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