As the boom in music carried over from the final flourishes of vinyl’s golden-age ubiquity to the convenient recataloguing and inescapability of compact disc, the record industry could seemingly do no wrong, as one of the pillars of the entertainment industry that had emerged from the post-war West of the 1950s through 1990s. In near-complete control of their own, agreed-upon proprietary formats, the music industry was a billion-dollar-per-annum tagboat all its own. Until it “got free”. Unprepared for the onset of digital media and the internet, and unwilling to take its focus away from the marked-up and reissue-friendly CD format, the record industry was knocked sideways in 1998 by the advent of online file-sharing, a practice that grew throughout the 1990s and took the industry over fifteen years to out-convenience and wrest back under its control, as we examined in week 6.
The established media narrative now is that a bunch of hackers and music nerds got together to flay copyright laws on an almost-liquid platform for the sheer laugh, and that may even have been the case for a small few involved, but make no mistake, this was a subversive action brought on by an industry out of touch with its own culture. Music, like other arts that form the basis of a culture, bears the weight of the moment, expectation and reach that it accomplishes in its time. Any band or artist that comprises part of the majors’ “legacy” output will confirm this. Over time, as media deregulation placed the squeeze on the amount of labels that would end up operating independently and the radio pluggers and playlisters that ended up working with them, many artists in whom fans had made the extended emotional investments of old at the major-label level had been jettisoned in the post-grunge rush, treated as petulant children or simply replaced by younger, more malleable artists less willing to speak up.
Music has always been, in some way, a product, of course, as it is tied to goods and secondary material as a means of recouping expense and wage. When the business model shifted back to the short-term, Tin Pan Alley business model following an orgy of label mergers by the late 1990s, music had effectively been outed as just that – a product, as airheaded boardroom pop proliferated that could barely muster the energy of even the most basic bubblegum of old. Music fans began to be marginalised from the mainstream, and when your consumer can obtain your product for cheaper in one place than they can another, well, it becomes a matter of being hoist by one’s free-market petard.
For a great many people, the rise of Napster and so forth provided a platform to hear and be heard, operating outside the parameters of industry and eluding its grasp for years. This would seem to be the crime of filesharing services – seizing on the frustrations of a fanbase and providing a means to subvert the model that would serve to abandon them and their favoured genres of music as the years progressed.
The Guardian. 2015. Going for a song: the hidden history of music piracy | Books | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/07/stephen-witt-how-music-got-free-music-piracy-filesharing. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
The Guardian. 2014. Radio 1’s playlist secrets uncovered: the battle of the ‘brands’ | Media | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/may/25/radio-1-playlist-secrets-uncovered-battle-of-brands. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
Music Industry History 1990s – Playlist Research. 2017. Music Industry History 1990s – Playlist Research. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.playlistresearch.com/history/labels1990s.htm. [Accessed 17 May 2017].
Zack O’Malley Greenburg. 2017. Revenge of the Record Labels. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/zackomalleygreenburg/2015/04/15/revenge-of-the-record-labels-how-the-majors-renewed-their-grip-on-music/#2fba77fe2fba. [Accessed 17 May 2017].