Independents Lost

Independent record storeA recent story in the New York Times described a new cruise ship that’s being built. It will be christened the Pride of America. It is being built in Germany. It will be an American-flagged vessel. That means it will have the opportunity to cruise between American ports. There’s a law that prohibits foreign-flagged vessels from doing that. So the Pride of America will have a leg up on the others. A few other things to know, however. The Pride of America is owned by Norwegian Cruise Lines. Last I checked, Norway isn’t a U.S. state. But that doesn’t matter much. Norwegian Cruise Lines is owned by Star Cruises. Star is headquartered in Hong Kong. Which isn’t in the U.S., either. But that doesn’t matter because Star Cruises is actually a unit of Genting Berhad. That company is actually based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. All of which is beginning to make me feel like I’ve got a bad case of novovirus that’s now seemingly one of the perks of taking a cruise nowadays.

This isn’t about ships. It’s about the fact that an independent record store in my town just closed.

Earlier this month, there was an announcement that Sony and Bertelsmann were getting together to form a new music company, cleverly called “Sony BMG.” Presumably, this has a whole lot to do with the “struggling” music industry, which is, globally, a $28-billion industry. Dollar here, dollar there, soon it adds up. To billions. A consequence of the proposed merger is that the music industry will go from being the “Big Five” to the “Big Four.” That would be Universal, Warner, EMI, and Sony BMG. Unlike the situation when people refer to Detroit’s “Big Three,” this is a global Big Four, not a domestic Big Four. Or put simply, those four control most of the music on the planet. Sony BMG would become #1 in the U.S. market, with a market share on the order of 30%, or 1% more than Universal. Which means that there are just two companies that would have control of more than 50% of the market.

So, what does this have to do with the Pride of America? What is not often taken into account when the company names are listed is the fact that these companies have lots of labels that are sometimes perceived to be “independent,” and, possibly, as a result of the notion of this freedom, “authentic,” or at least less fixated on things like return on investment. These labels, one might assume, would be out there, ready to sign the proverbial “little guy,” or the “edgier” musicians. But alas, that is not necessarily the case. Among the roster of labels of the Sony BMG combine would be Columbia, RCA, Epic, Arista, J Records, Jive Records, Windham Hill. Bertelsmann has over 200 labels alone. Consider Universal. It includes Geffen, Interscope Geffen A&M, Island Def Jam, Lost Highway, Motown, Verve, and more. EMI? Additive, Autonomy, Blue Note, Capitol, Caroline, Chrysalis, Hostile, Java, Parlophone, Priority, and Virgin. Warner includes the likes of Atlantic, Elektra, Maverick, Nonesuch, Reprise, and Rhino. What those companies don’t control would be a short list of comparatively local labels.

To use an example that might resonate well: Remember the problems that Wilco had with getting Yankee Hotel Foxtrot released because of the music’s ostensible “non-commercial” nature? While that, oddly enough, turned out to the band’s advantage, it should be well recognized and understood that those sorts of mix-ups and opportunities (i.e., having another label within a larger company buying what had previously been underwritten) are less likely to occur when there is greater consolidation. Because don’t forget: Greater consolidation includes fewer jobs. Fewer jobs mean that people tend to be gun shy. Being gun shy means that there is a reticence to take risks. Not taking risks means that unless someone is validated by winning on American Idol or Fear Factor or some other network show, there isn’t a whole lot of likelihood that bets will be made on “unproven” acts or (as in the Wilco case) music that seems that it won’t get a whole lot of airplay—and let’s not even venture into the consolidation at broadcast companies.

So what does this have to do with the record store that closed? Say you are a music company. A so-called “beleaguered” music company (let’s see, what’s 30% of $28-billion…). You are an employee, one who is hoping like mad that you won’t be “downsized” out of existence. You have the choice of where to spend your time and resources. You can deal with buyers from Wal-Mart. Or with a local metropolitan distributor. Hmm…what is going to provide a better ROI? How many bonuses are you likely to receive for stocking the shelves of a store where the sales of everything—from discs to bottles of Jones Soda—don’t even come near to the sales of cough drops in a single Sam’s Club?

Whether it is a cruise line or a record label the state of affairs is the same. There are big corporations behind them. Big corporations that are looking to maximize profits. Which is exactly what they are supposed to do. Let’s face it: If every person reading this site were to buy a particular disc or to book a cabin on a cruise ship, the bottom line wouldn’t even be a rounding error on the money spent for office supplies by any one of the parent companies. How interested do you think that these companies are in you? Or in “us” for that matter?

