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My whole life I was interested in the music industry and how this whole big thing operates. Back in 2000’s, when I only started to work with record companies all over the world, no one could anticipate how music landscape would change in mere two decades. Everything used to be structured, everything used to be predictable. Everyone in the field knew who the largest players were, and what had to be done in order for the new record to be successful. Now everything has changed. Maybe someone likes it, but I certainly am afraid of such changes. We are one year away from 2020, and it seems like music industry has become a realm of chaos where nothing can be predicted.
Why do I regret things are not the way they used to be? Back in those good old days, six transnational music corporations controlled between 50 and 100 per cent of record sales in the countries where they operated. While at first glance this would seem to confirm theories of dependency, I believe that such a simple model is not adequate to describe the character of their operations since these companies become involved in the production, manufacture and distribution of indigenous musics in addition to exporting music from their home countries. Those six companies were structured; everyone knew what to expect and how to behave. Now it seems like they have lost it and everything is different.
There are literally thousands of independent record companies operating in most countries, and in many of them, key staff is actually so far from music industry that it seems like they are operating some sort of faceless mass production business, not something that have inspired people all over the world for many years. The independents operate less conventionally than the majors through a network of independent, often short-term, contacts and contracts. These independents place their emphasis on cheapness, and often have localized networks of production and distribution.
Starting from 2010, a key factor in the development of the independent sector was provided by cheaper, more compact and efficient technologies for recording music, which also carried implications for established professional production companies. The independents often had to cope with living between the need to operate within a commercial market, and a desire to innovate, which made them so different from the ‘Big Six’ companies. There is a clear relationship between size and profitability in the music industry. The gap between the transnationals and the independents has become even more pronounced. The independent sector has mushroomed on the back of new technologies that were introduced after 2010, only to be decimated by the combined effects of acquisition and recession, in addition to soaring distribution expenses. What costs a lot is not cutting a disc but promoting it. As a result, some independents have concentrated on dance music, which is played in clubs rather than on the air, which was not something that was given a lot of consideration prior to 2000.
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The only thing that makes me feel somewhat comfortable is that the independents have been unable to benefit from the premium profit market in CD sales. In fact, the potential for recycling old releases in digital formats helps to explain the willingness of the big music companies to pay large sums for established companies. The absence of any back catalogues on which they can cash in puts the newer independents at a disadvantage. I hope the ‘Big Six’ can recover and the situation in the music sector will get back to normal! However, the problem is likely to become still more acute with the development of new digital applications. I can’t even think what those crazy scientists may come up with in 2030’s. The potential for transmitting via cables, satellite or telephone lines means that home listeners will have access to the equivalent of a global jukebox.
A major motivating factor in consolidation and concentration of the music industry used to be distribution. Into the 1970s, the record industry relied in large measure on a series of independent record distributors that acted as intermediaries between the record manufacturers and retailers. In the 1980s the independent distribution system began to break down as more and more minor and independent labels such as Arista, Motown and A&M left independent distribution and agreed to be distributed by one of the major distributors. However, this consolidation trend has discontinued in recent two decades, and now many labels are distributed by independents, who don’t even know how to organize the process properly!
How did we end up like this? Independent labels handle specialized styles and new performers—they have almost taken over scouting for talent and test marketing it—while the majors can’t find additional business for themselves, and God only knows how small a portion of the market they control nowadays. The huge hits almost inevitably come from a small group of international pop stars, all of whom receive massive industry support and promotion commensurate with their sales histories and projected sales potentials. Today there are fewer artists signed to the major labels, fewer recordings released and fewer artists given a big promotional push than there were in the mid-2000s. Add to the picture the fact that the layoffs in the music industry in the period 2013 to 2015 were the deepest since the early 1990s and we begin to see how uncertainty is a constant factor to be dealt with, and why ‘Big Six’ has lost its power to the independents.
The very general picture that emerges of the international music industry and the flow of labels is, certainly, not a simple one-way street. Popular music as communication is far more complex than is usually assumed. There are flows within flows and patterns of distribution that do not fit into the familiar simplistic model that implies domination. The music industry is today important enough to be under the continual observation by cultural commissions and economic boards in various different nation states.
The interesting paradox is that while the six transnationals still have the money left from their past profits and the technology to continue to dominate the production and distribution of popular music, the multiplication of the independents simply overwhelms them, it has already opened a Pandora’s Box that could ultimately destroy popular music at large. Now when the electronic, digital delivery through the Internet or cable TV has become the dominant form of music distribution, any band is able to distribute their music themselves, directly to their fans over the wire. Independents are willing to help them in this process, while the ‘Big Six’ simply cannot accommodate and take control. The music business will never be the same, and I regret that I witnessed how what once used to be one of the most structured industry sectors has become a total uncontrollable mess. I hope that start of 2030’s will be marked with some structural efforts, otherwise I don’t even know what to expect in the future.