For the many Taylor Swift fans who tried to secure tickets to her Eras tour, the process was grueling. First, they had to sign up for a presale list with Ticketmaster a week prior. Then, only a fraction of those who signed up were selected to take part in the presale. And if they were one of the lucky few who got an email saying they could join the presale, they faced a 2,000-person digital queue.
All of this was before the public sale even started… which Ticketmaster then cancelled.
When large tech companies like Ticketmaster (and its parent company Live Nation Entertainment) mess up this badly, there are few places for consumers to go. In a letter to the Attorney General, Senators Ed Markey (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) pointed out that “Live Nation controls 60% of the market for promotion of major concerts and tickets ‘80 of the top 100 arenas in the country.’”
Cory Doctorow and Rebecca Giblin would call this an example of chokepoint capitalism. Their book, Chokepoint Capitalism: How Big Tech and Big Content Captured Creative Labor Markets and How We’ll Win Them Back, looks closer at the giants of tech and content and their monopolistic hold on consumers and creators alike. Cory Doctorow will be visiting the College of Arts, Media and Design on Monday, December 5 at 6 PM to discuss Chokepoint Capitalism.
Chokepoint Capitalism and Monopoly Power
The authors are interested in the ways these companies build systems to make it difficult or impossible for customers to leave and for companies to get even bigger. When the Live Nation Ticketmaster merger was first announced in 2009, David A. Balto testified before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, pointing out “Ticketmaster’s monopoly power is preserved through a series of exclusionary arrangements that diminish the potential for rivals to arise and challenge the monopoly.”
This is an example of a flywheel. According to Doctorow and Giblin, flywheels are the systems that keep consumers and suppliers locked in and keep these companies dominant. Ticketmaster created arrangements with concert venues and artists that made it impossible for competitors to enter the fray.
Copyright Won’t Save Us
Doctorow and Giblin also look at creative hubs, like Spotify and YouTube. They point out that these companies are also keeping creators in a chokehold. And the few tools that creators and artists have – like copyright – won’t save them.
Alexandra Roberts, a Northeastern professor of law and music who teaches courses on trademark, copyright, and intellectual property, explains that copyright law is supposed to incentivize innovation by rewarding creators and inventors with exclusive rights.
But, she says, if a streaming company, like Spotify, prioritizes automated playlists that don’t highlight upcoming artists, or if a music label makes it impossible for an artist to make money, copyright can be full of empty promise. (And for artists that are having difficulty with Spotify, YouTube is no better.)
“All of these things come together to let corporations create these choke points, so that the creators aren’t getting more rewards,” says Roberts, who will join the faculty panel at Monday’s event in conversation with Doctorow. “The consumers and audience members aren’t really getting more access to art, to music, to literature. Instead, the corporations are sitting in the middle squeezing everybody, making 95% of the profits.”
Even musical powerhouses like Taylor Swift have dealt with exploitative contracts. When Swift started her career, she signed with Big Machine Records. In 2019, when she moved to Universal Music Group, she couldn’t take her masters with her. Even though she had written those songs – massive hits like “I Knew You Were Trouble” — BMR held the copyright. In Swift’s case, this tale has a happier-than-usual ending: she rerecorded these albums as “Taylor’s Version” and told fans why. Fans supported her and bought her recordings, and she was able to negotiate copyright ownership of these versions.
To learn more about the ways monopolies are changing how we consume art and media, reserve a spot at the December 5 event with Cory Doctorow here.