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Democratic Sen. Klobuchar talks about tackling Ticketmaster regulation

ERIC DEGGANS, HOST:

When presale tickets for Taylor Swift's upcoming tour went public earlier this month, chaos ensued. Swifties found themselves stuck in long online queues, sometimes for hours, hoping to get tickets. Some fans reported getting to the front of the electronic line, only to be sent back to the end. And those who could get tickets likely paid well above market price due to Ticketmaster's dynamic pricing system. That's where an algorithm determines the price of a certain number of tickets based on consumer demand. The whole debacle has put Ticketmaster and its parent company, Live Nation, under scrutiny again. Now some lawmakers are trying to do something about it. One of them is Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, and she joins me now to talk more about this issue. Senator Klobuchar, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: Well, thanks, Eric. It's great to be on.

DEGGANS: So you chair the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Competition Policy, Antitrust and Consumer Rights. And you and the ranking member, Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, recently announced that you plan to hold a Senate hearing on competition in the ticket industry. Now, this feels like a rare moment of bipartisanship in Congress. So what are you hoping to find?

KLOBUCHAR: So what's before us is something that's too big, and that is Ticketmaster, stemming from a 2010 merger in which Live Nation and Ticketmaster were allowed to combine. They operated under a consent decree for years. But what's been happening is they've just been getting bigger and bigger. They are a vertically integrated giant, and let me explain how. They own venues, so they're competing with independent venues all the time. And venue operators are concerned that if they don't use Ticketmaster as their primary ticketing service, then their - Live Nation's concert promotion business won't book the best shows at their venues. There's too-high fees. There's site disruptions, as we've seen from the Taylor Swift incident. There's slow queues. And it isn't just Taylor Swift concert. A lot of these hidden fees, high fees, are going on because there is no incentive for fair prices and superior offerings and innovation if you're the only company in town.

DEGGANS: There's reporting that the Department of Justice has already opened an antitrust investigation into Live Nation. What can your hearing do or accomplish that the Department of Justice won't do with their investigation?

KLOBUCHAR: I look at it two ways. No. 1, when we have these hearings, the witnesses are under oath. And in the past, the testimony and the senators' questions actually creates a record that's helpful for the Justice Department as well as members of Congress and the administration. Secondly, legislation - we are working right now on the bipartisan legislation - I can't go into all the details - but specific to the ticket industry in terms of transparency and the like. But beyond that now, for years, I've been pushing for some reforms for antitrust laws to make it easier to prove up a lack of competition. And you could do it when there's mergers or anti-competitive conduct. My suggestion is when it's a real big megamerger, the burden shifts. So the companies that are merging or the companies that are engaging in the conduct actually have to show they're not hurting competition as opposed to putting the burden on the government.

DEGGANS: I'm wondering what's the performing artist piece of this? I mean, Taylor Swift is one of the most influential performers in the industry, not just with her fans, but with people in the industry as well. Is there anything that they can do to make this better? And do you think you might call Taylor Swift to your session?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, one thing at a time. But on the performers, we have had people from the arts testify. And one of the most effective ways we were able to get the venue bill passed during the pandemic - because remember, these venues were the first to close and they were the last to open because you can't stand in a mosh pit in the height of a pandemic. And it was artists. It was people like Pitbull calling (laughter) senators and various artists that cared about this beyond their own bottom line honestly. And then it would be things like the venues. Like maybe you wouldn't have heard of the Fargo Theatre, who worked with Senator Cramer, who got on our bill, Bluegrass in Kentucky that got Mitch McConnell on the bill or country Western bars in Texas. It was an all-out effort by the arts and a lot of the artists.

DEGGANS: You mentioned artists. I mean, nearly 30 years ago, Pearl Jam tried to call attention to these problems with Ticketmaster.

KLOBUCHAR: Yeah.

DEGGANS: They refused to work with them for a while. They testified in Congress, but their efforts didn't seem to really work. What makes you think that the time is right now when it wasn't right 30 years ago?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, a whole bunch of Swift fans is, you know, something that no one's ever dealt with in Congress, so I'm hoping that's going to help us. A lot of times, what happens in Congress is you kind of have to reach a moment where things go real bad. And then people suddenly say, uh-oh, you know, I guess I've been just keeping my head down because these are good companies, and I know people that work there, or some of these people do fundraisers for them. And then suddenly they're like, you know what? The public is too mad about this. That's the history of monopolies, when the Granger movement in the ag area out of Iowa or the unions took on the rail monopolies and the like. There becomes this pitch point where there's so much anger from the public, and now it might be online. Before, it was, you know, on street corners and in farmers' halls. But when it gets to that point, that's when something gets done.

DEGGANS: Well, it's interesting. I mean, you just said earlier that capitalism works best when you break up these consolidated companies like AT&T. I'm wondering - you mentioned tech. What about a company like Amazon? Or are there current large companies that you have your eye on in terms of that idea?

KLOBUCHAR: Well, what I'm trying to do right now with the Googles and the Amazons is simply put these rules of the road in place. The Justice Department has opened cases against several of these companies, but the answer here is that they are increasingly putting their own stuff at the top. And we know this from all kinds of studies that have been done, and they are - it's called self-preferencing and then hurting others and pushing them down in their search engines.

And what we're saying - it has to be based on merit, on price, on quality and the like. Maybe it's your own products, but it's got to be based on merit. At some point, the dam breaks, and you at least put some sensible rules of the road in place because we just can't destroy competition in this country. And if you know what that looks like, that's what happened with the Taylor Swift concert. There is no one else to go to than a company that runs 70% - that's a monopoly - 70% of the big concert ticket sales.

DEGGANS: That's U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat from Minnesota. Her book "Antitrust: Taking On Monopoly Power From The Gilded Age To The Digital Age" is out now. Senator Klobuchar, thank you so much for your time.

KLOBUCHAR: Thank you very much, Eric.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOOD MADE SONG, "ONLY U") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.