The 2010 South by Southwest music and technology conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, earlier this month could easily be mistaken for a twisted game of musical chairs: The jambalaya of independent artists, industry suits and iPhone-carrying fanboys in attendance hopped from flea bars to dance halls to bookstores, in search of live shows–never knowing when the music would stop. Some of the biggest acts–jazz team Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, British upstarts The xx, electro-stylists Major Lazer, and a revanchist Bone Thugs-n-Harmony–thrilled packed lawns and auditoriums throughout the week. But some bands labored in obscurity, playing their unique brand of acoustic rap, or Tejano ska, to a few tipsy watchers in empty restaurants.
This divide, between the haves (bands with fans) and have-nots in Austin undergirds a heated political conversation that will grow as the spring and summer concert season unfurls: What to do about Live Nation Entertainment, the Frankenstein-ish conglomerate formed when Ticketmaster and Live Nation merged in January 2010. When the two companies became one–after faint protest from independent promoters and the concert-going community–they planted the seeds of a significant intervention in the future of music.
The company’s new mission statement is “to maximize the live concert experience.” In practice, this means putting on upwards of 22,000 shows around the world, selling 140 million tickets and reeling in nearly $6 billion in revenue. But this success comes at the expense of consumers, and a recording industry going through major adjustment pains. As digital music (20 percent of Rihanna’s revenue comes from ring tones) and live shows (ticket sales were up 4 percent in 2009, despite the recession) replace album sales as the primary source of revenue in the music industry, the mega-company could reach further into the wallets of eager fans. And its potential monopoly could throw independent, grassroots musicians off the biggest stages permanently.
The Biggest Loser
Ticketmaster was founded in 1976 by graduate students in Arizona who developed software to sell many tickets, at the same time, from many places. Before that, seeing a big band on tour meant standing in line outside your favorite theater (romantic perhaps, but frustrating). Today, Ticketmaster charges for the “convenience” of eliminating that wait time–collecting $1.1 billion dollars annually on these fees alone. Live Nation, which began to snowball in 1996, took care of getting bodies in the door come show time. Backed by capital from SFX radio stations (themselves the subject of antitrust accusations), Live Nation grew from a handful of regional promoters into a well-oiled confederation of professional promoters and dedicated venues (such as the House of Blues franchise) that, by 2000, ran 80 percent of the concert market. Its new artist management division offers “360” promotion deals that ensures megastars like Jay-Z, U2, Lady Gaga or Dave Matthews’ Band can simply wave a hand and have 100 sellout shows lined up around the world.
Music fans probably know each entity as its own company. But Live Nation Entertainment–a hydra-headed promotions, ticket-selling or re-selling, merchandising and management company–is about to become a household name. The new corporation, whose $889 billion merger required a controversial waiver from the U.S. Justice Department, will own about 80 percent of a $4.4 billion annual concert production marketplace.
It’s no surprise the new company has removed all traces of “Ticketmaster” from the new name. Over 30 years, the brand has come under fire from big names in the music business, from Pearl Jam in 1995 to Bruce Springsteen in 2009. Fans have also endured their price-gouging methods and instant sellouts. Under Ticketmaster’s reign, ticket prices rose 160 percent since 1999 (well over the pace of inflation)–not to mention the cost of the shirts, beers and hot dogs Live Nation sells at a premium to smitten fans.
This attempt to merge and rebrand unpopular practices displeased many musicians I spoke with. “It’s so hard to make money on the promotions side,” says Eddie Sumlin, an independent R&B musician in Austin. “Friends of mine are fighting tooth and nail for all of the top-line shows. They take big risks to have the big names,” he adds–with no guarantee that bands will choose them over the bigger fish. Indie darlings Vampire Weekend, for example, skipped SXSW this year–all of their North American appearances are being managed by the new conglomerate. Even before the merger, Live Nation could hassle and squeeze out anyone who tried to pierce the bubble of management, sales, and promotion they had placed around “their” artists. Joel Flynn, a musician and professor at the University of Vancouver, recalled some film work he tried to do with New York City band The National. “Every year they’d come back [to Vancouver] a little bit bigger, and by the third year they were at the Commodore. We set up a recording session as we’d done in previous years. And two days before the show, I get a call from Live Nation, which owns the Commodore, saying: ‘If you’re going to film here, you’re going to have to pay what’s called an ‘origination fee’ of $8,500.'” Needless to say this was an effective deterrent.