Ticketmaster presents: Bernie Sanders the anti-capitalist capitalist at $273 a ticket
Aaron Davidson/WireImage/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bernie Sanders isn’t all that angry with capitalism.

He’s fully embracing it these days, actually, which may be increasingly evident to those who paid up to $273.56 to see him discuss his new book, “It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism,” here in the nation’s capital Wednesday night.

An avowed democratic socialist, Sanders has simultaneously berated “1 percenters” — America’s wealthiest people — while Ticketmaster charges fans at least $95.00 a ticket to see the octogenarian and two-time presidential candidate promote his book for Crown Publishing, an imprint of America’s largest publishing house, Penguin Random House.

But that’s not half the story.

Bernie event ticket prices, which are subject to Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing,” have soared, and stung, many of his own followers (those who aren’t millionaires like him), especially through service fees.

Ticketmaster’s service fees alone have, in some cases, exceeded the price of two hardcover copies of Sanders’ book, currently selling at $17.80 each on Amazon.

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Screengrabs by Matt Laslo, Feb. 23, 2023

The senator from Vermont seems to now be the embodiment of his fellow senator’s fears: Bernie Sanders is beholden to Ticketmaster, whose parent company, Live Nation, is reportedly under federal investigation and the subject of a recent Senate hearing.

‘Talk to the publisher’

Sanders is not in control of his D.C. book bash.

That is, if you ask Bernie Sanders.

“It’s not my event,” Sanders told Raw Story of tonight’s event, part of his “A conversation with Bernie Sanders” book tour. “It’s the publisher’s event. Doesn’t go to me — not a penny … Talk to the publisher.”

That publisher is Penguin Random House, an industry giant that has contracted with roughly one-third of U.S. senators. (More about Penguin Random House in a moment.)

Ticketmaster is Sanders’ colleagues scourge — Democrats and Republicans alike. Many have decried the monopolistic tendencies of the ticketing giant, and they’ve made it one of their top investigative and legislative priorities.

Just a few weeks back, senators grilled Live Nation Entertainment’s president and CFO, Joe Berchtold, over dynamic pricing — the very pricing model fueling Sanders’ book tour.

Dynamic pricing acts like a stock ticker, of sorts, but for tickets. Prices are supposed to fluctuate based on real-time supply — fine print: of only the tickets they release — and demand. Ticketmaster was forced to testify after Taylor Swift’s tour turned inside-out when dynamically priced tickets soared as high as $28,000, which the concert conglomerate blamed on "bots").

Bernie Sanders is no T. Swift.

But the 81-year-old — who suffered a heart attack during his 2020 White House bid — is an elected public official. Moreso, he made a name for himself ripping the Washington establishment, especially politicians who cash in on their service.

It’s illegal for sitting senators, such as Sanders, to receive direct payment for speeches.

But insiders — including their favored publicists and promoters — know an open secret: Lawmakers can be paid a hefty book advance before embarking on a “free” book tour. That’s still the case even when the book tour relies on “the world’s largest live entertainment, ticketing, and eCommerce company,” selling out 1,400 and 3,200 seat venues.

While promoting the senator’s anti-capitalism book, Sanders’ partners at Penguin Random House — and Ticketmaster through it — have been given license to use the senator’s name to charge his most loyal fans for a $55 service fee here, or a $37 fee there.

That’s their business model. It’s known. It’s also, possibly, why Sanders continues distancing himself from the very deals he struck, contracts he signed and events he’s headlining.

“I am not selling anything,” Sanders told Raw Story when asked about the rollout of “It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism” in early February.

“Talk to the publisher about that. I had nothing to do with that,” Sanders said.

”You haven’t talked to the publisher?” Raw Story asked.

“I haven’t talked with them,” Sanders replied. “Publisher makes those decisions.”

“Are you worried about using Ticketmaster?”

“That’s a decision that the publisher made and bookstores made,” Sanders said. “I don’t make any money out of it. I was not involved in that decision.”

“Where’s that money go?” asked Raw story.

“Uhhhhh. That’s a good question,” Sanders replied. “Ask the publisher.”