Does this mean that record stores where you can find something that isn’t the latest manufactured “hit” that is fabricated through a series of links (TV, movie, radio, publishing, web) sometimes called “synergy” doomed? I’d have to say yes.

And that’s why it’s now more important than ever to support independent labels. If you’re unsure whether an album is really an indie or not, you can easily find out by using the handy search tools at RIAA Radar – Ed.

7 thoughts on “Independents Lost”

  1. Bravo. Well-written, well thought-out, and marvelously executed. You’ve struck through to the heart of the matter. And, I’m sure most of you know, this problem is (sadly) nothing new. From courses taken on the history of American music as well as the history of Jazz, I feel I can certainly say that one thing I have learned about all music corporations (or any big corporations for that matter) is that their primary concern is to maximize profits. And how does one do that? By only making what “most” of the people want “most” of the time. That is, the majority rules, and the majority (MTV, radio) dictates what is popular, and that is what you must produce, becuase that is what “most” of the people are responding to. After all, what is music but just another polished product or consumable for the masses?

    For one thing, it is something that is important enough for all of us to discuss it with seriousness conviction, to come together and tell each other about the emotions we feel when we hear a certain note or song, and then to have the incredible realization, through someone’s response to our thoughts, that we are not the only ones who think or feel a certain way about a band or album.

    For me, and I can’t say that everyone will necessarily agree, but one of the reasons I came to independent music (in all its various styles and forms) is that I feel that the music never judges me. It never says to me “you must like this because that is its purpose.” No, there is no reason for it to. For truly important music is something that speaks for itself. It is something you cannot help but notice. It goes beyond simple listening or “liking,” it is an involvment. And that is something that corporations cannot package or produce.

  2. Independence is as over as the 20th century. Bush and the powers that be have made sure of that. The coporations are in charge now. Buy in.

  3. Not to blatantly coin a Hegelian shrug, but scenes come and go, they are never as good as our nostalgia informs us, and a certain amount of corporate presence makes for something good to complain about. What’s a music scene without a little strife? Rock n roll, I think, is defined by being something from the frontier, innovative… and restless. So while Bush may have authorized bombs over baghdad and some of us feel sore at the creeping goodoleboyism of our politics, and further of these notions expanding to the music industry… ah that’s the rub: it is an industry. Even the sundry old cottage labels seem to get incorporated and respun in a slicker, less edgy iteration.

    But I’d also propose that in this age of tastemaking karaoke shows with text-message vote-ins that after a while, our pop culture will reach its saturation point with this waning novelty. People will tire of the plasticity of their heroes/heroines-du-jour and even Madonna’s open-mouth kiss won’t be able to revive it.

    There’s already a thriving market for tongue-in-cheek “where are these one hit wonders now?” shows that trace the languid turns of career that follow That One Big Hit.

    So even if you don’t buy Hegels, or Karma, or Justice, if you buy anything at all, from a store, with money, then you tacitly abide by market economics… so wouldn’t it stand that with all the overspeculation of mediocre talent that there will be a crash, the currency of ‘Idols’ will fall, and suddenly the stock price of What You Think Is Cool will rise?

  4. “…if you buy anything at all, from a store, with money, then you tacitly abide by market economics… so wouldn’t it stand that with all the overspeculation of mediocre talent that there will be a crash”

    There has to be a crash/collapse or a total restructure of the market itself. And my guess is it will collapse before the big guys can restructure themselves. This merger and the recent sale of Warner Music is just one more step toward the music industry canablizing itself and falling apart.

  5. I think there’s an underestimation of the resiliency of the Market. To take another Hegelian spin: Isn’t it possible that the synthesis will simply lead to a place where the “Cool” will just become another commodity?

  6. Hasn’t that already happened? Cool music is made, people like it, the mainstream marginalizes it.

    I think the market as we know it will be gone in short order (relatively speaking) and a new one will emerge, whether it’s better or worse remains to be seen.

  7. I think this is a problem that contains its own answer. If chain outlets only carry chain music, it creates a niche for independent stores to carry independent music.

    At this point in history, music that is not sponsored by one of the “big 4” is not a way for anyone involved to get rich quick, but clearly there is some market.

    I’m sorry to hear about the record store. I suspect it won’t be the last to fail.

    Now it’s a matter of finding the next out-of-the-way storefront with what you need inside, and not giving in to the chains.

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