Week 10 Blog: Is the Music Industry ‘Fair’?

Throughout my years of study of the music industry, one discourse that has always been prominent is its ‘unfairness’ – at least to the artists. The very notion of an artist ‘making it’ or ‘breaking out’ implies there is a significant obstacle standing in their path to success, or an associated difficulty with moving up the ranks of the industry. An understanding of the gatekeeper structure currently employed by the recording industry is also of relative public knowledge – everyone knows Sony, Universal and Warner as ‘The Big 3’, who have an oligonomic consolidation of power (Wikstrom 2009) that is unlikely to be toppled anytime soon. They control both what comes in and what goes out.

Of course, it’s naïve to think that this makes music unfair. There are a lot of recording artists, they can’t all be signed and successful. And, of course, there are occasional stories of artists making it despite a lack of label involvement – look at the discourse surrounding Chance the Rapper’s recent success (Shamsian, 2016), arguably a large part of his appeal. There have been arguments that Chance’s alleged Apple deal negates the ‘without a label’ aspect of his success (Friedman, 2016) – the support of a major company calls independence into dispute.

The idea of an unfair music industry is the result of a general industrial practice of consolidation. Music taste is subjective – the only way to attempt to guarantee an audience will enjoy a particular song/artist is to ensure that it is the primary option available in that category.

It is easy to point out consolidation in the recorded music industry – the notion of a ruling group of companies is an old one. Even the live music industry is relatively easy to attack – Live Nation have been facing monopolisation accusations for years (Punch Card Research, 2015) due to their horizontal and vertical integrations with companies such as Ticketmaster.

A trickle-down effect is becoming more apparent however. The festival industry – a part of the live music industry – is becoming more and more affected by consolidation. Live Nation now own 4 out 5 of Britain’s major camping festivals (Reading and Leeds, V Festival, T in the Park and Isle of Wight are owned by Live Nation in some part, whilst Glastonbury is the one Live Nation don’t control), as well as several other high profile events such as Download, Creamfields and Parklife, acquired through buy-outs. Their nearest competitor, Global Entertainment, also owns several high profile British festivals, including Festival No. 6, Y Not and Boardmasters. It is clear the festival industry is moving towards a similar structure as the recorded music industry – fewer people in charge of more commodities.

Does this make the music industry ‘unfair’? It appears the industries tend to gravitate towards a certain structure which gives very few people a lot of power. It clearly works – the music industry has been outperforming the UK economy for 4 years, and British music dominates global charts. But is it fair? Is regulation the best way to combat this, as is currently being attempted within the secondary ticketing market?




1 thought on “Week 10 Blog: Is the Music Industry ‘Fair’?

  1. The oligopoly that you describe here in relation to 3 major labels owning many subsidiary companies mirrors other capitalist structures, such as Proctor and Gamble’s cleaning product range or the Clear Channel hold on radio in the states. Mainstream media is also a comparable oligopoly. The effect is that we are left with an illusion of choice. But as you say, there are still plenty of artists to choose from, and as Anderton, Dubber and James (2013) describe (chapter 1), there are many independently-run subsidiaries that retain an original ethos of sorts, despite being under the umbrella of the majors. It is disturbing though, and largely unfair that artists have such small windows in which to make an impact following the demise of the concept of artist development. It also makes music piracy seem less of a ‘sob story’ when the revenue being lost is mostly being hit by multi conglomerates whose greed was bound to run out sooner or later. A good read about the evolution of record labels since rock ‘n’ roll and the dawn of the ‘music industry’ as we know it, followed by the technological changes which beckoned ebbs and flows in the journeys of the majors and independents is Hit Men, written by an industry insider and littered with funny anecdotes of the men behind the stars and the shady very unfair going on to make a hit happen.


    -Anderton, C., Dubber, A. & James, M. 2013, Understanding the music industries, SAGE, London.
    -Dannen, F., 2003. Hit men: power brokers and fast money inside the music business. London: Helter Skelter.


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