This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between.
This week: Live Nation faces potential legal fallout from Ticketmaster’s Taylor Swift fiasco, Journey bandmates sue each other over an American Express account, Mariah Carey loses a bid for ‘Queen of Christmas’ trademarks, and much more.
THE BIG STORY: Taylor Swift … Trust Buster?
A week removed from Ticketmaster’s disastrous presale for Taylor Swift’s upcoming Eras Tour, criticism of parent company Live Nation isn’t getting any quieter – and the threat of legal repercussions is growing.
Live Nation has apologized to fans and pinned the blame on a “staggering number of bot attacks” and “unprecedented traffic.” And whether or not the star really was forced to use Ticketmaster is a complicated question, as Billboard’s Dave Brooks writes.
But the debacle, which saw widespread service delays and website crashes as millions of fans tried (and many failed) to buy tickets for Swift’s 2023 Eras Tour, has nonetheless resurfaced some uncomfortable legal questions for the all-powerful concert giant.
Since they merged in 2010, Ticketmaster and Live Nation have been dogged by accusations that they form a near-monopoly in the market for live concerts, potentially violating federal antitrust laws. Federal regulators at the U.S. Department of Justice approved that deal, but only after Live Nation signed a so-called consent decree that aimed to allay fears that they might abuse their dominant position. Among other things, the agreement prohibits the company from retaliating against venues or acts that refuse to use Ticketmaster. Those rules were set to expire in 2020, but were extended by five years in 2019 after the DOJ accused Live Nation of repeatedly violating the decree.
In the wake of the Swift fiasco, those same monopoly questions are back in the spotlight – and some lawmakers want more than just another extension of the consent decree.
On Tuesday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) blasted Live Nation as a “monopoly” and called for regulators to “break them up.” Two days later, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), the chair of the Senate subcommittee for antitrust issues, warned that the company’s market share “insulates it from the competitive pressures that typically push companies to innovate and improve their services.”
Then on Friday, the New York Times reported that DOJ had already been investigating Live Nation for months over potential antitrust violations, reaching out to venues across the country to ask about the company’s conduct. Reacting to that news, Klobuchar and two other Democratic senators on Monday urged the Justice Department to take hard action if they discover more violations, including “unwinding the Ticketmaster-Live Nation merger and breaking up the company.”
“This may be the only way to truly protect consumers, artists, and venue operators and to restore competition in the ticketing market,” the senators wrote.
Such action might have been unthinkable just a few years ago, amid a decades-long period of relatively lax antitrust enforcement that saw airlines and mobile providers (and yes, music companies) merging into ever-larger conglomerations. But the Biden-era Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission have embarked on an aggressive new effort to crack down on such mega-mergers, including successfully blocking book publisher Penguin Random House from buying up rival Simon & Schuster.
Beyond the Justice Department probe, other legal threats also potentially loom for Live Nation. The attorneys general of Tennessee, North Carolina, Nevada and Pennsylvania have all launched investigations into whether state consumer protection and antitrust laws were violated, including a Tennessee state law that aims to fight the use of automated “bots” on ticketing websites.
And don’t forget about class actions. Live Nation is already facing an existing case that accuses the company of “blatant, anti-consumer behavior,” and the rest of the plaintiffs bar could be eager to try similar cases in the wake of such a high-profile snafu. At least one group of Swift-loving lawyers is already brainstorming how to bring cases.
Faced with all that, can Live Nation shake it off? Stay tuned…
Other top stories this week…
JOURNEY’S CREDIT CARD CLASH – Journey guitarist Neal Schon filed a lawsuit against bandmate Jonathan Cain over allegations that he’s blocking access to “critical” financial records for the band’s American Express account, through which “millions” in Journey money has allegedly flowed: “This action is brought to turn the lights on, so to speak, and obtain critical financial information Schon has been trying to obtain but has been denied.” The case is the third legal battle among Journey members in the past two years, but the first to divide Schon and Cain — the only core members remaining in the band from Journey’s heyday.
I FEEL SUED – Primary Wave and the estate of James Brown were hit with a lawsuit claiming their $90 million catalog sale last year violated an agreement that the iconic singer had struck decades earlier with another company. The case was filed by David Pullman’s Pullman Group (best known for creating so-called Bowie Bonds in the 1990s) over allegations that the blockbuster sale breached a contract that Pullman company struck with Brown way back in 1999, which allegedly guaranteed the company the right to broker any such deal in the future.
YOUNG THUG GANG TRIAL SET FOR JANUARY – A Georgia judge refused to delay the closely-watched criminal case against Young Thug, Gunna and others accused of participating in an Atlanta gang, meaning their trial is now locked in to start on January 9. Prosecutors wanted to move the trial back by nearly three months because a few defendants had not yet been appointed a lawyer. But with Young Thug, Gunna and many others stuck in jail until trial, defense lawyers strongly opposed the delay: “It is unjust that [Young Thug] rots in the county jail and … is being required to wait on the appointment of counsel for co-indictees.”
DUA LIPA RIPS COPYRIGHT SUIT – Attorneys for Dua Lipa asked a federal judge to quickly toss out a lawsuit claiming she stole her smash hit song “Levitating” from a little-known reggae track called “Live Your Life.” Florida band Artikal Sound System sued the star for copyright infringement last year, arguing the songs were so similar it was “highly unlikely that ‘Levitating’ was created independently.” But in their response last week, Lipa’s attorneys said those allegations were full of “vague, boilerplate labels and conclusions” and “devoid of a shred of factual detail.”
MARIAH CANT GET ‘CHRISTMAS’ TRADEMARKS – The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected Mariah Carey’s application to register “Queen of Christmas” as a federal trademark, siding instead with Elizabeth Chan, another singer who says she’s used the same name for years. Repped pro bono by BigLaw attorneys, Chan had argued that no single singer or company should be able to lock up the title. “It is wrong for an individual to attempt to own and monopolize a nickname like ‘Queen of Christmas’ for the purposes of abject materialism,” Chan said in a statement after the ruling.
R. KELLY MANAGER SENTENCED – Donnell Russell, R. Kelly’s friend and former manager, was sentenced to 20 months in prison after pleading guilty to charges that he stalked one of Kelly’s sexual abuse victims in an effort to keep her silent. Prosecutors said Russell used “reprehensible” tactics against the unnamed victim after she filed a civil lawsuit against the disgraced singer in 2018, including threatening messages to her mother and leaking explicit photos online.
SLACKER ON HOOK FOR HUGE ROYALTY JUDGMENT – A federal judge refused to undo his own earlier ruling that Slacker owes nearly $10 million in unpaid music royalties to SoundExchange, despite the steamer’s warnings that the huge judgment could trigger financial ruin for the company. SoundExchange urged the judge to ignore those pleas and last week he obliged – ruling that the seven-figure judgment was simply the result of an agreement that Slacker itself had signed.