John Oliver dove into the murky waters of the ticketing industry on the most recent episode of his Emmy-winning HBO news satire late-night show, Last Week Tonight. Alongside the requisite humor and levity, Oliver shed some light on the many ways in which Ticketmaster has embedded itself as an unavoidable gatekeeper of the live entertainment experience.
The deep dive into the “ticket problem” began with a clip of a man-on-the-street interview in the parking lot of an outdoor July 2021 Sevendust show at Hampton Coliseum. As the fan explained, “I’m pumped, I’m ready to go, I’m vaccinated, I’m ready to go. I’ve been locked up for a year and ten months, and I’m gon’ let loose and destroy this place.”
While many live music fans echo that guy’s sentiments after the last two bumpy years, Oliver continued, those sought-after experiences now come at an exorbitant price—if you can even get ahold of them to begin with.
“If you think ticket prices have been getting ridiculously expensive, they have,” he explained. “The average price for a popular concert has more than tripled since the mid-’90s, vastly outpacing inflation, and that is before they hit the resale market.”
With that in mind, Oliver aimed to “explain exactly why Bad Bunny tickets are so expensive, who is making money off them, and what you might be able to do about it that does not involve selling your husband’s feet.”
Much of the 20-minute segment went on to focus on Ticketmaster—”the biggest player in the ticket market by far” and “one of the most hated companies on Earth”—and the ways in which its business practices largely diverge from its stated position that it “strives to put fans first.”
“It is no secret Ticketmaster is horrible,” Oliver posited, “but exactly how it is horrible is genuinely interesting.”
He began with service fees, the ever-present punching bag for concert-goers everywhere. As he explained, “Ticketmaster enters into contracts that set and share fees with the venues where concerts are held, the promoters who book, market, and organize the shows, and sometimes even the artists themselves. You could say Ticketmaster’s business model is to stand in as the bad guy and let all those other players hide behind them, or you could not say that and just let Ticketmaster’s former CEO basically admit it directly to Congress.”
With that, a clip of former Ticketmaster CEO Irving Azoff‘s 2009 Congressional testimony played: “When people hear what Ticketmaster’s service charge is, you know, Ticketmaster was set up as a system where they took the heat for everybody. … In that service charge are the credit card fees, the rebates to the buildings, rebates sometimes to artists, sometimes rebates to promoters. … We’re like the IRS. We deliver bad news.”
As Oliver continued, “While Ticketmaster does share fees with other parties, some of those other parties may also be Ticketmaster.” He went on to explain how the company’s 2010 acquisition by Live Nation, the world’s biggest producer of live music events, has put it in a position to not just profit off of ticket prices and fees but also benefit from the venue and promoter revenue streams.
The host cited a 2020 Wall Street Journal article in which the Department of Justice alleged that Live Nation, which owns and operates a significant portion of major venues in the U.S., “strong-armed venues into using Ticketmaster” and “retaliated against or threatened venues” that did not use its services. “While Live Nation denies that,” he continued, “there is no denying just how much power it has.”
Even prior to the merger, he continued, Ticketmaster was virtually unavoidable for touring acts. Pearl Jam, he reminded viewers, tried to mount a tour without using Ticketmaster in the mid-’90s and had to “play at weird places like a ski resort in Lake Tahoe and a fairground in San Diego” in order to realize that goal.
“If Pearl Jam in the ’90s doesn’t have the power to walk away from Ticketmaster,” Oliver joked, “nobody does.”
The issues also extend to Ticketmaster’s involvement in the secondary market. Oliver used a 2012 Justin Bieber run at Madison Square Garden as a case study on the shrouded inner workings of on-sales for major concerts. When tickets for the two MSG concerts went on sale to the general public, all available inventory was snatched up in a matter of seconds. News of the quick sellout was subsequently picked up by outlets like CNN which cited the impressive feat of moving what reportedly amounted to nearly 20,000 tickets per night.
