Big Music vs. the 99 percent

In thinking about the corporate control of the recorded music market in the United States, I was reminded of inspiring lyrics from Chrome’s song, “Turn the Lights On,” which help reveal the truth: “Will someone turn the lights on?, so we can see exactly what’s going on and maybe be a little more like who we need to be to make this world better.”

Before getting into the facts and numbers, one has to define “Big Music.” When I mention such a term, it’s not about the LiveNation-dominated live music market or the monopolistic power of Apple’s iTunes Store. No, I’m talking about the four record labels that dominate the music market: EMI, which is owned by Citigroup; Sony Music Entertainment (SME), which is owned by Japan’s Sony Corp.; Warner Music Group (WMG), owned by Access Industries; and Universal Music Group (UMG), owned by a French entertainment company, Vivendi.

In a letter to Federal Trade Commission, Public Knowledge and Media Access Project wrote: “By 2010 end-of-year figures, [these]…four record labels account for almost 90 percent of recorded music sales in the U.S. Universal is the largest company, with a share of 38.0 percent, followed by its nearest competitor, Sony (at 28.0 percent), then Warner Music Group…(20.0 percent) and EMI (10.2 percent)…[leaving] only a 11.0 percent market share for independent labels.”

This is an increase from the mid-2000s when almost 82% of the market was dominated by these four record labels. Collectively these corporate entities can be called “Big Music,” along with industry organizations like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other groups.

Why bring this up now? UMG is trying to merge with EMI. Such an action would result in Sony and UMG controlling nearly 70 percent of the market for recorded music. Public Knowledge, mentioned earlier, is against such consolidation because it would cause prices to rise, indie artists would be harmed, and innovation in this industry would be stunted. EMI created OpenEMI, which allows developers to create apps to distribute recorded sound, something that may be under threat with such consolidation. In addition, any new music service created would have to heavily weigh the thoughts of UMG and Sony.

The group also argues that the merger violates antitrust law, saying it is “an unfair method of competition” that constitutes “an unreasonable restraint of trade” because it will “substantially lessen competition.” They also point out that “the industry has chronically and grossly overestimated the role of copyright infringement in the development of digital distribution,” something that drives the industry-induced and government-executed “war on online piracy.”

Such a merger should not be approved due to UMG’s previous misconduct. In 2006, Eliot Spitzer, who was then attorney general of New York, found that the company had bribed radio stations to play songs by UMG artists, resulting in a $12 million settlement from UMG. The next year, the company angered many YouTubers by ferociously enforcing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. UMG was stopping what they termed “copyright infringement.” Such ridiculousness included taking down a 29-second video of a person dancing to a Prince song.

Most recently, after now-defunct Megaupload released “The Mega Song” with numerous RIAA artists supporting the music download service, it was flagged and downed by UMG after it was uploaded to the Internet. UMG claimed the video violated copyright. Megaupload took them to court and told them to apologize, probably causing the video to returned to online. However, UMG got its revenge when the Department of Justice, FBI and National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center jointly shut down and seized, and started criminal cases against the site’s owners. Not long after, Megaupload executives were arrested by police in New Zealand as ordered by a U.S. prosecutor. In response, the loose hacking collective, Anonymous, downed

As for EMI, none of their websites were downed but complications exist with this label as well. The British-based music company has been wholly owned by one evil corporation since February 2011: Citigroup. If you forget the evils of this large financial corporation that received $2.4 trillion from the Federal Reserve, Sen. Bernie Sanders laid it out clearly in his Dec. 10, 2010, speech. Sen. Sanders noted that Citigroup was “making incredible profits and paying their executives record-breaking compensation” after the U.S. taxpayer bailed them out and as Americans suffered economically, mentally and socially. Money paid for a song by an EMI artist is basically trickling up to pay executives like CEO Vikram Pandit and Chairman Michael E. O’Neill. Do you really want to support that?

The proposed merger, the reactionary nature of UMG, and EMI’s connections to Citigroup makes one think of a plan to “fight the powers that be.” Downing UMG and EMI’s websites isn’t a very effective tactic in the long or short-run, making another plan imperative: boycotting these two companies. Nowadays, most music is sold online in major stores such as iTunes, Amazon and eMusic. In order for UMG and EMI to get the message, people must stand up and say that they will not buy, support or listen to the music from artists connected to these companies unless the merger is stopped. Personally, I’m following this strategy by not listening to certain EMI and UMG artists.

Everyone should follow this plan for opposition of this merger simply by looking up the labels of artists you listen to. Such actions are just part of a broader plan to stop the consolidation. If this merger is not stopped, the corporate oligopoly in the recorded music market will tighten. Today there is one merger between two record labels; tomorrow it will be another two. The 99 percent of Americans must unite to tackle this consolidation and kill it before it reaches the FTC, Justice Department or any other government institution that allows the merger.

Photo: Kevin Baird // CC 2.0