Ticketmaster’s Post-Swift Strategy: Take On Ticket Fees
Although a cyberattack undermined a presale for the superstar's The Eras Tour, the Live Nation-owned company is focusing on eliminating its "drip pricing" model.
After weeks of strategizing how to salvage Ticketmaster’s reputation in the wake of last November’s Taylor Swift presale debacle and Live Nation president/CFO Joe Berchtold’s January grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee, the ticketing giant’s parent company has settled on an approach that will ramp up lobbying to hit back at scalpers while educating consumers about ticketing fees.
Despite breaking two company records with the Nov. 15 The Eras Tour presale — the most tickets ever sold in a single day (2.4 million) and, according to the company, keeping 95% of those tickets off secondary sites like StubHub and SeatGeek — Ticketmaster found itself cast as the villain and Live Nation as a monopoly after a cyberattack disrupted over 100,000 transactions.
The outcry has led to a mixture of disbelief and self-reflection at Live Nation’s global headquarters in Beverly Hills, Calif. “The company enables music fans to connect with the world’s greatest artists through concerts and events that often become the cornerstone moments of people’s lives,” says a Live Nation executive who was not authorized to speak on the record. “Why the fuck do people hate us so much?”
Although the controversy over the Swift presale had to do with ticket availability rather than price — the prime complaint of Ticketmaster’s July 2022 Verified Fan sale of tickets to Bruce Springsteen’s 2023 tour — the executive says that Live Nation has determined that redeeming itself with consumers “starts with the fees,” which can add over 30% to the final price of a concert ticket.
“We’ve got to now go out and do a much better job so policymakers and consumers understand how the business operates,” Live Nation president/CEO Michael Rapino said during the company’s most recent investor call. “We’ve historically not had a big incentive to shout out loud that venues are charging high service fees or artist costs are expensive. But I think now [that] education is paramount.”
Ticketmaster’s main source of revenue comes from the fees it charges to process ticket transactions. A ticket’s face value goes to the artist, while the ticketing giant shares the fees it collects with the venues that contract for its services.
Ticketmaster typically keeps $2 to $5 per ticket for processing costs and a small portion of the fees it collects to recoup any loans, advances or bonuses it may have paid the venue to win its ticketing contract. Contracts for large venues can be worth millions of dollars. The balance of the fees collected goes to the venue, which uses the money to cover the cost of the show.
Traditionally, promoters book venues for artists, pay rent to use the space and hire its staff. What’s left over as profit is divvied up with the act, which typically receives 80% to 85% of that amount.
But as competition to book top-shelf headline talent has increased over the last decade, venues have reduced the rent they charge and promoters have agreed to take a smaller percentage of base ticket sales — sometimes as little as 5%.
As Rapino said on the investor call: “The artist takes most of that ticket fee base. So the way that the venue, the promoter or the ticketing company [earns its] revenue fees is through that extra fee.”
The increasing costs of concert production, which are borne by the promoter, have also widened the gap between a ticket’s face value and the final amount charged after fees, which can induce sticker shock when two $100 tickets can end up costing $265. While it has been very profitable for Ticketmaster to cover more of a concert’s costs through these fees, it has helped turn ticket buyers against the company.
Ticketmaster executives are hoping a simple fix can solve the problem — showing the total cost of a ticket, face value plus fees, at the beginning of the checkout process. That method is already used in New York, where it is mandated by state law.
“We all want to know what is the true cost to see the show when we start shopping,” Rapino said on the call. “We wish that would be mandated tomorrow across the board [because] that would relieve a lot of the stress [and] the consumer’s perception that there’s this magical extra fee added on” that isn’t part of the overall show cost.
Ticketmaster and other ticketing companies have long debated whether to abandon what’s known as a “drip pricing” model but haven’t pulled the trigger because studies show that fans are more likely to make a purchase if the fees that are tacked onto the face value of a ticket don’t appear until checkout. Secondary-market ticketing companies have also adopted the practice, advertising tickets at prices below those sold on the primary market, then hitting consumers with a 35% to 45% markup at checkout.
In a move more closely tied to the Swift situation, Ticketmaster has also decided to target scalpers through legislation and proposed legislation called the FAIR Ticketing Act that would outlaw drip pricing and grant artists the ability to ban scalper websites from reselling their tour tickets. Support for the initiative includes all four major talent agencies, Universal Music Group and a number of management companies.
Pro-ticket scalping groups have proposed their own counter-legislation, effectively banning Ticketmaster from using its proprietary technology to stop scalpers. Neither bill has a congressional sponsor in either chamber of Congress, however, and unless that happens, neither has any chance of passing.
Ticketmaster does appear to have some serious muscle in its corner when it comes to the scalping issue. In a February interview with Billboard, Gregg Perloff, founder and CEO of independent promoter Another Planet Entertainment, which produces San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, said: “My question for [Congress] is, ‘Why are you picking on Ticketmaster and Live Nation when you should be outlawing brokers?’ They are the ones who screw up everything. Does every promoter take a few tickets? Does every venue have a few tickets? … Sure. But it’s the scalpers that make it so no one can get a decent seat except the rich. The Senate didn’t do the research they should have done before they started pontificating and acting like they knew what they were talking about.”
In addition, Perloff suggested that touring artists were partially responsible because they “really want to go on sale for the whole tour at once because they can advertise the whole tour at once and make a bigger splash.” Regarding Swift’s tour, he said, “There’s no system in the world — and this is where I have to defend Ticketmaster — that could have handled the onslaught.”
Also in February, at the Pollstar Live conference in Los Angeles, music mogul Irving Azoff and Madison Square Garden Entertainment chairman James Dolan took on pro-scalping journalist-podcaster Eric Fuller when he argued that scalping made tickets cheaper, citing reports of bargain bin-priced tickets available for Springsteen’s North American tour dates.
“It’s about a half-hour conversation, but you’re dead wrong,” Azoff told Fuller, who also operates a consulting business in ticketing.
“You got to take your hat off to this paid lobbying group that’s working for the scalpers,” Dolan chimed in. “These guys are pretty good. Maybe we should hire them.” In response, Fuller says Dolan’s comments are “grossly inaccurate.”
Billboard updated this story to more accurately reflect Eric Fuller’s comments.