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Musicians Win a Key Concession from the Live Nation Monopoly — For Now
After pressure, Ticketmaster's parent company will temporarily stop skimming a cut of artists' merchandise sales. Artists say the move is "an admission of guilt."
By Paul Blest, More Perfect Union
Live Nation Entertainment, the corporation that has an effective monopoly over live music as a result of its merger with Ticketmaster over a decade ago, has had a rough couple of years.
Ticketmaster’s chaotic system infuriated fans of artists like Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen and drove prices for their shows sky-high. In June, the company was forced to make its junk fees transparent after pressure from the Biden administration and a number of state legislatures. And perhaps most distressingly for Live Nation’s leadership, they’re facing a potential antitrust lawsuit from the Department of Justice that could reportedly land within months.
So the company, seeking a public relations win, got one last month when it announced that some of its venues would cease taking cuts of artists' merchandise sales at their shows and temporarily boost pay to bands and their crews.
The “On the Road Again” program, rolled out as a partnership with country music legend Willie Nelson along with a sleek website, promises to "support developing artists and the integral teams that support them." Aside from participating venues ending the practice of merch cuts, the more eye-catching benefits include an extra $1,500 per show in “show and travel cash,” on top of nightly compensation, for both opening and headlining acts through the end of 2023.
But Live Nation’s move came only after a public reckoning with the practice of merch cuts, which are further eroding artists’ ability to eke out a living playing music. The company has also faced accusations that the move, which Live Nation indicated would be temporary, is a cynical ploy to further consolidate its control over live music.
Artists from the United Musicians and Allied Workers, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of music workers in both the U.S. and Canada that has campaigned against merch cuts for nearly a year, say the Live Nation move is welcome despite being a play for positive PR.
"We've been banging this drum for so long…but they’re turning it into a marketing exercise of, 'We're going to give you 100 percent of your merch money,'” Rollie Pemberton, a Polaris Prize-winning Canadian rapper who performs as Cadence Weapon, told More Perfect Union.
For Pemberton, Live Nation’s shift is proof that its venues don’t need to take a split on artists’ merch — which the artists and their labels, not the venues, pay to produce — and that doing so is an active choice to exploit artists. “It’s an admission of guilt,” Pemberton said. Added Brooklyn-based artist Marshall Moran: “We’re just getting back what we were initially owed in the first place.”
The issue of merch cuts drew attention last month when Jeff Rosenstock, a musician who has for years championed the do-it-yourself punk ethos, embarked on a headlining tour in support of his new record HELLMODE.
Rosenstock posted a list of stops on the first run of the tour and noted what proportion of his merchandise revenue was being taken at each; out of 14 venues across the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada, just three weren’t taking cuts from Rosenstock, who performs with a full band and tours with a crew. One took as much as 25 percent on each sale, which Rosenstock explained contributed to higher prices for fans.
“I'd love to say ‘and as a result of all that, we'll no longer be playing venues that take merch cuts,’” Rosenstock tweeted. “But unfortunately, during the pandemic, AEG [another live entertainment corporation] & LiveNation bought so many of the types of venues that we play, that dodging these super high cuts is nearly impossible.”
Tomberlin, a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn who is currently on tour with folk artist Ray LaMontagne, has taken to explicitly telling fans she won’t be selling merch in venues with exorbitant merch cuts.
Conglomerates like LiveNation, AEG, and MSG Entertainment — a publicly-traded company that partnered in building the recently opened, multi-billion dollar Sphere at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas — aren’t the only ones taking from artists' merchandise sales. More than 150 artists and other music professionals have signed a petition to the National Independent Venue Association demanding that member venues be required to stop the practice of merch cuts.
Live Nation describes itself as “the world’s leading live entertainment company,” and its website lists more than 130 major venues in the U.S. and Canada. Around 75 venues are participating in the On the Road Again program.
Live Nation’s announcement inevitably came with some fine print. As the blog Saving Country Music pointed out, the program will only last a few months, through the end of the year. NIVA, the independent venue group, said that LiveNation's “temporary measures” were mainly designed to “squeeze out independent venues which provide the lifeblood of many artists on thin margins.”
"[The initiative] appears to be a calculated attempt to use a publicly-traded conglomerate's immeasurable resources to divert artists from independent venues and further consolidate control over the live entertainment sector,” NIVA said in its statement. (Live Nation Entertainment did not respond to More Perfect Union’s request to respond to NIVA’s statement and to provide more details on how the program will work.)
Moran, who releases music under the name mmurmoons, said that he’s glad to see that rank-and-file musicians are “coming to a consensus” about what’s acceptable and that it’s the “most ridiculous thing in the world for venues to take merch cuts.”
Merch cuts are just one more factor squeezing money out of artists’ pockets, along with minuscule streaming revenue splits with corporations like Spotify and Apple Music and what Moran describes as the “absolutely predatory nature of the ticketing industry.” And Moran, who works a number of music-related jobs in addition to playing his own, said the dwindling income of artists themselves trickles down.
“My income has dropped because artists' income has dropped,” Moran said. “Whether or not we want to admit it right now, all artists are completely dependent on merch sales.”
"Having merch cuts and not having merch cuts is the difference between breaking even and losing money on a tour,” Pemberton added.
And for Pemberton, Moran, and UMAW, the outrage over merch cuts can’t be divorced from other labor struggles, such as the recently ended writers’ strike. Like writers, Pemberton said, musicians are worried about the rise and monetization of artificial intelligence as well as the cost-of-living crisis.
As for Live Nation, Pemberton said that UMAW and its allies will continue to apply pressure in the hopes that the company expands and extends its merchandise policy. But he added that there’s irony in Live Nation presenting itself as a solution to a problem of their own making: “It’s like a company that makes mousetraps saying, ‘We know how hard it is for mice to survive.’”