On August 27, 2019, two U.S. senators asked the DOJ to investigate the state of competition in the ticketing business, and to extend the DOJ’s consent agreement with Live Nation Entertainment (“Live Nation”), the industry giant that owns Ticketmaster.
In a letter to Makan Delrahim, the head of the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) described the ticket industry as “broken” and they lamented the “exorbitant fees and inadequate disclosures” in the ticket buying process.
According to their letter, Live Nation’s acquisition of Ticketmaster in 2010 has resulted in the merged firm obtaining too much control over the concert business. “The Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger has contributed to consumers’ difficulties in the ticketing market,” the two senators wrote in the letter. In approving the Live Nation/Ticketmaster merger, the DOJ entered into a 10-year consent decree with Live Nation prohibiting the firm from certain behaviors like using its power over concerts to force venues to use Ticketmaster. Over the years, a number of competitors have complained that Live Nation has been violating the terms of the consent decree or at the very least the spirit of the decree.
Senators Blumenthal and Klobuchar are asking the DOJ to conduct a “retrospective study on the effects of past consolidation” and to consider extending the decree past its expiration next year. Though the DOJ has previously investigated claims that Live Nation had violated its consent decree, the DOJ has never taken action. In an August 28 statement, Live Nation said the senators’ letter is “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of our consent decree and general ticketing industry dynamics.” Further, “…Live Nation and Ticketmaster have always complied with their obligations under the consent decree. We do not force anyone into ticketing agreements by leveraging content, and we do not retaliate against venues that choose other ticketing providers.” Thus, according to the statement, “[t]here is no cause for further investigations or studies.”
The Antitrust Division has been investigating whether Live Nation has engaged in anti-competitive exclusionary behavior and is adhering to its 2010 consent decree.
The Obama administration was very lenient in its review of Live Nation’s acquisition of Ticketmaster. The deal raised serious horizontal and vertical concerns and should have been blocked. Yet, the DOJ opted to accept a weak settlement that included behavioral conditions prohibiting Live Nation from engaging in certain conduct. The DOJ put itself in the position having to police Live Nation’s corporate behavior and third parties in the position of having to report bad behavior to the DOJ. These types of behavioral conditions that cannot be effectively enforced are not useful. In reality, there was probably no behavioral or structural remedies that could solve the anticompetitive concerns raised by the merger. Behavioral remedies require ongoing monitoring of Live Nation’s and Ticketmaster’s conduct. The settlement agreement was a quick win, but a settlement agreement that requires ongoing monitoring is not very effective unless it is enforced. Clearly, Live Nation/Ticketmaster is a monopolist in the primary ticketing service market. The high market share is indicative of it having market power. However, there is nothing illegal about having a monopoly. The question is whether Live Nation/Ticketmaster is engaging in any activity to maintain its monopoly such as exclusionary conduct or violating the express conditions in the 2010 decree.
The DOJ’s most recent investigation into Live Nation’s conduct without any enforcement action to date highlights the limitations of behavioral conditions in past consent decrees. DOJ Antitrust Division Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim is not in favor of behavioral decrees because they are regulatory and require monitoring and supervision. The DOJ under his leadership has strengthened the terms of consent decrees making them easier to enforce. For the DOJ to bring a case on an older consent decree violation or to force modifications of the Live Nation decree, it must meet a very high clear and convincing standard. Unfortunately, there is so much wiggle room in past settlement agreements that contain behavioral restrictions that merging parties can devise strategies that may be within the letter of the settlement agreement but violate the spirit of the decree. In short, the DOJ would need to uncover evidence that Live Nation has actually violated the decree before it can bring an enforcement action or force an extension of the decree. Delrahim has expressed the view that Congress did not intend for the Antitrust Division or the courts to be overseers of corporate behavior. He has argued that “antitrust is law enforcement, not regulation,” and that antitrust enforcers should seek to block anticompetitive transactions, rather than allow them to proceed subject to behavioral conditions. The Live Nation/Tickemaster is a prime example of why the DOJ must sometimes decide to block a merger rather than negotiate a settlement with ambiguous behavioral conditions.