How Ticketmaster’s monopoly plays out in Utah

Swifties are organizing, filing federal complaints and urging congressional inquiries over the ticket broker’s practices.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Swift fan Courtney Hanson-Miller in Pleasant Grove on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

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Courtney Hanson-Miller, a paralegal based in Pleasant Grove, has tickets to be at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia on a weekend next May to see pop icon Taylor Swift perform on her “Eras” tour.

Getting to that point, though, wasn’t easy.

Hanson-Miller said she waited in the “queue” section of the Ticketmaster website for four or five hours, trying to get tickets through the national ticket-selling company for a show — since Swift’s tour is not scheduled to come to Utah.

“It was a mad dash,” she said. “They were disappearing right before my eyes.”

Hanson-Miller wasn’t the only Taylor Swift fan who was frustrated.

Some 3.5 million people registered for Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan program, and 1.5 million received a special access code to buy tickets for Swift’s 52-show North American tour, the company wrote on a blog post that was later deleted, according to The New York Times. The other 2 million verified fans were put on a waiting list.

Around 2 million tickets were sold in a single day, Nov. 15, Ticketmaster reported. Fans noticed tickets to Swift shows were being resold, on such sites as StubHub, marked up to $10,000 or more, the Times reported — even though the Verified Fan program was designed to get tickets to fans, rather than bots and resellers.

On Nov. 17, Ticketmaster announced it would cancel sale of “Eras” tour tickets to the general public; it was unclear whether there were any tickets left after the pre-sale.

The chaos around ticket sales for Swift’s tour — which Swift, in a message on her social media, likened to “several bear attacks” — prompted outrage over Ticketmaster’s domination of the concert ticket market, especially after its 2010 merger with the concert promotion company Live Nation.

In the aftermath, the Times reported that the U.S. Department of Justice’s antitrust division was investigating Live Nation, over whether its control of music venues nationwide constitutes a monopoly. Members of Congress — including New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — have also weighed in.

Others have taken up the fight themselves. A group of 14 Swifties — as Swift’s fans call themselves — has formed an advocacy group, Vigilante Legal, with the goal “to make sure Ticketmaster/Live Nation is doing the right thing and that the government is doing their job.”

The group has filed a Federal Trade Commission complaint against Ticketmaster, said Hannah White, the group’s head of media relations. They also want to hold the government accountable for allowing the 2010 merger to happen in the first place.

Hanson-Miller is one of the first 14 members of Vigilante Legal, which takes its name from the song “Vigilante S---,” from Swift’s new album, “Midnights.” The group’s promotional tagline is taken from an earlier Swift song: “Look what you made us do.”

Hanson-Miller said she had similar problems when she tried to buy tickets to Harry Styles’ 2022 tour (which also didn’t come to Utah).

“It’s not isolated to Taylor Swift. It’s Harry Styles. It was Bruce Springsteen. Adele,” Hanson-Miller said. “It’s gone too unchecked for too long.”

Taylor Swift takes selfies with fans outside the Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah, before the premiere of her film "Taylor Swift: Miss Americana." on the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

Years of complaints

Complaints about Ticketmaster’s grip on the concert ticket market aren’t new.

In March, comedian John Oliver did a deep dive into the pricing of tickets to live events on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight.” Oliver’s investigation found that a “vast majority of tickets from the general public” go on to resale on secondary markets like SeatGeek and Ticketmaster with huge mark-ups.

Famously, the Seattle grunge band Pearl Jam tried to go around Ticketmaster in the 1990s, but gave in after the ticket platform organized a boycott, according to The Los Angeles Times. More recently, rock legend Bruce Springsteen and the jam band The String Cheese Incident have locked horns with Ticketmaster over its policies.

Last week, country singer Zach Bryan dropped a new live album, titled “All My Homies Hate Ticketmaster.” Bryan also posted on his social media that he plans “to play a limited number of headline shows next year to which I’ve done all I can to make prices as cheap as possible and prove to people tickets don’t have to cost $450 to see a good and honest show.”

In November, a week before the Swift ticket debacle, Vivint Smart Home Arena and the Utah Jazz announced that it would be breaking ties with Ticketmaster, which became the team and venue’s ticket vendor in 2017. The Jazz and The Viv announced that SeatGeek would become their new ticket provider, starting with the 2023-2024 season.

