For the second time since news of the merger of giant national concert promoters Live Nation and monopolistic ticket brokers Ticketmaster was first announced 14 months ago, the heads of those two companies, Michael Rapino and Irving Azoff, declined to speak to the assembled music industry at South by Southwest about the alleged benefits to the consumer and the music world.
However, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, the Obama administration Justice Department official who approved the settlement paving the way for the merger in late January, did travel from Washington, D.C., to take part in a panel discussion Thursday afternoon entitled "Creative Capitol: Music, Culture and Policy under Obama."
As she did at the press conference announcing the settlement, Varney said the Justice Department initially held that the merger was not permissible under federal antitrust laws. But negotiations over the last year with Live Nation and Ticketmaster resulted in several concessions, including Ticketmaster selling off several small parts of its ticketing business to competitors and "behavioral remedies" that Justice will oversee to guard against anti-competitive practices.
"We've tried to create some competitive ground for you all to move around the industry and see to which extent you can shake things up," Varney said. And she urged independent promoters, musicians and consumers to voice their opinions if they oppose the merger--comments are being accepted until May 3--and to communicate thereafter with Justice's compliance committee, making them aware if the newly merged Live Nation Entertainment isn't playing fair.
When this reporter pointed out that during two congressional hearings on the merger last year, and in hundreds of news accounts about the merger since the settlement was announced, not a single person who does not have a financial stake in the merger sang its praises--and that, in fact, opposition was nearly unanimous, ranging from Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) on the right to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) on the left--Varney stayed on point, reiterating that Justice would be watching closely, and that it effectively was constrained in blocking the merger only where it violated antitrust laws, in the area of ticketing, which it claims has been addressed.
Questioned about the relevance of the Supreme Court ruling in 1948 in "The United States vs. Paramount Pictures," which decided that movie studios could not also own movie theaters and the companies that distribute their films, Varney said it was not relevant, and once again repeated that the only troublesome area in the merger had been ticketing.
Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot then asked why Justice hadn't considered pushing Live Nation to sell off its management division, since the new mega-corporation will manage artists, book their concerts, own the concert venues, sell the tickets, sell the merchandise and concessions and in some cases act as the record company. But Varney continued to stress that ticketing had been the only issue Justice could address.
Finally, asked whether President Obama's friend and Harvard roommate Julius Genachowski, a former member of the board of directors of Ticketmaster and now head of the Federal Communications Commission, or Hollywood superagent Ari Emanuel, brother of Obama chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and a member of the board of Live Nation, had written letters in support of the merger, Varney said, "Not that I'm aware of."
Other members of the panel spoke about far less troubling aspects of the Obama administration's stance on music and the arts.
Austin Schlick, general counsel for the FCC, addressed the broadband plan presented to Congress on Tuesday, a 10-year initiative to vastly expand Americans' access to the Internet.
Rachel Goslins, the director of the documentary "'Bama Girl," Executive Director of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and, coincidentally, Genachowski's wife, lauded a wide range of administration initiatives to foster the arts, including a new attitude at the National Endowment for the Arts.
And then there was the Windy City's own Tim Tuten, co-owner of the Hideout, former Chicago Public Schools teacher and now Director of Events for the Office of Communications and Outreach in the Department of Education, who hailed the administration's support for arts education and efforts to expand programs that have been cut in school systems across the country, especially in poor communities.