Big Music Needs to Be Broken Up to Save the Industry

The Covid-19 pandemic has shattered the music industry. By taking away live music for what will likely be 18 months or more, Covid has ended the revenue stream that animated an entire music ecosystem. This is particularly true for independent artists with few other means of making a living in today’s industry. Musicians lost two-thirds of their typical income in 2020. Live music revenue fell 85 percent.

The Save Our Stages bill, passed in December as part of the second round of pandemic relief, has offered a lifeline. But even after it’s again safe to see a live gig, the underlying driver of the music industry’s deep inequity will persist.

For decades, corporate concentration and the rise of streaming music platforms has shifted power to tech giants, and to a conglomerate that, through the staggering failures of US monopoly regulation, has come to dominate terrestrial and satellite radio, concert promotion, ticketing, artist management, and venue ownership, essentially every revenue-generating slice of the industry.

Three major record labels produce two-thirds of all music consumed in America. They are the most powerful buyer of music and talent, and they use that power to prioritize a handful of mega-stars and pop hits. They pitch music into massive radio conglomerates and streaming platforms that control how music is consumed, and they collect an ever-growing share of industry revenue.Concerts, a crucial space where independent venues and artists have largely sidestepped corporate gatekeepers, are increasingly threatened by Covid shutdowns and the prospect that Live Nation and other Wall Street–backed giants will either buy them out or put them out of business.

In an early pandemic survey, 90 percent of independent venue owners said they would likely close if the pandemic ended live music for more than six months and no federal support came. We’ve just entered year two.

Photograph: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/Getty Images

The broad middle class of independent artists, record labels, venues, and other small businesses must now rely on—and increasingly pay—monopolists for access to bands and fans. For some, the pandemic made a difficult situation impossible.

Decades of bad policy got us here. Dangerous corporate mergers went unchecked, bad conduct unpunished. But now, sweeping changes to the way we police corporate power appear to be on the way. New legislation proposed in the Senate, along with a House committee’s recommended legal changes after a comprehensive look at monopoly power among Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, are aimed at reining in unchecked corporate power. If enacted and successful, the proposed changes would rebalance the music industry away from corporate bigness and toward music’s vibrant, crucial middle class.
Five years ago, a record industry executive named Darius Van Arman gave a pre–Grammy Awards speech on the state of the music business. The co-owner of Secretly Group, he led an independent label that had become a taste- and hit-maker, with an artist roster including Bon Iver, Dinosaur Jr., and The War on Drugs. Van Arman offered a simple litmus test for whether music is “independent,” a shapeshifting term applied to everything from punk bands playing basement gigs to the cash-flush “indie” subsidiaries of major labels. “You are independent if you are pro-competitive,” he said.