The last fifty years shows the record industry also isn’t too unfamiliar with such consolidation. The results of record label mergers and acquisitions by multinational firms now leaves standing only Universal, Sony, and Warner with the conglomeration of indie record labels under Merlin. Yet the oligopoly that is far less considered is between Apple Music, Spotify, YouTube, and to an increasing degree, Amazon. The 1996 Act set the foundation for new media to rapidly devolve into only a few powerful firms.
The effect of there being two oligopolies that control the distribution and production of an entire medium often makes the issues that do arise feel inevitable. The artists and workers within these ecosystems are such afterthoughts that it can be easy to forget what it might look like for music (record labels, streaming services, radio stations, live music, etc.) to not be owned by only a few select groups. It honestly surprises me that the contemporary music streaming business model, which pays out propositionally with only a few companies in the game, hasn’t led to more issues thus far. Yet, reviewing this history shows that solutions might exist.
My preference is what I wrote earlier this winter
: completely pulling music streaming off the market, let the government subsidize music streaming and allow local communities to establish norms for other modes of music consumption such as physical music and live shows. Still, as I continue to research and learn more, I want to offer a few more incremental steps that could address these fairly important existential issues around the future of music streaming.
: Establish government audits of music streaming services. When Rolling Stone
is printing headlines that say “Fake Streams Could Be Costing Artists $300 Million a Year
” part of me wants to be sure there is no chance of ignoring such a potential threat to how music workers are being compensated. The reason is that even if that headline number is inflated, there is still the very real issue that music streaming’s way of collecting royalties means that if a few percentage points were altered in a pay period, it could harm all those paid through the platform (from musicians, songwriters, producers, and all the way down). That’s a pretty long list of potential people harmed that are effectively trusting two pairs of multinational, billion-dollar companies to play fair.
This idea borrows a bit from 2020 Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren by breaking up music streaming platforms
away from its parent companies. A report claimed that Apple Music might potentially be worth $15 to $20 billion
, but similar to YouTube and Amazon, these are massive businesses that could, if one could look at their finances, be money pits that exist on the largess of their respective parent companies. This could force many of these streaming services to actually provide truly
unique products without endlessly playing copycat. The insanely high barrier to entry established by each oligopoly (major labels and tech platforms) limits the number of companies that could ever dream to step into this space. If the record industry wasn’t able to squeeze millions out of tech companies and the venture capitalists backers, then is the music industry in a strong enough place to support itself?
Tim Ingham at Music Business Worldwide offered a number of potential ways
to address concerns over streaming fraud but most fell into the categories of corporate self-regulation, which would only help this issue on the margins. There is very little debate about ways of radically or even moderately fixing these potentially major issues found within music streaming. Artists and music industry workers should start to consider more deeply whether it is best for an entire industry to exist under a few companies which can cause an infraction that trickles down to hurt everyone connected on the platform. American, and certainly European, history shows that workers within these industries don’t need to be completely at the mercy of corporate giants. If there are million dollar problems at the core of the industry, then maybe it’s worth thinking of solutions to match the scale of the problem.