Anything That Can’t Go On Forever Will Eventually Stop

Ticketmaster and Ideas Lying Around.

Cory Doctorow
8 min readNov 20, 2022

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Eva Rinaldi, CC BY-SA 2.0 (modified)/Kim Traynor, CC BY-SA 3.0 (modified)

A lot of regulations went up in flames in the Reagan/Thatcher era: labor laws, environmental rules, finance frameworks. But the most consequential shift of the age was the change in antitrust law, specifically, the advent of the “consumer welfare” standard that supposed that monopolies were mostly totally amazing, miracles of coordination and efficiency that would make all our lives better thanks to the singular genius of the men (and a few women) who led them.

Neutering antitrust laws created vast fortunes for a small number of men (and a few women), who then funneled billions into the political system, corrupting it to the point of near-collapse.

Starting in the 1980s, and increasingly ever since, our governments have acted as though monopolies were precious resources to be nurtured and protected.

If pressed, the new antitrust establishment would grudgingly admit that there were some bad monopolies, but these were so incredibly rare that there should be a general presumption in favor of market-concentrating tactics like mergers, acquisitions, and predatory pricing. If a bad monopoly happened to slip past the regulators, it would be quickly competed away, and the good monopolies were so fantastically efficient that it was better to let a thousand guilty monopolies go free than to put a single innocent monopoly to death.

Monopoly’s cheerleaders have written endless books making the case for letting monopolists run free, but if you read between the lines, the argument breaks down into two pieces:

  1. Giants walk among us. Some people are born with such a spark of special genius that they alone represent our species best hope for a better future, and any restraints we put on these ubermeschen would cost us all the benefit of their singular genius; and
  2. Kissing billionaire ass. If your think-tank, political party, university department or NGO would sing the praises of the ultra-rich, name schools and galleries and buildings and endowed chairs after them, then they will share in the bounty.

Point 1 was spoken aloud, and point 2 was generally a mere implication just below the surface, of course.

The thing is, they were wrong.

Monopolies are most efficient at corrupting our political process. Their founders’ special genius is for cheating. The genius behind Amazon’s incredible overnight package delivery isn’t in the company’s cool new processes for managing logistics: it’s in the company’s extraction of $5.1 billion in public subsidies for its facilities; in the company’s shameless tax-evasion; in the company’s willingness to maim its workers and force them to shit in bags and piss in bottles and then brazenly violate labor law to prevent them from unionizing.

It’s not like any of this is hard to understand. Quite the opposite: in order to convince us that monopolies were good, corporate vampires and their think-tank Renfields had to talk a mile a minute, throwing up a blinding cloud of equations and jargon to obscure the commonsense conclusion that giving corporations unlimited power would end up making us all miserable.

We’re not stupid. When Ticketmaster bought Ticketron in 1991, anyone who wasn’t a simp knew that they’d use their consolidated power — ninety fucking percent of the ticketing market! — to screw artists, fans and venues.

But as Matt Stoller writes, every presidential administration since has let Ticketmaster buy up more of its rivals, culminating in the 2010 merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster, giving a single company near-total control over the most important venues and best-selling artists, and the tickets for both.

The proposition that a company that had all that control would exercise it wisely is really, really stupid.

To swallow such a stupid proposition, you either have to be a credulous, model-worshiping economist; or an ass-licker aspiring to serve a faithful retainer to a favor-doling billionaire.

Or both.

Anything that can’t go on forever will eventually come to an end.

Ticketmaster/Live Nation have only made live entertainment worse, in every way, for every part of the industry, since its merger. They raised prices. They cut the share of prices going to artists. When Pearl Jam tried to fight back, Ticketmaster used its market power to destroy the band’s tour.

Any venue that won’t use Ticketmaster for tickets can’t book Live Nation’s acts. Any act that won’t use Ticketmaster for tickets can’t book into a Live Nation venue. That means that even if you want to handle your own tickets, you can’t, because Live Nation will destroy you; it also means that even if you want to plan your own tour and avoid Live Nation venues, you can’t, because Ticketmaster will destroy you.

Every single thing about Ticketmaster is a scam. Ticketmaster secretly recruits people to buy all the tickets it offers for sale and then resell them on its own marketplace. That means that the artists get a share of the low prices in the original sale, then Ticketmaster and its reseller confederates flip the tickets for a huge markup. Ticketmaster gets a fat commission and the artists get bupkis.

