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The music industry:
Do we only hear his master's voice?
AN OUTLINE of how the modern popular music industry has developed provided the background to our discussion at last autumn's Socialism 2005: The music industry, do we only hear his master's voice?
The debate was wide-ranging, including the role and portrayal of women, numerous musical trends, homophobia, the need for community access to playing and producing music, the politics of salsa and much more besides. Many of us feel passionate about music and everyone has a point of view.
The modern music industry could be said to begin with sound recording at the end of the 19th century. Ever since, it has been dominated by very few companies, though not always the same ones. Today, after the recent (troubled) merger of Sony and Bertelsmann Music Group, four companies dominate: Warner Music, Vivendi/Universal, EMI and Sony/BMG.
The industry has been pushed by technological breakthroughs. The gramophone challenged sheet music's domination and internationalised the industry. Discs made of shellac - secreted by the lac insect - replaced fragile and unwieldy tinfoil cylinders.
Electric recording (1924) improved sound quality and magnetic tape (developed in Nazi Germany) meant recording could take place practically anywhere and be edited - boosting local radio and independent record labels.
Vinyl and the development of 33 and 45 rpm records in the late 1940s further enhanced sound quality and facilitated mass production. Cassette tapes were another important development, while CDs sounded the death-knell for vinyl on the mass market.
Nonetheless, the music industry consistently stifles innovation - illustrating the regressive role that capitalism plays, holding back research and development as well as cultural advances. When shellac became widely available, old cylinders were destroyed in their thousands. The earliest blues recordings and other irreplaceable music perished in an act of wanton vandalism dictated by the short-term drive for profit.
Vinyl was first used before the second world war but, because it provided much better sound reproduction, record companies sold off existing shellac stock before introducing it. A worldwide shortage of shellac during the war (it also had military applications) helped speed up the use of vinyl.
The patent on stereo recording was filed in 1933, but the slump in the music industry during the great economic depression meant that it wasn't fully developed until the late 1950s.
Unlike most of these examples, MP3 and its use in internet file-sharing were not developed by the major record companies. Whatever the long-term effects of the internet on music and the industry - a subject worthy of further comment - the big corporations have been slow off the mark to use it.
At first they clamped down on its use with court cases against Napster, Grokster, StreamCast, and over 15,000 individuals. Belatedly, 'legitimate' business is moving in, with Apple developing iPod and iTunes, and record companies making back catalogues available to punters prepared to pay to download music.
WHEN CONSIDERING alternatives to big business, people often conjure up the periodic explosion of new musical trends -. punk, hip hop or the DIY movement rave scene of a decade ago (part of the growing anti-globalisation mood). Linked to these is the role of independent record labels.
This is not new. Early blues recordings were pioneered by small outfits - compelled to tap into niche markets because of the established labels' dominance over the mainstream. In 1920s USA, this meant the working class, and rural areas.
For black artists, in particular, it was often the only possibility of getting recorded. These markets exploded after world war two with rhythm & blues, country and rock & roll. Local radio stations and studios helped disperse the industry nationwide.
The independents became test beds for new music. Once a market was established and a genre 'crossed over' into mainstream popularity, big companies moved in to cream off the profits. Sometimes they simply took over the independents or used their mass production capability and grip over distribution to exert control.
Sun Records - the proving ground for Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, etc - is the classic example. It could not supply the market it helped create. Presley's 'transfer fee' to Columbia Records was $35,000. It's a recurring theme, continuing with punk, rave, indie and hip hop, and on to the next big thing.
Once a genre has crossed over, the industry pushes a commodified version of the original, a pale imitation. Hip hop developed in New York as black and Latino youth self-expression. It continues still in vibrant, alternative scenes.
But the hip hop peddled by the multinationals and which dominates the world market is now part of the establishment, based on the lowest-common-denominator formula, the most reactionary themes: gangs, guns and drugs, individual greed, sexism and homophobia. It is, overwhelmingly, a stereotype of black communities marketed to an overwhelmingly white teenage audience.
Another, often inadvertent, role of the independents is in undermining pay and conditions. This has gone furthest in the US: neo-liberalism, the musical. Independent labels are increasingly sub-contractors to major labels. The main musicians' union, the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), has labour contracts with all the majors.
But musicians working for independent 'sub-contractors' are only covered by the deal if the major label owns 50% or more of the independent label. As a result, over three-quarters of AFM members are not covered by the agreement their union negotiated.
In the US, the rise of radio coincided with, and helped create, the market for popular music. This was aided by large population shifts. Over a million African-Americans migrated north in the 1940s to work in munitions factories and other war-related industry. They provided the bedrock for an emerging market for rhythm and blues - and some of the most innovative and influential musicians.
In the post-war economic boom, the spending power of the mass of the population increased. In 1952, record sales overtook sheet music revenue for the first time. The rise of TV starved national radio of advertising revenue, the influence of local radio rose and this, in turn, fed local record labels.
In 1996, a fundamental change took place. The Telecommunications Act removed restrictions on how many radio stations a company could own. Clear Channel, which owned 40 US stations in 1996, now has 1,240 - a quarter of all listeners and radio-generated revenue.
This deregulation led to thousands of lay-offs, the decimation of community programming, and limited musical choice. The use of digital pre-programming has been used to cut staff and break labour contracts.
Ultimately, we aren't forced to hear only his master's voice. There are many vibrant, alternative music scenes involving many people making and enjoying music. Nonetheless, overall, capitalist rules apply and big business rules. The four majors control around 90% of music industry revenue.
Now more than ever, the profit-driven capitalist system holds back progress and stifles initiative. Despite this, people still create wonderful works of art, music and culture. For a full flowering of musical talent, however, we must get the big business monkey off our backs.
In The Socialist 22 February 2006: