Once upon a time there were many, many Record Labels, Decca, A & M, Polydor, Ploygram, Island… There was certainly a wide variety. But over the years, due to mergers and takeovers etc, they all dwindled until finally there were but four: EMI, Universal, Sony and Warner. And yesterday (21st September) it was announced that there will soon be three…
It’s the news that EMI is to be taken over by Universal Music Group leaving just three major players in the music industry. The details can be seen in this report:
Ok, so the EU commission have ordered they sell off certain parts of EMI’s operations so they ‘preserve competition.’ But if you look at it, that’s not going to happen. EMI has gone, which as a whole leaves only three major record labels. That means there is less competition anyway as Universal and Sony (who bought EMI’s publishing rights last year) have filled the gap. And what about those sold off assets? Where are they going to go? Universal have said they have ‘well funded buyers’ for the assets. It strikes me that the most likely candidates for purchasing these are: SONY AND WARNER.
If there are music assets going up for sale they are going to want a piece of the pie. There are some major players in those assets such as Kylie Minogue, for instance. You know that even if she decided to fart down a microphone for three minutes and release it then people would probably buy it. Sony and Warner will want to get their hands on Kylie if she’s going free. (Ok… That sounded wrong but you get my drift.) But even if these assets don’t go to Sony or Warner, then they’ll still just be small fry floating in an ocean of sharks.
Already the independent labels can’t compete because they lack the power and resources of the major labels. The major labels have the ability to shove themselves down people’s throats with endless promotion whereas the independents just don’t have that. They’re limited in what they can do. Yes, as one unit the independent labels have something like eighteen percent of the market, but that’s as a unit. Individually, each label has less than a single percentage. The term independent is really just another way of saying ‘other.’ As a single entity they may have eighteen percent of the market, but because they are not they don’t have anywhere near eighteen percent of the power. They actually have very little compared to the giants of Universal, Sony, Warner and previously EMI.
And don’t think that these assets are going to float out and become a big tough music label of their own. The remaining three majors are going to do all they can to maintain their increased dominance of the market. Any upstart will likely be crushed or absorbed. The majors are truly like sharks, any perceived threat and they will try and destroy it.
So this deal means Universal has more power and dominance but that’s not the only thing that worries me. I’ll admit here that even four major labels with lots of power was bad, but three is even worse. And the three that remain are the worst three. Look at the original four. Out of those EMI was the only one that was a single, dedicated record label. The only one devoted solely to music. Up until five or six years ago they were completely independent, before being taken over by a private equity firm. Even after that they still had the dedication to music.
As for Universal, Sony and Warner… They’re nothing but fingers. Universal Music itself has twenty one separate divisions and Universal Music is owned by Vivendi (which has a lot of other subdivisions) which in turn is majority owned by General Electric who owns a whole lot of other, none music things. Sony and Warner are similar in that they have both subdivisions (as did EMI to some extent) and huge parent companies (though nowhere near as extensive as Universal.) Like the roots of a tree, these fingers suck up money and filter it towards the top. The likes of Universal Music, whilst being a record label, are just a money making finger of a much larger beast which has no interest in music. All they want is money and power. None of them are a pure music company as EMI was. They don’t exist to make, record and sell music. They exist for the purposes of making money and that is a very bad thing indeed.
So what does this mean for the music and the artists? It’s not good. For a start there is less competition. Competition drives innovation and it stands to reason that less of it means less innovation. Say one music company does something brilliant that sells loads of records. The others will then try to emulate or better that with an idea of their own in order to boost their own sales. With only a four Major labels innovation was already scarce, which does not bode well. Secondly is the fact that the remaining three exist only as money making machines. For the most part they want to go with tried and tested methods of making money. A musician who perhaps wants to do something different or even innovative would be shot down by being told that it ‘wouldn’t sell’ or ‘wouldn’t make money.’ They aren’t particularly interested in the music as long as it makes money which can filter up to the massive beast above. This also means less innovation as innovation is a risky business. They go for the moniker of ‘if it worked once keep doing it’ rather than trying to be bold and exciting. As a result of everything being a rehash of the same old songs, quality of music decreases and thus sales begin to fall (as is evidenced by falling sales!)
And in order to achieve this? They control every aspect, right down to the album cover. If it’s not going to make money its out. If it doesn’t conform, it’s out. If it tries to be individual, it’s out. Resistance is futile. Resistance will be crushed. And any musician/group not making money/ as much money as was expected or not conforming will be dropped. Why do you think you see so many debut album adverts for people who you never hear of again? Because they get dropped like a stone when the company realises they aren’t ‘doing well enough.’ There’s a good example of this. Remember a few years back when that X Factor winner lost out to Rage Against the Machine (I can’t remember who it was and I don’t care…) He was dropped. And coincidentally, it may interest you to know that X Factor is run by Syco which in turn is run by Sony Music etc… So I believe the example fits in quite nicely here. It’s not about the music. It’s about the publicity and the money. (And looking at how many artists Syco have dropped over the years… Well it says it all.)
This has been a problem for many years, but I believe it was less so with EMI around because they were more interested in the music. Money would have played a large part as well, I’m assuming, and they probably did extort some control, but at least there was some dedication to music there. It’s purpose was music, not feeding a massive conglomeration above (for the most part.) With EMI gone the music landscape is controlled by three mega beasts with many fingers demanding lots and lots of money, barely giving a hoot as to where it comes from.
And for the independent musicians and groups… With platforms such as YouTube and iTunes its never been easier for them to break through. But with increased power from the fall of EMI I think it is going to become harder for them. Life as an independent isn’t easy (As an independent writer I can tell you that… Particularly when starting out. You have to work ten times as hard as everyone else just to be even noticed, let alone acknowledged simply because you don’t have the backing of a mega beast.) With EMI out of the way Universal, Sony and Warner can concentrate less on competition (=less innovation) and more on making money.
But perhaps as the dust settles on the fall of EMI there is hope after all. It is surely another sign that something is seriously wrong within the music industry. Music has always been around and always will be. We don’t know what they sang but the Neolithic tree tribes of prehistory were singing songs. People will always want music, so perhaps EMI is a sign that the industry has failed to adapt to the coming of the digital age and the needs of a changing world- things such as YouTube and iTunes and Spotify and the new ways in which independent musicians can find an audience. Perhaps they failed due to their own blindness and maybe, because of this failure, the future of music will be brighter for us all.
And if this ever gets to Number 1 I may cry…