So Raw Story asked Sanders’ publicist about the arrangement. The publicist declined to be interviewed and instead emailed a statement:

“For attribution as per Crown Publishing, ‘The senator is participating in a number of public events — both free and ticketed — in support of ITS OK TO BE ANGRY ABOUT CAPITALISM. The Senator receives no compensation for his appearance and all decisions regarding ticket price and ticketing platform reside with each hosting organization.’”

When asked in a follow-up email about the numerous Ticketmaster-operated venues on Sanders’ national tour, the publicist replied: “The senator did not select venues.”

Do royalties go to Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders signs books at The Cambridge Union on June 2, 2017 in Cambridge, England.Chris Williamson/Getty Images

In 2020, Penguin Random House paid Sanders $170,000 for this anti-capitalism book, according to his Senate financial disclosure. That's almost one year's worth of U.S. Senate salary for Sanders, who earns $174,000 annually for his work as a federal lawmaker.

Sanders’ 2011 royalty agreement with Nation Books for “The Speech” mandated that all royalties go “directly to charity.” That was before he was a bestseller.

Screengrab of Bernie Sanders’ Senate financial disclosure form by Matt Laslo

And publication of Sanders’ 2016 book “Our Revolution” proved a game changer. Its royalties propelled Sanders from being one of Congress’ poorer members into its millionaire’s club. Since then, the senator and his wife, Jane, reportedly paid off their home in Burlington, Vt., and bought a lakeside vacation spot in cash. The senator also has a third home, a row house close to the Capitol, which he purchased in 2007. Sanders hasn’t always been eager to volunteer details about his new wealth, either.

While money has flowed in from the senator’s previous books — he churned out one a year from 2015 to 2019 — it’s unclear what his royalty agreement is this time around.

What is clear is that lots of money is flowing under the mantle of “Bernie Sanders.”

Is Ticketmaster now Bernie’s master?

“Face value” is a quaint notion from a bygone era of event ticket sales.

Ticketmaster, which Sanders told CBS News he's "not particularly" thrilled to be doing business with, controls some 70 percent to 80 percent of the ticketing industry, according to a bipartisan group of Sanders’ colleagues who accuse the company of employing abusive monopolistic practices.

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Screengrabs taken by Matt Laslo, Feb. 22, 2023

That’s usually Sanders’ line. But when pressed Tuesday, Sanders wasn’t interested in discussing his book royalties.

"Are you making royalties from this book? Because in the past, you donated those royalties,” Raw Story asked Sanders.

“Excuse me,” Sanders said, raising his voice, “I really don’t choose to talk to you right now. Talk to the publisher and get your information.”

The publisher won’t discuss the matter and sent a statement that didn’t answer the question, Raw Story told Sanders before following up with several more questions:

Are you collecting royalties?

Are you donating them, if so?

Did you talk to other publishing houses besides Penguin?

“Okay, thank you very much,” Sanders said dismissively.

“Who’s paying for your travel to and from California?”

Awkward silence.

“Are you aware that your tickets are selling for $273.56?”

Sanders said nothing.

“Are you aware Ticketmaster is charging $55 fees for your address [in D.C.]? $33 fees for your California addresses?”

No response.

“Did you negotiate the terms?”

Still, more silence.

“Are you still a democratic socialist or are you a capitalist now?”

Sanders offered a five-word response: “Have a good day, sir.”

'It's symbiotic'

Miles Williams is president of the SAS Entertainment Group which is contracted to manage the Alex Theatre in Glendale, Calif., where Sanders is slated to perform this Friday.

“The reason venues like [Ticketmaster] is because of the outreach they do for free to help you sell a show. When you sell tickets they make money, and if you don’t sell tickets they don’t,” Williams told Raw Story. “It’s symbiotic, for the show to go far and wide.”

Like many general managers, William’s able to basically cut his marketing budget in half by using Ticketmaster. On top of that, his venue shares service fees, roughly 50/50, with Ticketmaster. And those fees add up.

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Screengrabs by Matt Laslo

That extra cash means a lot to local venues. Even so, Williams wishes Ticketmaster had true competitors, but he’s not paid to be an idealist.