Ticketmaster never stops innovating. Every day, it works tirelessly to think of new scams, like its novel “demand pricing” scheme — a blatant violation of antitrust law. That’s driven the cost of tickets to genuinely absurd levels. Think: a month’s rent. Or, you know, a house:

TicketMaster is good at scams, but they’re bad at selling tickets. The had all the time in the world to prepare for the first Taylor Swift concert in five years. They knew that the most popular artist in America would generate a lot of demand and that they’d need to set up their servers to handle it.

But when the tickets went up for presale, TicketMaster’s servers melted down. Taylor Swift was pissed. So were her fans. So is the Department of Justice, which has opened an antitrust investigation into TicketMaster/Live Nation.

TicketMaster’s vertical monopoly gives it control over venues, artists and tickets. It need not fear a competitor swooping in and offering artists or fans or venues a better deal. It also didn’t need to fear regulators, because antitrust doctrine assumed that the people who acquired monopolies were awesome at their jobs, and therefore if everything was terrible, it was because it was impossible to do any better.

Governments, we were told, couldn’t fix anything, they could only make them worse (“The top nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’” — R. Reagan).

For 40 years, we’ve been told that things were getting worse because they couldn’t possibly be any better. TicketMaster might suck, but they’re as good as it gets, and if you have distinct memories of things being better, you’re surely misremembering things.

Anything that can’t go on forever will eventually stop.

TicketMaster is a high-profile, extremely concrete example of a phenomenon that is everywhere in our society: a bloated, financialized conglomerate that extracts massive profits by wrecking everything it touches.

There’s a whole chapter on TicketMaster in Chokepoint Capitalism, Rebecca Giblin’s and my new book about the unbelievably screwed up world of the creative arts, where Big Tech and Big Content have created a series of wildly profitable, unbelievably terrible businesses, from Amazon to Spotify to YouTube, from the Big Five publishers to the Big Four studios to the Big Three Labels to Big Two ad-tech companies to the Big One movie theater chain.

These businesses, and the politicians and “economists” who enabled them, have acted as though there was no way we would ever collective wake up and say fuck this. They assumed that these companies could go on forever.

The crisis is upon us. Meta has lost its bet that we will all volunteer to live out the rest of our days as heavily surveilled, legless, sexless, low-polygon cartoon characters. It is firing thousands of technologists and hemorrhaging money.

Amazon has lost its bet that we will all volunteer to install hidden microphones in every room of our house so that the company can mine our every thought for actionable market intelligence. Alexa has lost billions and Amazon is reducing its team to a skeleton crew.

Softbank, the investment fund that funneled tens of billions in Saudi royal oil money into bets on monopolies like Uber and WeWork is now broke, and its founder, Masayoshi Son, is in disgrace and billions of dollars in debt.

The idea that we could strip-mine useful and productive businesses forever has an obvious flaw: eventually you will run out of productive businesses. But there’s another, slightly less obvious flaw: long before the entire productive economy grinds to a halt, everyone who relies on it will get very, very angry.

The architects of the neoliberal era were once outsiders. Milton Friedman and his band of merry sociopaths at the University of Chicago School of Economics were considered cranks by the economic and political establishment. Their big idea — dismantling the post-war social safety net and creating a new feudal society of all-power aristocrats and groveling peasants — was not taken seriously beyond a small coterie of ultra-rich would-be robber-barons.

But they kept at it, writing books and papers and speaking to audiences and pushing their fringe ideas. Why? I’ll let Milton Friedman explain:

“Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Friedman was wrong about economics and human nature. But he was one hundred percent right about this theory of change. When the thing that can’t go on forever eventually stops, there’s an opening for new ideas.

The important thing about the Taylor Swift debacle isn’t that a very, very rich musician and her very, very large army of fans are angry about one very, very bad ticketing cartel.

What’s important here is that when the crisis occurred, the ideas that came to the fore — antitrust enforcement of a sort not seen since the Carter administration — were the ones that were lying around.

The handmaidens of the billionaire aristocracy have been sneering at “hipster antitrust” for a decade. I think they sincerely believe that we will give up everything — a decent home, a decent job, decent health-care, decent pay, decent education, a decent planet capable of sustaining human life — in order to preserve the integrity of their theory and the economic models they’ve so lovingly constructed.

They’ve got a hell of a surprise coming. The Swifties are just the beginning.

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is Chokepoint Capitalism (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering (Tor, 2023); and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias (Tor, 2023).https://www.flickr.com/photos/evarinaldiphotography/6820734474

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