SeatGeek’s reputation is as a secondary market vendor, though the company coins itself as a primary ticket provider. Jazz team owner Ryan Smith became an investor in the company in August, with a $238 million investment, The Tribune reported. (When reached for comment, officials at The Viv said they did not “want to participate” in this article.)

The Jazz’s 2017 deal with Ticketmaster came around the same time that Live Nation acquired the Utah music-booking company United Concerts. The move gave Live Nation and Ticketmaster control over bookings not only at The Viv (capacity 18,300), but at the open-air Usana Amphitheater in West Valley City (capacity 25,000) and The Depot in downtown Salt Lake City (capacity around 2,800).

Utah’s two biggest stadiums are on college campuses, and are used for football games more often than for concerts. The largest is LaVell Edwards Stadium at Brigham Young University, with a capacity of around 63,000, and doesn’t host concerts except for the annual Stadium of Fire extravaganza on the Fourth of July weekend. Rice-Eccles Stadium, on the University of Utah campus, seats about 51,000 — and last summer played host to concerts by country star Garth Brooks and rock band Imagine Dragons.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Swift fan Courtney Hanson-Miller in Pleasant Grove on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Her ring bears the letters "RED," which was the name of Swift's 2012 album.

A Utah connection in Congress

Utahns have a personal stake in the congressional inquiries into Ticketmaster, Hanson-Miller noted.

The ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights — which announced after the Swift ticket fiasco that it will investigate Ticketmaster — is Utah Sen. Mike Lee.

“As his constituent, it’s my duty to make sure he’s doing his job,” said Hanson-Miller, who said she only learned of Lee’s role after she joined Vigilante Legal.

“It is up to the antitrust subcommittee to look into this and see if they should keep the merger or if they should say, ‘No, we need to split you up,” she said. “Mike Lee is one of the people in charge of this and he needs to be held accountable, along with his coworkers.”

Lee and the subcommittee’s chair, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, issued a joint statement in November, announcing a planned hearing to “examine the lack of competition in the ticketing industry.” (Klobuchar also wrote a letter to Ticketmaster expressing concerns about the lack of competition.)

In the statement, Lee said, “I look forward to exercising our Subcommittee’s oversight authority to ensure that anticompetitive mergers and exclusionary conduct are not crippling an entertainment industry already struggling to recover from pandemic lockdowns.”

No hearing date or witnesses have been announced yet. Sen. Lee did not make mention of the statement on his official website or his Twitter feed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Taylor Swift fan Courtney Hanson-Miller in Pleasant Grove on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. Her tattoo reads "Long story short; I survived," taken from the lyrics of Swift's song "Long Story Short."

How Utahns dealt with Ticketmaster

Some Utah fans were luckier than others when trying to get Swift tickets.

“I guess my experience was not as treacherous as other people’s,” said Julia Cudney, a Utahn who secured tickets to see Swift in Las Vegas’s Allegiant Stadium on March 25.

The hardest part, she said, was sitting in the queue and selecting tickets quickly enough to check out before they were taken. Ticketmaster, she said, could have planned better, by staggering the sales times and dates.

Overall, she said, the process was stressful. “It was just a lot of stress for a concert,” she said. “It’s supposed to be fun.”

Utah resident Missy Atencio, who said she has been going to concerts as long as she can remember, didn’t get Swift tickets, after spending six hours in the queue. She said she has never had such hard issues with Ticketmaster before, especially with stadium shows.

Atencio said she saw Bad Bunny in Vegas, and getting a ticket was relatively easy. Not having many stadium shows in Utah, she said, can lead to even more difficulty getting tickets in nearby cities. Atencio said she is not hopeful when it comes to getting Swift tickets on the resell market.

Hanson-Miller said Vigilante Legal isn’t just a bunch of disgruntled fangirls. She quotes the song from which the group gets its name: “The lady simply had enough,” and adds, “Ticketmaster, we’ve had enough.”

White added, “we are not 16 anymore. We are professionals with our own careers now. We have resources now that we did not when we were younger.”

The group’s aim, White said, is “to educate the public and provide resources, but we also have opportunities for the public to get involved. … The biggest way that they can help is by taking our survey, it’s for anyone who has tried to purchase tickets to any event through Ticketmaster.”

The group’s landing page for their action center is full of educational tools for fans, with instructions on how to contact one’s state attorney general, how to file their own FTC complaint, and to check one’s voter registration status.

“For many Swifties, music has been a constant in their life,” White said. “These online communities, fandoms, are natural organizers. Taylor is what we all have in common, but we also know this is so much bigger than one event.”

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