The 90s were, according to extensive reporting, a great time to be in the record industry. CD sales were only going up, the internet hadn’t disrupted the businesses, and MTV still played music videos! Now, it’s certainly true that the labels were pulling in record breaking amounts of money but there were some specific factors, which concentrated monetary wealth, for that reason.
The record labels aggressively eliminated the single format
, which forced consumers into buying CDs even if they only wanted one of the tracks. Those same firms colluded with each other to artificially keep up the price of CDs, which according to the Federal Trade Commission
cost Americans $500 million from 1995 to 2000. Sony’s $2 billion purchase of CBS Records in the late 80s helped bring in a new era of finance, then private equity/venture capital into the music industry (Hello: Blackstone, the Carlyle Group, Terra Firma). As the record labels were being consolidated into what are now only three major labels, the executives of these companies were seeing payouts worth tens, maybe hundreds, of millions. (Chris Blackwell got $300 million for Island Records; David Geffin $550 million for Geffen Records; and Richard Brandon got $950 million selling Virgin.) Radio saw a similar wave of consolidation spurred by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that led to thousands of job losses across the country. While record labels and radio options were shrinking, retail offered few bright spots as chains like Best Buy and Walmart continued to exert an outsize influence on CD sales. Who wouldn’t miss those days
Steve Albini’s Baffler
essay ‘The Problem with Music
’ showed the other side of this success, where bands were funneled through this system to in quick obscurity with little financial reward. Now this excess did trickle into seven figure music video budgets, large record deals (R.E.M.’s $80 million Warner contract
), but overall as Alan Krueger mentioned in this book Rockonomics:
“Total expenditure on music—including concerts tickets, streaming fees, record sales, and royalties—$18.3 billion in the United States in 2017….In other words, less than $1 of every $1,000 in the U.S. economy is spent on music.” The music industry isn’t a large industry but even still the money, especially when things are good, is trapped at the top.
Sadly, the techno-utopian promise of the internet creating endless opportunities for artists didn’t fix that issue. We’re entering a third decade of chasing fleeting viral hits but replacing Myspace, YouTube, or Vine with TikTok. Only now, instead of potentially selling an artificially boosted number of CDs or amassing a top track on the iTunes charts, everything is centered around streaming. This, unfortunately, requires achieving an absurd number of streams to make a living wage, which is why there are increased calls to raise how much streaming platforms pay. A complaint that similarly dates back nearly two decades
, which just shows how little has changed for aspiring artists since the early days of the digital transition.
Earlier in the year, when I first thought about this topic I didn’t envision the entire music industry being put into what feels like a never-ending limbo due to the coronavirus. So, now that it’s happening I wanted to end on a slightly different note. The streaming-first record industry is one where not only are majors still very much in power but the format closes the box towards other ways of fans engaging with one’s music. If the concern about Napster was that artists lost control over their work and it could be accessed for free, that’s not changed at all except that now the entire industry agreed to this new set-up. It isn’t clear what form it’ll take for artists to really get concessions from streaming platforms but this moment is opening the door. Streaming platforms introduced donation buttons, which is a feature folks have wanted in some capacity for a while. For the hype around the record industry success to be meaningful for artists and music workers, rather than empty headlines, there need to be more moves towards allowing artists and music workers to not only have greater financial, and decision-making power over the industry.