“Here’s the thing,” Oliver continued, “Selling 20,000 tickets in 30 seconds would be crazy if that’s what Bieber did, but he didn’t, because a report from the New York [Attorney General] later revealed that ‘fewer than 2,000 tickets to each show’ were actually put on sale that day, and that’s by no means a one-off. For many top shows, less than 25% of tickets are initially released to the general public.”
Bieber’s MSG run was no different. Reporters eventually looked into re-sale inventory for the “sold-out” shows and found that many of the tickets being sold on the secondary market for inflated rates were tickets that had been put on hold for the artist—meaning they were essentially being scalped by Bieber directly.
As Oliver explained, the rest of the tickets for a given show are often “deliberately held back to be sold in other ways,” from credit card company promos to artist fan clubs. Adding to that squeeze on inventory, ticket brokers frequently use bots to buy up a large portion of these tickets and re-sell them for enormous mark-ups on secondary market sites like StubHub, Seat Geek, and even Ticketmaster itself. While these platforms tend to market themselves as fan-to-fan sales platforms, a 2018 government report assessed that “professional brokers represent either the majority or overwhelming majority of ticket sales” on such sites. Per the New York AG in 2016, these brokers mark up ticket prices by an average of 49% and “sometimes by more than 1000%.”
He also went into detail about the 2018 CBS News investigative report that exposed the ways in which Ticketmaster was both aiding and profiting off of scalpers selling tickets on the secondary market. While the company has stated that it spends millions on technology to weed out such bad actors, Oliver argued that “their whole system is designed to be opaque.”
As he explained, these sites actively choose to provide sellers with anonymity unlike similar peer-to-peer sales platforms like eBay, which readily provides information, user reviews, and sales histories about sellers. “The point is,” he went on, “brokers with their identities concealed can snap up large numbers of tickets and re-sell them at a massive markup. And meanwhile, the secondary market sites are themselves making money by charging a percentage on those ludicrous ticket prices.”
This review of the ticketing market led him to consider the true value of concert tickets and their vulnerability to secondary market mark-ups: “An economist will tell you it is worth whatever people will pay, so if someone is willing to spend over $2,000 including fees for an Adele ticket, that is what it’s worth, as gross as that sounds. But if Adele doesn’t want to charge that, there is going to be a gap between the face value of the ticket and what someone can get for it, and a whole industry is going to scramble in to exploit it. … As long as artists—with all good intentions—price their tickets below the market, exploitation is going to happen.”
“When you take all of this together,” he continued, “the reason tickets are so hard to get when they’re on sale is that they’re often not on sale, and the reason they cost so much on the secondary market is that you are paying exorbitant fees to the platform and might be buying from a broker and, in rare cases, even from the artists themselves. This whole ecosystem enriches a lot of people who do not contribute anything to the actual show that you are paying to see. And at the center of all of this is Ticketmaster, because it turbo-charged many of the [expletive] practices that have now become industry standard.”
So, what can we do? John Oliver finished the segment by offering up some potential ways the system could be amended including the passage of laws requiring more transparency regarding fees and seller identities on re-sale sites. He also suggested that more artists could make their tickets non-transferable, citing Pearl Jam’s recent efforts in partnership with Ticketmaster to create a fee-free, face-value, fan-to-fan marketplace for re-sale tickets. [Note: If you’re looking for such a platform for any and all bands, check out Cash or Trade].
“That sounds like the model that everybody should be using here,” he concluded. “But if regulators don’t act and artists don’t have the clout or the inclination to require companies to put those guardrails in place, I’m afraid you as a fan are going to remain vulnerable to the worst parts of this system, one driven by one of the most widely loathed companies on the planet that became even bigger due to a merger that probably shouldn’t even have been allowed.”
Watch the full John Oliver segment on Ticketmaster and the ticketing industry below. For an even deeper dive into the complexities of the ticketing industry, check out Dean Budnick and Josh Baron‘s 2011 book, Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped.
John Oliver on Ticketmaster and Live Entertainment