Skip to main content

CEO and President of Live Nation Entertainment, Inc. Michael Rapino talks to members of the media at the Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference on July 7, 2021, in Sun Valley, Idaho.Kevin Dietsch/AFP/Getty Images

There aren’t many Canadians who could rightfully claim the title of biggest corporate villain in America, at least among Taylor Swift fans.

Yet Michael Rapino, the Thunder Bay-born CEO of music industry goliath Live Nation – part concert promoter, venue operator, artist manager and, yes, dispenser of coveted tickets through Ticketmaster – has found himself thrust into that role, insofar as the chief executive of a US$15-billion-a-year company can become a lightning rod for the anger and disappointment of a few million Swifties, as the musician’s fans are known.

Last month’s bungled presale of tickets for Ms. Swift’s Eras tour, which saw Ticketmaster’s system crumble under intense demand and left many preregistered fans empty-handed – even as scalpers began reselling tickets for thousands of dollars – has reignited calls for the 2010 merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster to be reversed.

The company is facing attacks on multiple fronts. After U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar fired off a letter to Mr. Rapino expressing her “serious concern” about his company’s dominance of the market, she joined other senators in announcing that an antitrust panel will hold hearings into the “lack of competition in the ticketing industry.” The U.S. Department of Justice had already launched an antitrust investigation prior to the ticketing debacle. Multiple state attorneys-general have announced their own probes. And this week the House Energy and Commerce Committee demanded a briefing from Mr. Rapino about “the circumstances surrounding the Eras tour.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Swift’s legions of fans have taken direct aim at the company. This week a lawsuit was filed on behalf of 26 plaintiffs that claims Live Nation “violated California’s antitrust and unfair competition laws,” while another group of fans, operating under the name Vigilante Legal – a play on the title of one of Ms. Swift’s songs – are preparing a legal brief they plan to deliver to the Justice Department by the end of the month.

Taylor Swift dance parties are the benevolent alternative to clubbing you never knew you needed

Spotify Wrapped reviewed: The artists and songs that soundtracked 2022

“We want the Live Nation and Ticketmaster merger to be unwound because it’s a clear monopoly,” said Blake Barnett, a lawyer in Denver, Colo., spearheading the Vigilante Legal project. “When we first started being Taylor Swift fans we were 14- or 15-year-old kids, but we’re now in our 30s with big boy and big girl jobs and we’re joining forces to educate the public on what’s going on.”

Live Nation has not filed a response to the lawsuit, but has apologized for the ticketing chaos while denying it is engaged in antitrust activities. The company did not respond to interview requests.

Mr. Rapino’s rise from son of a Thunder Bay accountant to global impresario and political target all began with blind blues rocker Jeff Healey and a napkin.

When Mr. Rapino was a business student at Lakehead University in the 1980s, he spun his love of music into a gig booking bands at local bars. The late Mr. Healey was his first client, and the experience seeded an obsession with leaving his mark on the live events industry.

So one night Mr. Rapino huddled with a friend and mentor in a bar and jotted down his ambition on a napkin.

“The goal on this napkin was that by the time I was 40 years old I’d be running the largest live entertainment company in the world,” he told the Lakehead graduating class of 2015 when he returned to his hometown to receive an honorary doctorate.

Spoiler alert: He would reach his goal with a year to spare.

While still at Lakehead he landed a job with Labatt Brewing Company staging concerts in local bars. In 1989, the year he graduated, he watched in awe as Michael Cohl, a dishevelled concert promoter from Toronto, backed by a $25-million investment from Labatt, bought all the international rights to the Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour, thus creating the modern, big-budget concert tour. “Sitting in Thunder Bay and reading that in The Globe and Mail, I just wanted to be Michael Cohl and this idea that the man behind the concert was a real pursuit,” he told PBS’s Charlie Rose in 2017.

After a decade rising through the marketing ranks at Labatt, Mr. Rapino left to launch Core Audiences with music industry veteran Steve Herman. The company soon became Canada’s second-largest concert promoter, and in 2000 Robert F.X. Sillerman, a New York entrepreneur, snapped up Core in one of dozens of regional concert industry acquisitions. Within two years Clear Channel Communications Inc., America’s largest radio broadcaster, acquired Mr. Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment for US$3-billion.

