With all the anger surrounding Comcast's purchase of Time Warner Cable, you'd think American media was about to cross some sort of monopolistic Rubicon. This is, of course, far from the truth—media consolidation has been going on for decades—but it provides an interesting opportunity to examine the topic more closely.
As much as media enthusiasts (myself included) love to talk about the democratization of the Internet, it's important every now and then to be aware of the broader world in which it exists. Long before the Internet was even a gleam in Al Gore's eye, traditional media companies began a course of action by which they became fewer and fewer while growing bigger and bigger. From the beginning, consolidation was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it pooled resources and furthered the growth of the industry, but on the other hand, it often led to overt monopolies that raised prices and stifled consumer choice.
Interestingly, the record industry has managed to avoid some of these pitfalls. Of the six labels that dominated in the 1980s, only three remain, those three having absorbed the others like a starving amoeba. Despite this consolidation, however, there is little Comcast-style hate mail directed at record labels.
Prices are being kept low, listeners are getting what they want, and in certain circumstances, even independent labels are benefiting. While I can't speak to the labels' individual strategies, it seems that maintaining diversity and consumer choice has been a major factor in their success.
Genre variety keeps the music industry healthy, and it is seldom in a record company's best interest to standardize their product. Because of this, formerly independent labels often retain their brands and a certain degree of independence even after they are absorbed by behemoths like Warner, Sony, and Universal. Just because Blue Note was bought by Universal Music Group, for example, did not mean that it abandoned its long-cultivated image as a jazz label. Instead, Blue Note maintained its stylistic independence while gaining access to resources and networks that it would never have had before.
Major labels also attempt to foster diversity within the larger industry by offering distribution services such as Sony Music's RED and Warner Music's Alternative Distribution Alliance. By selling these services to smaller labels and artists, the “big three” are able to gain business while supporting an affordable and diverse music industry.
Providing customers with a wealth of choices is important if you want to consolidate without ruffling feathers. The anger over Comcast's Time Warner deal is largely due to the fact that customers of both services will now be stuck with one uniform service, against which they will have no recourse. It is for this reason that the more concentrated the record industry becomes, the more it needs to actively facilitate diversification. So far it seems to be on the right path, but only time will tell whether or not it fully commits to this strategy. A columnist can hope, can't he?
David Ecker is a Columbia College junior majoring in music. Slightly Off Key runs alternate Fridays.