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July 23, 2007

Filed under: music»business


Does everyone feel sorry for the major labels yet? I know I do. Must be a hard life, finding time to count their money after a full day of exploiting guileless musicians and overcharging for CDs. Somehow, they manage, bless their little souls.

But noted music advice-donor Moses Avalon wants you to know that he is concerned. It's the evil tech-companies, he shrieks! They're trying to get rid of DRM--and if they do, your music will be worthless!

If the Tech world loses this campaign, they will simply have to pay a bit more for their loss leader item. Since they tend to bundle music with other products this expense will not be felt in any significant way by the consumer. It will just shave the tech industry's gross a tiny bit to about $87 billion.

But if art loses this war, that is to say, if record companies/artists lose their ability to control who gets to license their work and at what price, the music business, as we know it, ends. Music itself will suffer as an art form and the Tech-Masters will absorb the labels, bundle their catalogs, and in a few years you'll buy a lap-top and it will come pre-loaded with an entire Juke Box of Classic Rock, Rap, Jazz, whatever.

This may sound great if you're a consumer, but if you're a music company you will make only a small licensing fee and your artists and songwriters will see a paltry fraction of this sum. The trickle down effect for studio owners, producers, lawyers, managers, etc, will naturally be devastation.


Major Labels are the 'banks' of our industry. They loan money to 1000's of artists, who then spend it in 1000's of studios and with 1000's of producers, who hire 1000's of engineers, who buy gear and invest in new artists, who sign with labels, and so on.

Even if you're an independent or emerging artist, you are in the wake of this economy. Big artists draw people into music outlets/venues and thus expose them to new music. Also, the big spending by Majors pushes down the off-peak rates on studio time, materials, and CD replication. It also creates the upside potential to justify investment in emerging artists.

The fantasy that 'if Majors die a Phoenix will rise from the ashes' is very unlikely. The higher probability is that in order for there to be a viable music industry at all Majors need to stay in business.


So called experts and analysts who applaud EMI's 'wisdom' and curse the RIAA's defense of copyrights are just sucking up to the Tech-Masters who give them a media platform. Then disgruntled music executives grant interviews and ignorantly agree just to relieve their angst. This bandwagon effect is helping Tech-Masters load the gun they have pointed to our heads.

Think people! Have you ever heard a technology spokesperson agree with labels or argue in favor of copy protection? NEVER! They argue for DRM-free music to make a more 'consumer friendly experience.' They are arguing that the consumers' rights are senior to the artists'. Let me repeat that: they are arguing that the way consumers buy music is MORE IMPORTANT than the rights of the people who create it.

All sarcasm aside, it takes a lot of chutzpah to write a sentence directly equating "art" and "record companies." To some degree, I respect that. It's completely idiotic, but respectably so.

The most telling part of the essay, however, is Avalon's belief that the major labels are banks that pay out lots of money to keep the art alive. Avalon is most well-known for a book about not getting screwed by the music business, so I'm a little astounded by his misconception of the word "bank." But it's easy for him to make that mistake, because he's a producer: he actually does profit from the industry spending. Actual musicians, however, do not. Don't just take my word for it. Two fine essays on the ways that recording contracts exist to exploit artists are Courtney Love Does the Math and Steve Albini's The Problem with Music.

If the music industry wants to be taken seriously as a business, it needs to realize that it is not automatically entitled to customers. It's only the vast vertical ownership and integration of the industry that let them get away with it for as long as they have. That vertical integration--the fact that labels are owned by enormous media companies controlling every part of the signal chain from work-for-hire contracts to final distribution--is part of what makes Avalon's plea so comical. The same thing happens in next-gen video, of course. It says a lot about how the debate is being framed when we're supposed to be worried about media piracy, and not about the fact that the same three or four companies own the entire media production process from top to bottom.

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