The Music Monopolists

Thinking outside the antitrust box

Cory Doctorow
Marker
Published in
11 min readSep 23, 2021

--

A turntable with a caricature of Teddy Roosevelt as a trustbuster, standing on the tonearm, wielding his ‘big stick.’

Writing in Wired, Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) researcher and anti-monopolist Ron Knox gives a thorough, important account of how music industry monopolization resulted in declining revenue for artists, even as the industry itself has reaped greater profits.

https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-big-music-needs-to-be-broken-up-to-save-the-industry/

Knox describes how concentration has come to every link in music’s supply chain, from radio to recording, streaming to live performance. The monopolists who dominate these sectors fight fiercely between each other, but no matter who wins, artists lose.

Let’s go segment by segment. Two-thirds of all North American music comes from three labels. The labels grew through anti-competitive mergers: giant companies, awash in investor cash, bought out mid-sized, successful labels, turning them into subdivisions of the Big Three.

The more concentrated the labels got, the worse they were for everyone. They spent the ’90s and ’00s price gouging record companies, pocketing hundreds of millions from an illegal price-fixing conspiracy. The fines they paid were smaller than the profits they reaped.

But at least they distributed music. Today, the struggling physical record-store industry — a network of passionate music sellers who serve the most intense music fans — find themselves getting “record shipments” that turn out to be boxes of random stuff like cough syrup (!).

That happened when the Big Three all piled their distribution into a single company, the monopolist Direct Shot Distributing. As Direct Shot started to fail, its operations descended into chaos, and record stores started to receive boxes of random consumer-packaged goods.

It was bad news for the non-monopolized, music-first record stores, but it barely registered for the Big Three labels — today, they buy an average of two new acts every day.

The labels don’t make money from selling records, of course. They get their money from streaming.

Streaming is also massively concentrated, gathered into the hands of just a few companies: Spotify, Apple, YouTube, Amazon — with the notable exception of…

--

--

Cory Doctorow
Marker

Writer, blogger, activist. Blog: https://pluralistic.net; Mailing list: https://pluralistic.net/plura-list; Mastodon: @pluralistic@mamot.fr