The Big Squeeze and the Jolly Roger
Around the time that Thriller redefined the blockbuster hit in the mid’80s, I found myself reporting a vision. "What the record companies really want is to release one record a year-maybe one each, but maybe just one," I said. "Everyone will buy it. They’ll be able to promote it for a year, and then carry it over for the first few months of the next year while they’re gearing up their next one. And that’s all there will be." It was a little bit of a joke. Around the time of Celine Dion’s ascendance via the Titanic soundtrack, it seemed about to become reality.
Not quite. The five majors who constitute the FTC-defined distribution cartel sell only 85% of all the music, instead of the more than 90% they sold a decade ago, which is mainly the result of a hip-hop scene too volatile for them to be immediately imitated or bought out. But the dream’s alive and it’s practical, too. In essence, we now have just one company programming music radio, and just one company (unironically, the same company) packaging and promoting almost all of the big-league concerts. (I know it was Justice Dept. antitrust pressure that stopped the Clear Channel / House of Blues merger last week. Those guys are really good at locking the barn after the horse is lost.)
It will be a while before one album a year is all you hear. But the noose tightens. Billboard’s Ed Christman reports that former Island Def Jam chairman Jim Caparro has created a manufacturing and fulfillment (warehousing, shipping) concept that would unify those services for several, if not all, the majors. "With each major employing between 900 and 2000 workers in manufacturing and manning warehouse facilities, that means that if Caparro got some of the majors to back his plan, thousand of jobs could be trimmed," Christman writes. He also reports that Caparro wants to handle sales and credit for small accounts. Reportedly several of the majors are wary but "the proposal only needs two majors to get started and could then serve as a test case for other majors."
The real guinea pigs would be independent retailers and consumers. The plan essentially would create an octopus like the Standard Oil of old-which has reconstituted itself in recent years without a squawk from Justice. For retailers, this tightening of the cartel would mean price-setting on nonnegotiable terms. For artists, it would mean that not being a major label priority would be worse than ever, strung out for seven album cycles without a prayer of moving forward (or of getting paid if lightning struck, not that that’s new). For consumers, consolidation means less choice and even higher prices. Universal has already bumped star product up another dollar this year, for the first time making the $20 CD more than an omen on the horizon. If there’s an advantage to artists in the plan, I can’t see it, and it may well have anti-artist wrinkles.
The majors never really competed on this stuff, anyway. Universal’s price rise will be followed by all the other majors within 90 days, which is how it’s gone for more than the 30 years I’ve been writing, without a peep of protest from the FTC or Justice. At least all the thousands who lose their jobs will be is unemployed (and unable to afford $20 CDs).
Amateur music lovers are in bigger trouble if the cartel has its way. Last week, Universal/Motown put up an online survey on "Music Behavior." To get into the questions, you had to click past a box that contained this: "Definition of music piracy: The act of making or distributing copies of copyrighted music without authorization from the music label. The only exception is the user’s right to make copies of his or her own legally purchased music for archival purposes."
That’s a lie, but it’s also an escalation. Pirates go to jail.
(What’s playing at my house)
1. "Cold Woman Blues" / "99 Blues" / "Outside Woman Blues," Blind Joe Reynolds (from a CD burned by a friend of newly discovered tracks-plus the well-known "Outside"–by a country bluesman so great a friend commented, "He sounds like Robert Johnson’s lost brother."
Very very scratchy 78 sources-try http://www.tefteller.com/html/intro.html for your own sample)
2. 1000 Kisses, Patty Griffin (ATO)
3. Return of a Legend, Jody Williams (Evidence)
4. Down the Road, Van Morrison (Universal)
5. Try Again, Mike Ireland and Holler (Ashmont)
6. Adult World, Wayne Kramer (Muscletone)
7. Anthony Smith (Mercury Nashville advance)
8. Talk About It, Nicole C. Mullen (Word/Epic)
9. Plenty Good Lovin’, Sam Moore (Swing Cafe, UK import)
10. Songs of Sahm, The Bottle Rockets (Bloodshot)
Dave Marsh’s Previous DeskScan Top 10 Lists: