The Ledger: Can Ticket Fees Really Be Killed?
There have been calls to eliminate or cap fees tacked onto concert ticket prices. But consumers probably won't be able to avoid them.
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Ticket fees have been called everything from “exorbitant” (Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Amy Klobuchar) to “completely bats—” (Last Week Tonight with John Oliver). And they can increase the price of a concert ticket by an average of 27-31%, according to a 2017 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Unfortunately for ticket buyers, those fees aren’t going anywhere quickly. They may change or disappear completely, but consumers won’t reap any savings in the end, Live Nation CEO Michael Rapino explained during Live Nation’s fourth quarter 2022 earnings call on Thursday.
Say, for example, a venue is prohibited from charging fees on top of a ticket’s face value. “Well, then the venue would say, ‘Okay, artists, the rent isn’t $50,000 anymore. It’s $100,000,’” Rapino said.
The ticket fee is a surcharge that helps cover a venue’s costs. Rapino’s point is that the venue needs to cover its costs, so it’s going to collect money to cover them, no matter what. In a normal scenario, the consumer helps cover those costs by paying a surcharge directly to the venue.
If fees were eliminated, artists — who are the final authority on primary ticket prices — would be forced to raise them to cover the additional cost. The surcharge may have disappeared, but that cost would still exist in the form of a higher face value. Regardless of the approach, the consumer’s expense and the venue’s revenues would be unchanged.
“The true cost of going to a show and making the show happen is the full price all-in,” said Rapino. The concept is apparent to anybody who has pondered how airlines set prices. If airlines charged an all-in fee that encompassed all its costs, ticket prices would be dramatically higher. Legislation that banned fees for checked baggage could result in higher prices for everything from flight themselves to in-flight beverages. Airlines that previously allowed free carry-on bags might start imposing fees on those. They could also charge more to change your travel plans (which used to cost the consumer nothing).
Rapino acknowledged that Live Nation, which owns and operates venues, would do the same. “If tomorrow someone said, ‘You know, you can’t charge 20% service fees on your amphitheater, you have to [charge] 10%.’ Well, then the $75,000 house rent that we charge artists would be $100,000,” he said as an example. Live Nation couldn’t simply absorb the cost, he explained. Since the company requires money to pay staff and operate the venue, it would find a way to recoup the lost fees.
While what consumers pay won’t change, they may get more transparency. In the wake of Ticketmaster’s disastrous Taylor Swift Eras Tour pre-sale, President Joe Biden unveiled an initiative to limit, among other types of fees, mandatory, back-end fees that “often hide the full price” of a good or service. The White House pointed to research that found hiding the full price encourages consumers to spend more than they would have otherwise.
Live Nation has also come out publicly — and forcefully — against hidden fees. On Thursday, Rapino called numerous times for the industry to adopt all-in pricing that show the ticket buyer a single price at the beginning of the transaction. Also on Thursday, Live Nation issued a press release that encouraged lawmakers to introduce legislation that includes, among other things, mandatory all-in pricing.
The uproar against Live Nation and Ticketmaster over ticket fees is just one of many criticisms to gain momentum in recent months. Some members of Congress have called Live Nation a monopoly that limits competition in the touring business and harms consumers by charging high prices and leaving some unable to purchase tickets for in-demand concerts like Swift’s Eras tour. Many inside and outside of Washington have called for the Department of Justice to break up the company’s concert promotion and ticketing operations. On Thursday, Sens. Klobuchar and Mike Lee sent evidence of the Jan. 24 Senate hearing on the ticketing market to the Department of Justice and encouraged its antitrust division “to take action if it finds that Ticketmaster has walled itself off from competitive pressure at the expense of the industry and fans.” Others have suggested Ticketmaster improve its security practices to deal with the bot attacks that derailed Swift’s pre-sale.
Ticketmaster may be most reviled for its fees, though. And as Rapino pointed out, those aren’t going away anytime soon.