The Misleading Statement
A couple weeks ago, Forbes ran an article detailing how the major record labels were taking their “revenge” on the current landscape by making “strategic partnerships” with music services to reestablish their dominance. This was a very bold statement. Here’s why it’s misleading, and essentially false.
The major record labels (the Big Three, Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, and Sony) are indeed striking deals with music services like Spotify, Rdio, and SoundCloud, but these deals don’t signal what the article asserts that they do. The reality is that the majority of the label-service partnerships revolve around licensing rights and royalty payments, an already broken system that will continue to feel squeezing pressure as we move further into the digital age.
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The article focused on the labels’ calculated move to reassert their control as gatekeepers by using their access to artist content as a leveraging technique. This is true, and is completely expected; the labels are doing what they can to hold onto what power they have left. But the reality of the situation is that this isn’t a new move; it’s a rehashing of the same dynamics that the labels have relied on for years. This is exactly why they’re not “taking revenge” on anything or anyone.
The Ironic Voodoo of Ignoring the Middle
As much as they would like to believe they still hold the power they once did, the major labels need to acknowledge that their ability to deem music as “good” or “sellable” is essentially irrelevant in the grand scheme now. It’s lost a certain sheen of relevance because they’re no longer the only deciding force out there to dictate the music the gets made or played. Now, the power of choice and reach comes to and from anyone with an internet hookup and a laptop. Ergo, though they may try to deny it, the major labels are gatekeepers no more.
So here’s where the ironic voodoo comes in: major music streaming services like Spotify and Rdio sign licensing deals with the major labels because they think that’s the only way to survive in the music landscape, and the major labels license their music because they essentially see no alternatives at the moment. Simultaneously though, both sides ignore those artists who fall in the middle: the independents (who, by the way, make up a massively growing market). Thus they are dismissing today’s independent artists who might be major underground sensations tomorrow. SoundCloud used to be a happy place for the independents. Then even that changed when they signed a deal with Warner and began seeking out deals with the other major labels.
The Punch: The Percentage Dynamics People Ignore
I wrote here why independent artists will eventually begin to move away from SoundCloud. What I didn’t focus on at the time, and precisely what the Forbes article glazed over, are the percentages of these streaming companies that are owned by the major labels. Beyond my argument regarding SC and Warner, the Forbes article noted that Warner owns 5% of SoundCloud, which it acquired in the streaming service’s latest funding round (and also which it acquired at about a 50% discount from what other investors paid).
That’s not all though; all of the Big Three collectively own about 10-20% of other streaming services, such as Spotify and Rdio, as well, and Universal jumped on a 13% stake in Beats before Apple snapped them up. (And this doesn’t take into account all the “360 deals” that are taking place).
Thus, we have the major labels, who control the licensing that these streaming services depend on, owning parts of the streaming services themselves. Essentially they can bully the services into driving towards what’s best for their artists with the power to pull their licensing from said services if they don’t comply, thereby draining them of their lifeblood. Doesn’t sound like a pyramid scheme to me at all… Oh wait, yes it does.
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Here’s what it means in the bigger picture: the major labels are gobbling up these stakes to preserve their roles as the gatekeepers of the musical landscape, and to possibly make a grab at the distribution arm for their music. Despite the fact that this is working for them for the moment, it most certainly does not mean that they’re reestablishing their dominance over the music landscape. This matters for two main reasons:
- It underscores the reality that the labels aren’t really coming up with any new tricks; they’re just rehashing the same ones again.
- It proves that assertions of “equal opportunity” for independent artists on streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud are basically false.
Why Warner Now Holds Leverage Over SoundCloud
With its 5% stake in SoundCloud, Warner will clearly attempt to steer the service’s vision and attention towards the the artists it represents, and whose interests it has at heart. Why would it not? That’s exactly what I would do. It’s not personal for Warner, it’s just business. But what it means for independent artists on SC is something much bigger: that they will no longer be the focus of the service, and again will need to contend themselves with scraps of attention after the major label(s) is (are) done feeding.
Look at it from the point of view of Warner: why would they contribute to SoundCloud’s latest round, snapping up 5% (even at a 50% discount) if they weren’t going to leverage that to their advantage? The point is they wouldn’t because they’re going to do exactly that.
Now that Warner has control (to some extent) over the new distribution channel, SoundCloud, as well as the music that SC wants to license (i.e. the lifeblood of any music service), it holds all the leverage in the relationship. Essentially if SC doesn’t steer its model towards what would benefit Warner’s artists, Warner can decide not to renew its licensing agreement with the service, thereby cutting out SoundCloud’s feet from under it. And the same is true with the other labels and streaming services. The labels are worming their way into controlling not only of the material for distribution (the music), but the distribution channels as well. As a result, we end up with the same concentrated power dynamics and gatekeeper power-plays as we had before.
Squeezing Models of the Past
Yet, easy though it may be for the major labels to dig into their deep pockets and purchase stakes in these streaming services hoping to once again gatekeep the music landscape, it is nonetheless not the same game they are used to playing. It’s now much easier for any music startup to get into the streaming or downloading service—and thus become a new source of distribution for artists. This means that the probability for the major labels to bottleneck and control the distribution channels is actually much smaller, particularly when it comes to artists and services that don’t focus on major label content, but rather independent dynamics.
For all their “strategic partnerships” and licensing/royalty practices, the major labels are not taking revenge or “reestablishing their dominance” over anyone. They’re still playing catch-up, and will continue to do so as long as their business model revolves around the obsolete (and completely unfair) royalty paradigm. Realistically speaking, the majors are playing a losing game: they’re no longer essential for artists to find fanbases or have exposure—the internet’s taken care of that. Independents can now crowdfund themselves, as well as make their own way in the live arena sans any “360 deals” with labels.
Perhaps the most telling part of the Forbes article came in the last sentence. One phrase pretty much summed it all up: “By looking forward, while squeezing the models of the past…” The rest is irrelevant. Even Forbes knows that the major labels’ models are outdated and like squeezing water from a stone. That begs the question: if they know, and we know, why don’t the major labels seem to get it?