It was a critical period for Mr. Rapino, personally and professionally. In 2003 he married Jolene Blalock, who played Vulcan science officer T’Pol on the early 2000s series Star Trek: Enterprise. They’d met the year before when Mr. Rapino hired her for an event, and she proposed to him while on vacation in Jamaica. Today they have three sons and live in Malibu.

Meanwhile, Mr. Rapino became the head of Clear Channel’s new European operations, where he raised his profile within the company. When Clear Channel decided to spin off its entertainment division in 2005, it tapped Mr. Rapino, then 39, to lead the new public company under the Live Nation banner.

The concert promotion company started life heavily indebted and lacking direction. It was, as Mr. Rapino himself would later tell a Senate committee studying his company’s merger with Ticketmaster, “a struggling business with one of the worst reputations in the live music industry.”

He immediately got to work to try to change that. The company signed lucrative agreements with artists known as 360 deals, which covered tours, music sales, merchandise and sponsorships. It also helped that the internet was decimating CD sales, which elevated touring to a new level of importance for artists’ bottom lines.

Still, Live Nation was largely beholden to Ticketmaster for the direct relationship with customers – and, critically, their spending data – so when the opportunity to buy the ticketing company arose in 2010, he seized it.

“From the start Rapino has had really deep vision about ensuring that Live Nation was not just a concert promoting company,” said Dean Budnick, co-author of Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped. “I give him a lot of credit for thinking about that and executing on it very successfully.”

The U.S. Justice Department ultimately approved the takeover with a 10-year consent decree that barred the new company from forcing venues to use Ticketmaster services. The department launched a second investigation of the Live Nation-Ticketmaster merger in 2019 and found what it called repeated violations of that decree, which was then amended with tougher penalties and extended to 2025.

Now, it appears, the merger’s fate once again hangs in the balance, even though it’s not obvious to some observers that last month’s ticketing fiasco was an antitrust issue. For one thing, Live Nation isn’t the promoter for Ms. Swift’s shows. Nor was Ticketmaster the only seller, though it handled the bulk of the tickets.

Others, such as former Billboard editorial director Bill Werde have noted Ms. Swift could have taken a page from Pearl Jam’s recent Gigaton tour and used Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan technology and Face Value Ticket Exchange to ensure that only fans got access to tickets, which could only be resold at face value. “When primary concert tickets are expensive, that’s because your favorite artists want them to be,” he wrote in his Full Rate No Cap newsletter. “If artists wanted to set low prices and stop the secondary market, they could basically do it tomorrow.”

Instead, Mr. Budnick says, the decision to put tickets for all her shows on sale all at once was unwise, given the intense demand among fans to see Ms. Swift’s first concert tour in five years. Ticketmaster’s platform collapsed under the pressure of 3.5 billion system requests, many from bots. Whether that’s enough to break up the company is an open question.

“Everyone rushes to judgment, and it’s a fun thing for Congress to get worked up about,” Mr. Budnick said. “I don’t think Live Nation is perfect in any way, shape or form, but I do think they take a lot of hits for certain things where they shouldn’t.”

As for Mr. Rapino, he has not spoken publicly about the backlash since Nov. 17, two days after the ticketing debacle, when he was on the bill at an investor conference to talk up the company’s prospects to analysts and shareholders. After kicking off his presentation with a joke – ”Everyone has a Taylor Swift ticket under their seat. And I’ll leave.” – he defended the company’s handling of the sale, blaming the problems on overwhelming demand. “No matter how well you’d execute, 12 million kids wanted two million tickets. There’s no nice way to tell 10 million Swifties there’s no tickets,” he said.

Instead, he asked investors to focus on Live Nation’s aspirations to use its venue management, sponsorship and ticketing clout to reach untapped international markets. “We’re growing and leading,” he said. “We think we have many more years of growth ahead of us.”