Why have on­line plat­forms not de­liv­ered on prom­ises to give power to small play­ers?

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - MUSIC - JIM CAR­ROLL

Dur­ing the great on­line dis­rup­tion of the mid-noughties, one of the com­mon tenets was that the mu­sic in­dus­try was about to be­come a level play­ing field. Gone would be the sit­u­a­tion where record la­bels would con­trol ac­cess to the means of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion.

New on­line plat­forms would do away with that kind of prac­tice and di­min­ish the power of the big­ger play­ers. The new mu­sic busi­ness would be demo­cratic with every­one en­joy­ing equal ac­cess. There would be bread and jam for all.

If any­one still be­lieves that one, the last fort­night will have put them right. The re­lease of new al­bums by Bey­oncé and Drake – and Ra­dio­head’s new track Burn the Witch – show that big play­ers are still very much in con­trol of the ac­tion.

It may be mu­sic stream­ing com­pa­nies such as Ti­dal and Ap­ple Mu­sic who are now part of the per­ma­nent es­tab­lish­ment, but the use of scale to dom­i­nate the mar­ket re­mains the same. For all the dis­rup­tion that went on, the main­stream acts still own the space.

Let’s state for the record that this is an ob­ser­va­tion rather than a quib­ble. It’s how cap­i­tal­ism works so you’re tilt­ing at wind­mills to ar­gue oth­er­wise. The fact that su­per­fans will sign up to a stream­ing ser­vice such as Ti­dal or Ap­ple Mu­sic to get their hands on new mu­sic the minute it’s re­leased is what su­per­fans do. It’s also a sign that us­ing the star power of A-list acts such as Bey or Drizzy is one sure way to get peo­ple to pony up ¤10 a month for one of the stream­ing ser­vices.

But it also squarely de­bunks the var­i­ous claims about the great on­line leap for­ward which were flung around with great aban­don a decade or so ago. While all acts can re­lease and dis­trib­ute their mu­sic on­line with great ease com­pared to what used to be the case, you still have the same prob­lems when it comes to pro­mo­tion.

The caste sys­tem means those who find them­selves be­low the fold when it comes to pro­file and name recog­ni­tion are work­ing off a com­pletely dif­fer­ent tem­plate com­pared to the clutch of acts at the top of the tree. That most of these big acts had their break­through when the old la­bel sys­tem was still in its pomp shows the in­flu­ence it still ex­erts.

Don’t ex­pect any of the new tech play­ers to dis­rupt this state of af­fairs. In tech­nol­ogy, scale is the name of the game and scal­ing fast re­quires these com­pa­nies to lever­age the pulling power of big acts with pre-es­tab­lished au­di­ences. Us­ing new acts with­out the same pro­file is not go­ing to but­ter any tech parsnips.

In many ways, the mu­sic tech sec­tor is caught up in the prob­lems Dou­glas Rushkoff ad­dresses in his new book Throw­ing Rocks at the Google

Bus. Rushkoff ar­gues that the era of in­fi­nite growth is un­sus­tain­able and a re­sult of short-term, in­vestor-fo­cused think­ing. He be­lieves the fo­cus needs to be on lo­cal busi­ness ecosys­tems which are not think­ing about cash­ing in their chips with a big exit strat­egy.

In many ways, Rushkoff’s views are a per­fect en­cap­su­la­tion of how many at the mu­sic in­dus­try coal­face work. It’s about lo­cal, sus­tain­able ca­reers rather than a one-off spurt of mas­sive al­bum sales and sold-out arena shows.

But we have yet to see any­one com­ing in the mu­sic-tech com­mu­nity who has adopted this kind of think­ing. This sec­tor seems ad­dicted to growth and the need to have an one-size-fits-all plan and ap­proach. This is not how mu­sic and art works, and the same process will not work across the board.

The re­lease of new al­bums by Bey­oncé and Drake shows the big play­ers are still in con­trol of the ac­tion

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