TICKET TALK: James Dolan, left, Irving Azoff, Garth Brooks and Makan Delrahim at Pollstar Live! on Feb. 22. 2023 in Los Angeles. (Staff photo)

Foursome gets at heart of issues missed during Congressional grandstanding

“If we make scalping illegal, doesn’t it solve all of this?”

It’s a question country superstar Garth Brooks asked the Pollstar Live! audience, and a power panel of industry insiders, multiple times Feb. 22 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles.

Moderated by The Azoff Company Chairman/CEO Irving Azoff and featuring Brooks alongside Madison Square Garden executive chairman James Dolan and former attorney general for the United States Department of Justice’s antitrust division Makan Delrahim, the “Ticketing Real Talk” panel was a frank and freewheeling discussion from true stake-holders of the live music business.

The session (video here) kicked off with Azoff saying the need for the discussion stemmed largely in response to the Senate Judiciary hearings that took place in January following public outcry over the Taylor Swift presale that left fans disappointed and brought renewed scrutiny to Live Nation/Ticketmaster’s influence on the live music industry.

“I care deeply about artists and I thought we ought to hear the artist’s point of view on some of these ticketing issues,” Azoff said.

With his opening remarks, Azoff stressed that the fundamental problem is ticketing demand exceeds supply, which will always lead to disappointed fans. Azoff was pointed in laying much of the blame on the secondary market for most ticketing issues — and for leading politicians to believe they benefit the consumer. A key sticking point at Pollstar conferences for decades now, scalping has been exacerbated by technology and lobbyist influence, leading to a disconnect between the industry and policy makers.

“The biggest factors driving exorbitantly priced tickets and lack of face value ticket availability to the general public are scalpers and the secondary ticketing companies that have provided a platform to scalp tickets on a large scale as a business model,” Azoff said, adding that the secondary market is a $5 billion per-year business that is projected to hit $10 billion by 2027 “if we don’t do something about it.”

“These companies have no skin in the game, they have invested nothing, risk nothing, created nothing yet they reap the lion’s share of the profit,” Azoff added. “How does that make sense? What these companies have invested in is technology and lobbyists.”

Azoff called for action to make deceptive practices illegal, especially in the case of speculative listings for tickets that may not even exist and cannot be fulfilled. He mentioned a recent high-profile example with U2’s announced MSG Sphere run in Las Vegas.

“We haven’t even picked based on demand which dates we’re playing yet, and already there’s tickets listed online,” Azoff said. “Where does that make any sense for anybody in this room?”

Providing the artist’s take was Brooks, long heralded as a fan-first musician who keeps ticket prices low and often adds dates in each city until reaching full demand.

“For me, music is a thing that heals, it’s something that unifies,” Brooks said. “The less we can make a shit show out of it with the robots, and we can get rid of the people that really don’t give a damn about the music and just want to make money on it, I think you get the artist and the people who allow people to be an artist in the same room, and that’s when music is at its best. I’d just love to find a way to do that.”

While Brooks repeatedly dead-panned the “What if we just made scalping illegal?” question, the panel largely agreed that most ticketing issues would be solved if artists were given control of what happens to a ticket upon its original sale.  Delrahim, who said many policy makers are “well-intentioned but ill-informed,” said legislators need to look at the issue as a matter of property rights, with a performance treated similarly to a songwriting credit.

“If we treated those few hours – if he wants to connect with his fans and sell the tickets for $50, $100, or whatever it is, and that’s how he wants to treat those tickets. He should have the right to treat the resale – he and his partners, whoever they may be —he should be able to do that,” said Delrahim, now a partner at Latham & Watkins LLP. “If he wants to price it to true demand, and let’s say Beyonce tickets could be $6,000, fine. But who should benefit from that?”

Delrahim said that, while some blamed the merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation for the ticketing issues being discussed at the judiciary hearing, most of the problems brought up had little or nothing to do with the merger and, rather, were about what the primary ticketholder has the right to do with a purchased ticket.

“Right now, it seemed like, from the hearing, that many (in Congress) were hearing from the technology companies and the middle-men, saying that they should have the right to buy from the primary ticket holder anytime they want with these bots, and that’s what’s causing a lot of the problems,” Delrahim said.  “If the artist was able to control that, many of these problems would go away, and it seems to be the right way to deal with the property rights here.”

Dolan took issue with price gouging, likening raising ticket prices on secondary platforms to hiking up the price of snow-blowers during a blizzard.

“In my mind, saying this is a Ticketmaster problem is wrong,” said Dolan. “It’s a gouging problem, it’s a scalper problem. Government officials should attack that if they want to protect consumers.”

Things got testy when an audience member suggested superstar artists should play additional dates to increase supply and that prices on the secondary market should self-correct, as media reports sometimes show superstar artist tickets going below face value.

“How can that possibly be a story, that 10 tickets sold for two bucks? it’s just another argument so they’ll keep on doing what they’re doing,” Dolan said. “It confuses the issue, it’s not what the fans and consumers are experiencing out there. Go try to buy a ticket, you’re not going to find any for two bucks, they’re going to be all jacked up.  What we should do is, we should hire their lobbyists!”

Azoff ended with a call to action, saying the judiciary hearing was a “wake-up call” to the disconnect between Washington and the live entertainment business.

“You all have work to do,” he said. “We’re in strange times as you know, but there are some weird bills being proposed now.  You have the chance to go out and let fans be heard and prevent some of this.  I hope you accept the challenge. I’d like to say all four of us will be here next year with a progress report.”