With the increase of music streaming services such as Spotify why is it that the majority of music we consume is still produced by “The Big Three”?

With the method of streaming music becoming more popular than ever. Streaming revenue increased by 48% in just the first half of 2017 (Recording Industry Association of America, 2017) and with Spotify having over 70 million subscribers at the start of 2018 (Spotify Press, 2018) it is clear that this is the new forefront when it comes to consuming music.
Firstly, streaming is the receiving of content over the internet, this is usually done in a continuous flow meaning that the user is able to start listening almost immediately (Sam Costello 2018). This immediate access to so much music must mean that we are consuming more diverse and independent music than ever. However when observing popular music today Universal, Sony and Warner are still key players when it comes to producing the most popular music today.

Spotify is the most popular online streaming service and allows its users to access to over 30 million songs (Spotify Press, 2018). This would therefore create an increase in music diversity and variation of music and who is producing it. As stated by Spotify “Since 2014, the average number of artists each listener streams per week has increased 37 percent, from just under 30 to about 41 artists per week so far in 2017.” (Erlandsson and Perez, 2017) They claim that this is due to the discovery aspect of Spotify and the emphasis on new music, as this encourages users to listen to music they otherwise would not have. On the other hand, when examined, the most listened to artists in the charts a pattern can be seen that the majority of them are signed to one of the three major record labels; Universal, Sony and Warner. The top global album of 2016 was Lemonade by Beyonce which was produced bby Sony. The top 10 albums of 2016 only features two albums that were not produced by the big three which are both by well established artists with a large fanbase. This could be due to the monopoly Spotify has over many other companies, in the last 11 months Spotify has acquired, Crowd Album, Cord project, Soundwave and Preact; just to name a few. They have further partnered with Waze, Amazon Echo, Headspace and Chrome (Spotify Press, 2017), these relationships show the power and influence Spotify have not necessarily within the music industry but across multiple apps and companies. This provides Spotify with the ability to reach audiences that may not have necessarily been directed to use Spotify otherwise.

In April 2017, a licence agreement was created between Universal Music label and Spotify, a key part of this agreement was to “collaborate on marketing campaigns across Spotify’s platform” which will primarily provide more flexibility for new releases. In this agreement Spotify further announced that Universal artists can choose to release new albums on premium only for two weeks, offering subscribers access to the musician’s content earlier. This will also allow Universal Music Group access to all of Spotify’s data in order to “build deeper connections with fans” (Spotify Press, 2017). This all allows artists signed with Universal Music Group an advantage compared to independent artists. By having further promotion than other artists and this being through the most popular method of streaming music is it clear this is why diversity is not what it potentially could be in this day and age.

It may be asked what is meant by Diversity? Diversity in terms of this essay are record labels that are completely independent of larger companies, this offers them more freedom and choice when it comes to artists they sign. A problem with modern record labels are that they are often confusing audiences. Consumers may believe that they are listening to an independent label when in reality the labels are often subsidiary companies of the big three. An example of this is Stormzy’s record label, #Merky records which many believe are a completely independent label started by the artist and controlled by him. Stormzy has claimed “major labels do not know how to deal with black artists,” (Stormzy 2017) which would create the impression he has created this label himself in order to solve this problem. However, when looking into #Merky records and the “completely independent” album Gang Signs and Prayer Warner Records had a hand in creating and producing the record. This shows how often we are lead to believe the music we are consuming is completely independent when in fact one of the major record labels are still having a strong hand in what we are listening to.

Anderton, Dubber and James suggested that record labels have a direct impact on the music produced, further that most of these record labels rely on the “star system” where few key artists produce the majority of the revenue for a company. This then affects the company in terms of who they choose to sign and how they are promoted. This shows “how and why unequal power relations can have an effect on the music that gets created, promoted and released.” (Anderton, Dubber, James; 2012) Artists are chosen strategically and for the following they have already created, this therefore closes doors to independent artists that have not curated as big a following. They may be on Spotify, however the deal for Universal Records artists to have more promotion than other artists will again still put them at a disadvantage to those signed with major labels.

It is suggested that “many seek a major label deal because they believe it will help them achieve or extended their earning power and marketing reach.” (Anderton, Dubber and James;2012) Which supports the idea that having a major record label behind you as an artist is of great value. This push from having a major record labels support is one of the reasons why most chart and popular music listened to today is produced by the big three labels.

When observing other forms of media such as that of the BBC it is clear this pattern is still followed in their most popular radio show; The Chris Evans Breakfast Show. I looked through their previous shows and most popular playlists which showed that the selection of songs, even those that were older releases such as Kate Bush and Toto, are still all consistently produced by the big three labels. Although there is more diversity in chart music, these chosen playlists still show a dominance of the big three; especially Universal. Further when observing broadcast media such as Graham Norton and the music section of this show all of the artists asked to feature again are produced by the big three. This shows how other forms of media support the monopoly of the big three and support major artists with already established fan bases to be listened to and promoted.

Subsidiary companies have been referred to as “brands” due to their individual identity and branding (Wall; 2003), as they act in a semi-autonomous way. This could argue that these so called “independent” labels are linked to the big three however are not controlled by them, they choose and find their own artists. This argument does suggest that there is diversity within the music industry, and that the ownership by the big three may not have a negative impact however help indie artists to be found and supported. However, this still does not explain why the chart music and music we see on television are all directly linked to the big three and not more diverse, as the same artists are seen in the charts year after year.

According to Anderton, Chris, et al the falling revenues since the turn of the millennium in terms of the music industry has led to cut backs in terms of the number of artists signed therefore an easier option is to sign artists who are already “developed” and have an image and music ready to be released. This therefore puts independent artists at a further disadvantage when being signed by labels. Leading to many using social media and platforms such as Youtube to compete for public attention. Another method of gaining a contract is through reality TV shows such as The Voice and XFactor which allow aspiring artists a chance without having to have “the full package” and compete with other artists to be signed by a label.

In conclusion, all of these combined; the hesitation of labels to sign indie artists as well as the increasing disadvantage smaller artists and labels are put at due to relationships between big labels and companies are reducing the impact smaller labels are able to have in modern day. Although we believe we have more choice and are in a better position than ever, two thirds of all music sold (Digital music news; 2016) are from Universal, Sony and Warner. Proving that although access to music has increased we are still in no better position with regards to control in the music industry.


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