“Now, do I think that there’s a better way? Yeah, I do,” Williams said. “It would be great if there were two, three, four big ticketing companies that had the same sort of thing going. I would prefer that. I think the whole industry would prefer that.”

As for Sanders’ book tour, Williams says the senator has little-to-no other options.

“There are very few venues Sanders could have played that aren’t with Ticketmaster. I can’t even think of one that would be the right size or kind of situation,” Williams said. “Like a lot of America, you just have to make your way through, and if the monopolies and the corporate takeover of the country is fait accompli, we’re just trying to make our way though. We can’t all be reformers. Like, if he were to choose never to do a show that happens to be a Ticketmaster venue, that’s not going to make a difference in the world. It’s not going to matter.”

Penguin power

Bernie Sanders may be our case study, but he’s not alone. According to the Secretary of the Senate, 39 sitting senators have published books, and 12 of 39 of those — or 30.7 percent — are published, ultimately, by Penguin Random House under one of the roughly 275 imprints the global publishing behemoth controls.

“That’s interesting,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) told Raw Story after we alerted him to the Senate’s preferred publishing house.

Hickenlooper’s 2016 book, “The Opposite of Woe. My Life in Beer and Politics,” is unabashedly Penguin.

“Generally, they’re the ones that would push political books, and you look for somebody who’s going to get your book read,” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper was eager to discuss shopping around for publicists back when he was governor, in part, because he had a ghostwriter “and we had to figure out some way to pay him.”

“I mean, Penguin is Penguin. They’re one of the most admired publishers,” Hickenlooper said, “I don’t think that it’s hypocritical. They have a disproportionate level of power.”

Only three of those senatorial Penguin authors are Republicans — Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Marco Rubio of Florida and Mike Lee of Colorado. They published under Sentinel, a conservative imprint of Penguin Group.

Besides Sanders, the other eight senators to publish under the mantle of Penguin Random House are all Democrats.

‘The mark of a monopoly is the high fees’

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) holds up a copy of fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's book during a news conference to voice their opposition to adding justices to the U.S. Supreme Court outside the court's building on April 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) appears to be the only sitting senator to recently self-publish, which he did with his 126-page “My Story,” which dropped ahead of his short-lived 2016 presidential run.

It’s the small- to medium-level artists who are punished most by what critics decry as Ticketmaster’s monopolistic practices.

“It's those little artists who are really, really, really getting screwed by the monopoly. They do not have any bargaining power,” Diana Moss, the president of the American Antitrust Institute, told Raw Story. “They are the ones who are just getting squeezed to death by the fees that Live Nation Ticketmaster charges them.”

Live Nation now boasts owning and operating 200-plus venues globally. That’s how they can command the $55, $37, and $33 service fees on a sitting U.S. senator’s wonky book tour.

“The ticket fees are just the monopoly price that's extracted from consumers,” Moss said. “The mark of the devil: The mark of a monopoly is the high fees. The ticket prices, on the other hand, are set largely by the artists themselves, but there's also the influence of Live Nation Ticketmaster.”

This is the new trickle down economics: The top 1 percent — senator or not — reap the benefits on the backs of the 99 percent.

“It goes from artists to artist’s management to promotion to venues to ticketing to secondary ticketing … so the wingspan is ‘Game of Thrones’ scale,” Moss said. “And because of what we call exclusionary practices, restrictive practices that Live Nation/Ticketmaster engages in all along the supply chain, they are squeezing out everybody.”

‘They should be broken up’

When asked about her takeaway from this year’s high-profile Ticketmaster hearing on Capitol Hill, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) didn’t hesitate.

“They should be broken up,” she said.

“Just plain and simple?” Raw Story asked.

“Plain and simple,” Warren said. “Look, Ticketmaster made certain promises that if they were allowed to swallow up Live Nation there would be certain practices they would not engage in, and it appears they broke those promises. If that is so, then, we’re halfway there on breaking them up.”

“Because this really resonated — across the aisle? With the public?”

“You bet,” Warren replied.

“But we don’t see that here.”

“We don’t get that [here]!” Warren exclaimed while riding an elevator in the Capitol. “Change is coming.”