Big Music Needs to Be Broken Up to Save the Industry

A year without live music has been a disaster. So has corporate power in streaming, recording, and ticketing. Antitrust may be the only solution.

Three major record labels produce two-thirds of all music consumed in America. They are the most powerful buyer of music and talent, and they use that power to prioritize a handful of mega-stars and pop hits. They pitch music into massive radio conglomerates and streaming platforms that control how music is consumed, and they collect an ever-growing share of industry revenue.

Concerts, a crucial space where independent venues and artists have largely sidestepped corporate gatekeepers, are increasingly threatened by Covid shutdowns and the prospect that Live Nation and other Wall Street-backed giants will either buy them out or put them out of business. [...]

The broad middle class of independent artists, record labels, venues, and other small businesses must now rely on -- and increasingly pay -- monopolists for access to bands and fans. For some, the pandemic made a difficult situation impossible. [...]

Van Arman offered a simple litmus test for whether music is "independent," a shapeshifting term applied to everything from punk bands playing basement gigs to the cash-flush "indie" subsidiaries of major labels. "You are independent if you are pro-competitive," he said. [...] If you're independent, you're "not looking to reduce competition by acquiring rivals" or for other unfair advantages that tilt the industry toward corporate dominance.

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10 Responses:

  1. prefetch says:

    See also:
    - internet search
    - online advertising
    - online shopping
    - social media
    - video hosting
    - rideshare
    - game console
    - PC OS
    - phone OS
    - office software
    - political parties

    which offer one, maybe two, options, or statistically insignificant alternatives.

    Anyone got a replacement for free market capitalism tucked up their sleeve? Cos now would be a great time to whip it out.

    It's a tough sell, because 'if I have all the money, I can fly into space' is a compelling goal for most.

    • Floutsch says:

      That's what I always wonder about those repeating the free market mantra... Is it really still even a real market with so few participants? I mean, when we look at some countries' elections we don't consider them democratic if 80 percent or so go to one candidate. To be fair, the USA is at least used to a factual duopoly in politics at least, which I'd consider its own problem, and doesn't find that odd in other parts. Why is it "socialist" to demand workers having rights and being paid fair wages? If any market interference by the government is "socialism", how then is it "capitalism" for the state to subsidize unprofitable branches of industry? Having to give benefits to full-time workers who just don't get paid enough, constituting subsidized work for their employers?

    • グレェ「grey」 says:

      "It's a tough sell, because 'if I have all the money, I can fly into space' is a compelling goal for most."

      Clearly, too few internalized Gil-Scott Heron's "Whitey on the Moon". I think this phenomenon as some would phrase it is: "those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and those who have learned from history are doomed to watch others repeat it."

      Libre/free open source software provides many viable alternatives to some things these days. I cannot, for the life of me, think of a single piece of proprietary or commercial code which is required for video hosting for example, let alone lossless audio file hosting. Sure, it would be nice if RISC-V were widespread now, but at least we already have silicon iterations of it and the HiFive Unmatched began shipping earlier this year and the BeagleV is out in samples to developers, so even the base circuitry is increasingly libre/free which is more than we can say about x86/AMD64 or ARM CPUs.

      Lamentably, some of those things which you listed (e.g. ridesharing [presumably meaning apps such as Uber and Lyft rather than carpooling as I did with some fellow students in high school]) are often just "Smart" phone UIs in front of human rights and labor abuses. Also see: Amazon's Mechanical Turk, also see: Foxconn suicide nets.

      Call me crazy, but maybe since I was friends with Doug Engelbart (RIP), and online before the WWW, but I do not think that any online advertising is justified, ever. Quite the opposite, it is a reason to avoid things. IMHO, the only reason Google survived the 1990s dot-bomb era, was because they were a search engine which did NOT have advertising (the "don't be evil" was also a nice touch, alas neither of those lasted).

      The internet existed for an awfully long time (canonically, NLS [oNLine System] was first publicly demonstrated in 1968) before spammers, search engines with unscrupulous analytic engines and surveillance capitalism creeped in with so-called "social" media.

      As someone who survived the AI winter of the 1980s, seeing that flat tire reinvented as "Machine Learning" is bad enough. When I observe others claiming that certain sorts of technology are necessary, when they very clearly are not, I have violent visions of forcing such narrow minded sorts to be kicked backwards in technological paradigms to teletypes, and then, only after they have suffered for a few decades, ask them if they think that they need online advertising. I am guessing they might change their opinion of what is necessary if they realized what enduring online interactions at sub 300baud levels entails. I don't need to experience that, I already lived through it.

      The first online shopping I did, was via a local BBS and the BBS's chat system and local (non-SMTP) email system, and I mailed a person a check. A PERSON. It was great! Later, I matriculated to buying things off of individuals via NNTP (Usenet). I still remember the first Snog album I purchased via telnet. Ahhh, sending credit card numbers via plaintext protocols in the early 1990s felt pretty radical for its era!

