The US Department of Justice has sued Ticketmaster and its parent company, Live Nation Entertainment, for abusing their alleged monopoly in the ticketing market to trample competitors.

Filed on Thursday in the Southern District of New York, the lawsuit focuses on Ticketmaster’s long-term exclusivity contracts with many of the largest music venues, making it the predominant ticketing service available to concertgoers. The firm secures these deals in part by “threatening and retaliating against venues that work with rivals,” the DOJ alleges.

In the complaint, the DOJ accuses Ticketmaster and Live Nation, which acts as a promoter for hundreds of high-profile artists, of exploiting their relationship to establish a “self-reinforcing flywheel” that blocks competitors from gaining a foothold. Live Nation parlays its exclusive promotion deals into exclusive ticketing deals with venues, the DOJ claims, which are left with no practical choice but to go with Ticketmaster, for fear of losing access to sought-after acts represented by its parent company. The DOJ is seeking to break up the joint organization.

“We allege that Live Nation relies on unlawful, anticompetitive conduct to exercise its monopolistic control over the live events industry in the United States at the cost of fans, artists, smaller promoters, and venue operators,” says attorney general Merrick Garland in a statement. “The result is that fans pay more in fees, artists have fewer opportunities to play concerts, smaller promoters get squeezed out, and venues have fewer real choices for ticketing services. It is time to break up Live Nation–Ticketmaster.”

In a lengthy statement provided to WIRED, Live Nation disputes the DOJ’s allegation that it and Ticketmaster wield monopoly power. “The DOJ’s lawsuit won’t solve the issues fans care about relating to ticket prices, service fees, and access to in-demand shows,” the company says. “Calling Ticketmaster a monopoly may be a PR win for the DOJ in the short term, but it will lose in court because it ignores the basic economics of live entertainment, such as the fact that the bulk of service fees go to venues, and that competition has steadily eroded Ticketmaster’s market share and profit margin.”

The charges brought by the DOJ mirror allegations made previously against Ticketmaster in two ongoing private lawsuits.

In December 2022, Ticketmaster was sued by hundreds of Taylor Swift fans, who brought a case in response to a high-profile ticketing debacle that reportedly left them queuing for hours to pay for tickets that they had been assigned under an early access program, with many ultimately unable to claim their allocations. The incident led to a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee on consolidation in the ticketing industry and, reportedly, helped catalyze the investigation into Ticketmaster by the DOJ.

In their lawsuit, the Swift fans accused Ticketmaster of abusing its dominant position to impose “higher prices in the presale, sale, and resale market for concert tickets.” The company has “effectuated this anticompetitive scheme by forcing fans of musicians to use Ticketmaster exclusively to buy concert tickets,” the lawsuit alleged.

In the second case, a class action brought in 2022 on behalf of Ticketmaster customers in the US, Live Nation and Ticketmaster were accused of abusing the complementary relationship between their services to overcharge consumers and sustain their monopoly. “Live Nation controls the vast majority of the big national touring acts and, either explicitly or implicitly, coerces concert venues into selecting Ticketmaster as their ticketing service provider on pain of losing high-value acts,” claims Adam Wolfson, a partner at Quinn Emanuel, the law firm representing the plaintiffs.

This type of conduct, known as tying, was explicitly forbidden under the consent decree imposed upon Live Nation and Ticketmaster by the DOJ as a condition of their 2010 merger. “Our allegation is that they did it anyway,” says Wolfson. “Ticketmaster’s behavior is an open secret—everyone talks about it.”

In a corporate blog post published in March, Dan Wall, executive vice president of corporate and regulatory affairs at Live Nation, rejected allegations that Ticketmaster is driving up the price of tickets. The face value of a ticket is decided by the artist, he wrote, while the service charge—from which Ticketmaster draws its cut—is set by the venue.

In a call with reporters, a senior DOJ official described this line of defense as a “red herring” in the context of the alleged antitrust violations. “Our position is that removing the chokehold that Live Nation has at all levels of the ecosystem will be beneficial with respect to the way prices are set.”

A problem common to antitrust disputes, says Bradley Justus, an antitrust attorney at law firm Axinn, is the difficulty in distinguishing easily between practices that amount to anticompetitive behavior and those that might be considered sensible business strategy. The DOJ will argue that the exclusive deals entered into by Ticketmaster are categorically anticompetitive. “The antitrust question is: How extensive is the scope of those agreements? Are they truly so broad that another competitor couldn’t enter and scale?” says Justus.

The DOJ claims that the terms of the contracts mean that “venues cannot consider or choose rival ticketers or switch to better or more cost-effective ticketing technology.” The effect, it claims, is both to stifle competitors and minimize the pressure for Ticketmaster to improve its own product, to the detriment of concertgoers.

Although the DOJ has petitioned for Live Nation to be broken up, it has not outlined the specific structural changes it will go after, nor any injunctions it may try to impose with respect to the company’s exclusive contracts. “A breakup is absolutely on the table, but it’s important not to put the cart before the horse. In antitrust cases, any remedy has to be specifically tailored to the violation found,” a senior DOJ official told the press. “Based on the allegation that Live Nation and Ticketmaster have exerted control at every level of the ecosystem, aspects of the company need to be broken apart in order for competition to flourish in the live music industry.”

Updated 12:05 pm ET, May 23, 2024: Added statement from Live Nation.