Songkick's Massive Suit Against Ticketmaster and Live Nation Is Far From 'Fan Club' Deja Vu

Much has changed in the ten years since a jam band from Colorado accused Ticketmaster of similar anti-competitive behavior -- there's a lot more to lose.

Songkick's antitrust suit against Live Nation and Ticketmaster, filed just before Christmas Day, is not TM's first legal tussle over fan club ticketing. Colorado-borne jam band String Cheese Incident filed a similar suit in August 2003, charging that Ticketmaster used its “monopoly power” and long-term contracts to shut out SCI’s direct-to-fan ticketing operation.

The question 12 years later is: Will Ticketmaster parent Live Nation and its CEO Michael Rapino emerge from the fray without damaging their “artist friendly” cred (a brand positioning Live Nation has touted since Rapino took the helm of the company 10 years ago)?

In the 2003 lawsuit, SCI Ticketing, a partnership between the band and its affiliated touring operation Madison House (now part of AEG Live and co-producer of the Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well shows this summer) alleged that Ticketmaster had flexed its muscle by directing client venues and promoters to stop supplying SCI Ticketing with inventory for SCI and other clients. (This was before the 2010 merger between Ticketmaster and Live Nation; at that time, Ticketmaster was a division of InterActiveCorp., nor had it yet merged with Irving Azoff’s Front Line Management, which was completed in 2010.)

Ticketmaster counter-sued SCI Ticketing, stating in its response that, while it historically did allow a degree of fan club ticketing (10 percent being the industry norm), by demanding large allocations of tickets -- as much as 50 percent of inventory -- SCI had “attempted to break valid [TM] contracts for its own self-promotion and monetary gain," and that SCI Ticketing was trying to get a “’free ride’” on the Ticketmaster infrastructure. “SCI essentially wants to skim the best, most easily sold tickets, and leave Ticketmaster and its clients with the job of selling the rest,” TM said in a statement at the time. “This is in spite of the fact that Ticketmaster has a contract granting them the privilege of selling their tickets on an exclusive basis.”

The power dynamic in TM's response back then was flipped somewhat from the current case, with Ticketmaster accusing SCI of “unfair leveraging of its popularity to achieve its for-profit ticketing goals,” and threatening to take its business to other venues. That suit was settled out of court in 2004, and SCI Ticketing stayed in the fan club ticketing business. “The settlement was SCI Ticketing being able to keep selling exactly as they’d always been doing, which is all they wanted to do,” says a source familiar with the case who wished to remain anonymous. “The Ticketmaster lawyers said, ‘if you push us past us agreeing to let you guys keep doing what you do, you’re doing it for publicity and you’re being disingenuous.’ They were right, so [SCI Ticketing] said, ‘OK, and thank you.’”

Then and now, a lot is at stake, both financially and in terms of perception. Songkick’s rise to prominence in handling Adele’s fan club pre-sale ticketing no doubt has Ticketmaster’s attention, as it does the industry at large. While the pre-sale in the U.K. and Europe was not without its snafus, by all accounts the retooled North American Adele presale came off very well, and for all practical purposes catapulted Songkick into the big leagues of the specialized global ticketing marketplace.

The current case differs from the 2003 situation in that, for one, it involves inventory designated for presales. That the suit charges TM with using its size and scale in an anti-competitive manner rings familiar, especially when coupled with the weight of TM's Live Nation affiliation. Even if some amount of leverage is an implied benefit of such mergers in the first place, Live Nation surely hopes to avoid the perception of a David versus Goliath battle, and doubtless has no desire for the curtain to be pulled back on its practices, however they're viewed by the courts. For their part, Songkick does not want to be perceived as litigious, and if it wants to continue to grow and establish its influence in the touring industry it must find a way to work with, or around, Ticketmaster and Live Nation.

Another difference between the two cases is that the team at SCI Ticketing had no real interest in being a serious competitor within the ticketing space, fan club or otherwise. “[SCI Ticketing] was just a bunch of hippies in Boulder trying to wing it,” says the source. “Ticketmaster was able to say, ‘look, at some point we’ll be able to wear you out, even if you win it’s going to take another three years -- go for it.’” Ironically, many of those “hippies” responsible for the innovation behind SCI Ticketing went on to help launch Front Gate Ticketing in Austin, Tx. -- now part of Ticketmaster due to the C3 Presents acquisition of 2014.

For their part, Songkick, in the wake of last year’s merger with Crowdsurge, is positioned to be a factor in the contemporary fan club ticketing space and beyond; a worthy competitor to Ticketmaster, at least in that niche.  Whether the suit has merit or not, the Songkick case at least demonstrates that Songkick is finding competing with Ticketmaster challenging. “The difference between what [SCI Ticketing] was doing and Songkick is that Songkick is a fully-functioning, real-deal artist ticketing company trying to compete and make a living,” says one observer, “and Ticketmaster continually moves the goalposts around. At this point, with all these arbitrary fan club requirements that bands are supposed to do, no one really knows what they are, what they mean, or if they’re even applicable.”

Songkick’s charge that Ticketmaster threatened an unnamed Songkick artist client with shutting the client out of its paperless ticketing solution (used by Ticketmaster’s venue clients on the Adele tour as an anti-scalping measure) and that TM would withhold marketing support if that client opted to use Songkick instead of TM for its presale, are serious allegations. By specifically mentioning Rapino as having “personally and repeatedly engaged in the anti-competitive acts giving rise to this complaint,” Songkick is directly challenging the CEO’s positioning that he is leading an artist-friendly firm, and, if the allegations are found to be true, could seriously damage Live Nation’s image, whether or not Live Nation is proven to be anti-competitive.

What's most likely to occur is a settlement, but history shows this could be years down the road. “It’s such an easy settlement: you go sit in a room and work it out,” says a source with knowledge of the situation. “I think that’s all the Songkick guys want: ‘tell us what the rules are so we can play by ‘em and build a business.”

In the meantime, this is a case the industry will be watching closely. And Songkick, (which, along with Ticketmaster, did not respond to a request for comment, continues to grow, with even String Cheese Incident is in the process of moving its fan club ticketing operation over to Songkick, according to a source.


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