find smaller venues such as pubs or bars to perform at. This is bad for music in general, as it disincentivizes independent artists from touring or even creating music.
Take back arts and culture! Nationalize Ticketmaster and Live Nation under workers’ control!
Neither Live Nation, Ticketmaster, nor any other corporation should have control over how—or if—the vast majority can experience live music. They are creating a future where workers won’t be able to regularly afford the very concerts they set up, serve food at, or clean up after. Instead, live music will be a luxury we can scrimp and save for perhaps once or twice a year. Many working class people are being priced out of live concerts and may never get to see their favourite artists or they will have to pay exorbitant prices for what will increasingly become “once in a lifetime” events.
Music, and in particular the shared experience of live music, has been crucial to human culture for centuries. Now, capitalism is turning it into a sort of boutique experience reserved for the rich. This is just one more way that capitalism deprives working people of the chance to meaningfully participate in artistic culture. But like everything else in the world, live music—or artistic culture in general—wouldn’t even be possible without the labour of the working class. Working people deserve concerts, just like they deserve movies, books, art galleries, and everything that culture has to offer.
In order to make live music an accessible experience for all, we need to cut out the parasites. This means nationalizing Ticketmaster and Live Nation under workers’ control, and ultimately, overthrowing capitalism. Under a democratically planned economy, we could ensure that concerts pay artists and venue workers more than enough to live, create safe conditions for both workers and crowds, and keep prices affordable for fans. In this way, we could revitalize the music industry and let everyone—not just the rich—experience the full breadth of human culture.
Cut out the parasites! Nationalize Live Nation and Ticketmaster! For democratic control of the entertainment industry!