      PC OS, phone OS, heck entire PBX software,"office" software, so-called "social" media, search engines, is all accomplished quite well in 2021 with libre/free open source software alternatives in plurality. People still stuck on proprietary commercial offerings are doing so for reasons I can't imagine. Or, maybe they appreciate paying for chrome and polish? Sometimes it is sort of nice, but more often than not, it isn't. A PineBook Pro from 2020 is $200, and like the 2014 Novena Kosagi which still has a wiki with a BOM and schematics, also has schematics. I would challenge anyone to show me a laptop from 20 years ago which is as nice as a PineBook Pro, for any price. Mind you: 20 years ago, a Tadpole running Solaris was around $20,000 minimum. It also would weigh approximately 10-20lbs and the battery life was for

      I think the future of technology is still promising, RISC-V and more make me optimistic.

      But the recording industry? Or rather, the music publishing industry? sigh Maybe because I still buy vinyl I am a bit more sensitive to the fallout from the Apollo Masters fire from 2020. I've seen vinyl preorders slipping ship dates by as much as 8 months. Apollo Masters apparently has no interest in building up again and making lacquers. Which means, you can either wait on MCD in Japan, the last supplier of lacquers, or seek out one of the DMM lathes (of which the 7 to 9 which supposedly still exist and are in working order, are all in Europe, not the USA). That was really less of a problem with hegemony in the music industry, and more a problem with CDs having displaced vinyl in the 1980s. Lathe trolls (that's what some of them call themselves) are notoriously secretive, and supposedly around 300 lathes which rely on lacquer for mastering still exist and are in functioning order globally. But, will their results sound better? The best music is live.

      If you are recording, then Record Industry in The Netherlands which does have DMM lathes will accept 32bit 384KHz digital files for masters. Do you think that many people are recording in Pro Tools (or whatever other DAW, hey, look at that, there are even libre/free open source software DAWs, in plurality, such as LMMS and Ardour) at a higher bitrate?

      Meanwhile, if you are listening to music in a night club or at a music festival from some "hawt" deejay? Most deejay mixers (yes, even the Pioneer DJM-V10 from 2020) max out at 32bit96KHz (and a significantly larger number of DJ mixers are only 24bit48KHz and there are barely any, though not 0 deejay mixers which offer 32bit384KHz, though those aren't supported by Traktor or Serato and you are probably going to end up using xwax or Mixxx [again, both libre/free open source software] DVS if you really want to take advantage of them).

      If you think that there are a plethora of recording artists still mastering on 2" analog tape, then I am afraid you are mistaken. Even the Egyptian Lover, who claims to have collaborated with a recording engineer to space out the cuts on his early 1980s recordings to create what some might attribute to being the first "bass" record, misses analog mastering, but he sure as heck doesn't sound as if he relies upon it from any interviews I have listened to, though he does own six original Roland 808s (with their infamous faulty transistors which make them impossible to faithfully reproduce or emulate, though if you have done much electronics work, it really just seems as if Roland had some cost savings that their assemblers would have scoffed at in an oscilloscope, but musicians apparently dug for reasons that are still somewhat confusing).

      So, that really means that in 2021 there are vinyl fetishists paying astronomical prices, for physical recordings, usually of audio which was mastered digitally. It's kind of stupid, really.

      If you're a crate digger, the periods to focus on for vinyl are really the 1970s and earlier.

      Chances are most things mastered in the 1980s and more recently, were done so digitally. So, while there are instances of digital remasters which sound appreciably better than the 16bit44.1KHz CDs (e.g. Lassigue Bendthaus' 24bit96KHz remastered version of the album "render" as can be purchased in FLAC format on bandcamp if you choose to not buy it directly from the artist as I did), the likelihood of buying the same remaster and being able to appreciate the improvements on vinyl is more or less nonexistent.

      Many seem to forget that vinyl mastering typically applies an RIAA filtering curve as well, and thus vinyl is intrinsically lossy, as far as recording formats are concerned. Even the Phonocut released earlier this year by one of the few people on Earth alive who does repairs and maintenance on vinyl lathes, uses RIAA filters.

      Moreover, the lead designed of the Phonocut very intentionally created that as a 10" only format and sells the blanks, because he was aware of the landscape and doesn't want to step on the toes of the lathe trolls who also help him pay his bills when he is repairing their lathes, and how few functioning lathes are on Earth, and how even before the Apollo Masters fire, there were only two companies still manufacturing lacquers, so by selling his own blanks, he side steps that potential curve ball, but also leave himself some more profit margin potential I guess.

      In 2011, during the Tōhoku earthquake, MCD's plant was impacted, so a lot of what the vinyl purveyors are experiencing now, was foreshadowed a decade ago when vinyl lathe engineer types were instead attempting to buy lacquers more or less exclusively from Apollo. Having some redundancy is useful, maybe this will be a market opportunity for someone else to get into lacquers for a 20th century music recording format? Seems, unlikely. You may as well try to market teletypes again.

