Downloading and The Big 4: Majors Screw Up

No one is to blame for the shift in technology that has allowed music to be distributed without any physical medium, but the implication is that music can no longer be charged for in the same way.

Music piracy is impossible to stop – if you can hear it you can digitise it, if you can digitise it you can share it on the Internet, the Internet is too big and trans-national to effectively regulate. Appealing to people not to ‘steal’ music is not going to work; it’s like having an honesty box in an off license.

Because of this I don’t think its theft anyway. Some goods can’t be charged for on a per use basis in any practical way. Street lighting is the classic example – it’s impossible to imagine a system of coin operated lamp posts, it just wouldn’t work. People accept that other acts of creativity are free, for example no one considers looking at a piece of street art as theft.


It was once possible to charge people for music by charging for the physical item on which the music was stored. Now it isn’t. As a consequence the ‘big 4’ record labels are all struggling to adapt. Robbie Williams is on strike! Shit the bed!

He is striking because his label, EMI, has been taken over by Terra Firma, who have sacked many of the staff. There are many questions about whether Terra Firma know what they are up. Meanwhile the BMG in Sony BMG are rumoured to want out and Warner music is worth 72% less than it was in 2005. This is all underscored by declining CD sales, with space for CDs in supermarkets expected to decrease by 30% in 2008. Only Universal appear to be weathering the storm.

It’s completely understandable that the major record companies should want to buy as much time to restructure as possible by pursuing file sharing sites and their users through the courts, using laws which are outmoded and, record companies should realise, will one day change. However they are now starting to look like king knutes with distinctly wet ankles.

Just this week the majors were grumbling about a change in the law giving away the right to copy your CDs to your iPod for your own use, as though the existence of a law preventing it was boosting record sales. I don’t want to stretch the beach imagery too far, but that’s head-in-the-sand thinking.

Obviously having your primary product become a public good is hard for any industry, but the ‘big four’ have really failed to come up with any strategy. Why didn’t they buy up live promotions companies and try to get access to that slice of the cash? Madonna knows where its at, she is now signed to Live Nation, an exclusively live promotions company.

Why didn’t they repackage CDs so that they represented more than a physical necessity? Radiohead’s £40 box set version of In Rainbows shows the ways here.

Instead the big four have tried selling downloads. Growth in this sector has been much slower than they expected, for the obvious reason that there is an identical free version available.

Having realised that downloads aren’t going to save their bacon they’ve turned to even more outlandish schemes, for example mobile phones that allow access to back catalogues for a subscription charge. If that sounds bizarre wait for this one: streaming music on social websites (, paid for by advertising. Does that sound like the future of Universal? I don’t think so. Both miss the point: I can get the music for free if I want it.

It’s not quite an identical scenario I know, but have you ever heard to porn industry bleating about the amount of free porn on the net? They know that it doesn’t mean that we don’t also buy porn, it just means we look at more. They’ve made it work as a promotional tool.

If the majors can’t sort it out I don’t really care. I hope they go to the wall. Their main purpose is to promote gun toting hip hop caricatures to tweens, almost all dance and electronic music seems to have got on fine without them anyway.

Illustration by Sarah Jane Blake


  1. Sentric says:

    Interesting take on the issue, comparing it to the porn industry! Fair point 🙂

  2. admin says:

    I was going to point out that the music industry should take advantage of the high digital quality that they can offer through distributing music on DVD, its going to be a long time before people can easily pirate DVD bit rates.

    The porn industry has done exactly this by making the most of HD.

    I didn’t though because I can’t remember exactly who it is that’s started doing this – I think Amon Tobin has a audio DVD release coming up, which he says provides superior quality audio. Its something a lot more artists could do…

  3. Ed says:

    RE this DVD issue, it’s something thats been happening for years now. The issue is that the consumer doesn;t ahe the means to make use of the increased sound quality.

    Also it’s standard, age-old format wars: blu-ray vs ADVD vs HDDVD vs etc etc. Artist who release surround mixes of their work – take amon tobin as an example – have no choice other than to release on DVD.

    I entirely agree with the sentiment but the primary issue is simply that the medium doesn’t have a standardised format. It’s all to easy to forget that every media format was once engaged a hard fought battle to be the market standard. We’d now consider vinyl to be one thing, but 12″ 33rpm records were the invention of Columbia records and a dircect competitor of RCA Victors 7″ 45rpm discs. I wasn’t until an agreement was made to ensure that recrod players would play both that the problem was solved.

    Maybe if this could happen now then DVD audio would be a viable. The truth is though, the boom in downloading (recorded – i.e. paid for downloading at least) is caused by the widespread proliferation of iPods amongst the global population. Why by uber-high bit/sample rate audio when your player won’t play it, your system isn’t good enough to let you hear the quality difference and you’re probably only going to convert it into a 128bit mp3 for your iPod…???