Earlier this year Cherie Hu put together a graphic
that shows the interconnectedness of major streaming platforms (Tencent, Spotify) and record labels (Sony, Universal, and Warner). (The graphic doesn’t even include Access Industries’ ownership of both Deezer / Warner Music Group). When I wrote about how music streaming was disproportionately helping
those at the top, I wanted to stress that major label collusion, as seen in the 90s to maximize CD profits, wasn’t an exception but the assumed norm of a highly consolidated industry. Perhaps I might overstate the uniform nature of these firms but considering how they’ve worked in locksteps over the last few decades, that there is now direct mutual shared ownership, it’s harder to keep up the facade of “competition”
among major labels and streaming platforms. So, let’s look at some headlines to dive a bit deeper into that:
Perhaps let’s look at a few regional headlines:
The last headline about the french distributor Believe say a lot. The reason record labels are weathering the pandemic is because of streaming platforms. Music consumption in many, though not all, markets is largely decoupled from physical sales and instead money is derived from either advertising consumption or subscription fees from primarily Apple, Amazon, Google, or Spotify. Thus those headlines in a way speak to the health of the tech sector, rather than music.
Even if there is more severe economic fallout from the coronavirus arriving, it’s hard to imagine what exactly would cause a severing of music subscriptions when so many are part of telecommunication company deals (see: Tidal and Sprint
), tech packages (Amazon Prime), or are deeply discounted like Spotify’s family plans. Now, publishers and songwriters aren’t quite so lucky
as there have been a number of alarm bells ringing about the expected dip in revenue within those sectors. Still, even in those places, a bright spot is often found in streaming revenues.
The broader recording industry’s reliance during this crisis can also be found, to a smaller degree, even with record labels that operate outside of that streaming-first web. Shawn Reynoldo in Beatportal spoke
to a few electronic record labels that were experiencing steady, if not increased, demand during 2020. A reason cited is that most people buying records are doing so for home listening and due to the limitation of other types of spending, the market for record consumption only went up, not down. (I’m going to make a hypothesis that audiences might’ve been on the upward swing of this “K-shaped” recovery or
lived in a European country that provided more concrete relief for workers, compared to the United States.)
For a bit of cold water reality, I’d like to quote a couple
from New York City-based producer DJ Wawa:
to the i miss clubbing crew: you have no idea how many jobs in music have been lost and will not come back. Booking agents, journos, label PR people and a number of jobs that ppl have been working their entire adult lives at just disappeared over night…It’s cool you have a day job that doesn’t involve music but some ppl were so good at dance music and the things that surround it that it was their day job.
The headlines quoted above miss what DJ Wawa says here, which is that the “record industry” is more than capable of surviving and thriving without much of the live music industry during this period. Right now there are continued calls for government assistance to save venues in the United States, which certainly should happen.
The National Independent Venue Association
got a number of music industry players onboard to stand for struggling music venues, a major couple of exceptions are Live Nation and AEG, who’ve created their own lobbying initiative
. Yet, I’ll champion the persistent demands from the New York City-centered Music Workers Alliance
who’ve rallied behind demands for continued unemployment insurance. The urgency of this demand, especially for American music workers, captures the real divide within the broader music industry where there are plenty of folks, self-included, doing okay, while other parts of our interconnected worlds are falling apart.
Yet, to close I wanna go further back in time. A couple of years ago, I wrote the American Federation of Musicians 1940s
strikes and how one of the concessions from record labels was the creation of an fund that was financed by record industry profits and funneled back into free public concerts that paid fair union wages. Certainly, there isn’t an organized musician labor force that could force record labels to do such a thing, but when there are endless
headlines about diversity initiatives and getting more black faces in high places, my mind wanders to firmer commitments. If record industry revenue continue rising, as wall street forecasters tend to believe, then what about all those that aren’t benefiting from the same success. Otherwise, the next year will be filled with more stories about increased record label revenues while many American music workers are left abandoned by their country and industry.