      I suppose, it is theoretically, possible to create a new physical format to supersede today's vinyl with narrow grooves and better recording fidelity! However, DMM mastering methods were already that decades ago, and for most in the recording industry, a non starter, which is why so few surviving DMM lathes exist, because very few were purchased in the first place. If you pay attention to nanometers? Well, you probably have read about how Intel chips had a huge issue in fabrication and needed to revert to 14nm recently, with 10nm chips only starting to trickle out, after TSMC (who is used by AMD, Apple, NVidia, among others) has already been using 5nm fabrication methodologies and is spinning up a 2nm fab next. In contrast? The grooves in vinyl are in the 70-200nm range. So, theoretically, it would be possible to create a physical audio recording format using more advanced techniques from the 21st century to provide more nuance and fidelity to an analog recording format, but with that you don't just need to invent new lathes, you need to invent new needles, new turntables, and get people to buy into it. The last time that happened in the music industry with a physical disc format which was analog was probably Discovision/the Laserdisc. The CD was digital, and everything since then has been too.

      Thank goodness, we don't need to rely upon vinyl for decent music these days.

      Indeed, we don't need to rely upon a lot of the past technology anymore. I question why so much of it is still in place, often. I can kind of understand fetishizing vinyl, I can't understand fetishizing Google Adwords, or Facebook, or Uber or Lyft. Not even a little bit. Let them die, if anything, immanentize their obsolescence!

      It would also be great if we could enact legislation to stop rich idiots from going into space. I am all for space exploration, but Elon Musk notoriously tweeted "nuke Mars" when researchers such as Dr. John E. Brandenburg had already published some pretty credible findings based upon scientific evidence of Xenon isotopes found on Mars, that it may have already become a dead planet due to nuclear warfare approximately 150 million years ago. Moreover, terraforming with nuclear weapons is just not how terraforming works, you need to create Earth biologically hospitable habitats for terraforming, not, the opposite of that.

      Similarly, maybe we could enact legislation that would prohibit anyone from owning a second home, until EVERYONE owns a first home? Supposedly there are 150 million homeless on Earth presently. If rich jerks can find offshore tax havens, and loopholes so that their corporations don't pay taxes, then why can't the poor catch a break? These are all human systems, so humans have to fix them, I don't see any ostriches or lions, tigers and bears caught in class warfare and spurious space exploration while others in their midst suffer in abject poverty.

      If the USA can have corporate subsidies and bank bailouts, it sure as heck can find a way to house the homeless and feed the hungry. We just aren't utilizing our system of governance correctly and should jettison the corrupt and failing broken pieces, instead of perpetuating them past their expiration dates.

      Or, maybe the relativistic hells of teletypes are exactly what people staring at their dopamine pocket devices need as comeuppance? I know I was hazed with punch cards in my youth despite better paradigms being economical and prevalent. Who is being the persnickety grump old "I had to walk ten miles in the snow uphill both ways" to today's generations of overly privileged sorts who are oblivious to the rings of hell which they are perpetuating in their ignorance?

      Who is today's Gil-Scott Heron?

      • Steve Kirks says:

        Stopping by with a comment to say that the above essay was amazing and deserves more discussion. It was interesting at the start, grabbed me with the Gil Scott-Herron reference then was a delight to finish.

  2. phuzz says:

    I've been told that BandCamp is a pretty ethical place to buy music from, or am I being hopelessly naive?

    • jwz says:

      As far as I can tell, bandcamp gives the artists the biggest cut by far of the available channels. I think?

    • Dude says:

      Bandcamp is great for indie musicians; practically every musician-friend I have (and even some stand-up comedians) are on it. Not only does it give them the lion's share of the profits, it offers FLAC and WAV files (why the hell doesn't every place offer those?). I just wish it had a Spotify-esque radio equivalent, since that's where/how most musicians get pay and exposure these days. And unless you're Taylor Swift, all the digital radio options (Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, etc.) pay jack-shit.

      As far as mainstream musicians go, I've found (US-dot)7digital to be good legal alternative to Amazon or the iTunes store... for the most part. The great thing about 7digital is that, unlike its competitors, it offers the option of FLAC files (depending on the file). The bad thing is that its organisation is a bit shit. At times (though not always), it can be like digging through someone's album collection, but the albums were just all randomly dumped into one crate without being organised.

  3. Flotsam says:

    Nice to see the EMI logo there. My late mother worked at EMI Tape records during the 70s and 80s doing quality control. It was basically listening to random samples of cassettes and spotting issues. Yes, she was paid to listen to music all day long. She was often given a bollocking for rejecting batches and told they were "good enough". She was a nightmare to watch TV with, though. She'd point out every shabby edit and continuity error.

  4. Dude says:

    Two months later and Cory Doctorow hits the nail on the head:

    "Live Nation is to blame for the Astroworld deaths"