The International Recording Industries

Lee Marshall (ed.)
Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.
ISBN: 978-0-415-60345-4 (hardcover), 978-0-203-83466-4 (ebook)
RRP: £80.00 (hardcover), £80.00 (ebook)

Paul Oldham

University of South Australia (AU)

The majority of analyses of the recording industry typically zone in on the West and the activities of major record labels at the expense of other international markets and non-major labels. Even discussion of the global fortunes of the majors will commonly veer towards discussing the music industry as if it is a coherent and homogenised entity and there is no difference in the ways the majors operate from region to region. Thankfully over the past two decades there has been a welcome move in popular music studies away from the restrictive and discriminatory West-centric and major label angle—found typically in English-speaking countries—toward a much more inclusive perspective of the recording industries. This academic anthology is part of that process and I welcome the approach.

The anthology is organised into two parts. The first is a contextualising introductory section spanning three chapters, while the second is comprised of seven, alphabetically-arranged, region-specific case studies. These cover three of the largest selling regions of the hegemonic mainstream (Japan, France and Brazil) alongside two which are tightly integrated with the “legitimated” (3) industry (Finland and South Africa) and a further pair of peripheral regions (Czech Republic and Ukraine). Given that a substantial number of these markets have only rarely been subject to an English-language examination, the intrinsic value of this section is significant. While the book lacks a formal conclusion, editor Lee Marshall’s scene-setting introduction does a decent enough job of threading the anthology’s themes together to make one seem unnecessary.

These case studies reveal that, with a few exceptions (such as Hong Kong and Mexico), the overall trend in most countries over the first decade of the 21st century has been a notable increase in domestic market shares and local repertoire. Each territory is discussed through a detailed analysis of specific circumstances which have led to this, and the figures included here indicate that “music fans have been more loyal to local artists than global hits” (2). Several of the authors suggest a key reason for this is that, broadly speaking, it is more difficult for fans to illegally download or file-share music by local artists than that by international mainstream artists such as Katy Perry.

The anthology commences with a contentious piece by John Williamson and Martin Cloonan which problematizes much of the previous writing on recording industries and argues that these industries are indeed far from homogenous and best studied in terms of component parts (notably recording, live music and publishing). Additionally, they underline an economic and ideological shift of power away from the recording industry (which according to them should be pronounced dead or, at the very least, extremely unwell) to the live music industry, and how this has affected artists and record companies. An examination of the industry’s dominant companies of 2011—Live Nation and the “Big Four” major labels (Universal Music Group, Sony, Warner and EMI, prior to EMI’s absorption by UMG and Sony in 2013)—shows that most have resorted to adopting the 360-degree (or “all rights”) model pioneered by Sanctuary to generate revenue from publishing, live performances, merchandising, sponsorship, endorsement deals and more across the music industries.

Dave Laing offers a valuable analysis of the history of the 20th century music industry in five sections and ambitiously tackles approximately 20 years per section, engaging with: technological innovation (from Edison’s cylinder to the MP3 format); intellectual property law and disorder (from the 1909 US copyright law to tape piracy); changing hierarchies of consumer media (print to online); musical and demographic trends (dance crazes to youth cultures); and wider economic forces from the micro (the firm) to the macro (the global economy including the rise of consumerism). Here Marshall picks up again to investigate the immense difficulties faced by the recording industry (particularly in the US) in the first decade of the 21st century (which echoes three comparable crises from the 20th century). Marshall’s historical analysis offers a valuable and balanced perspective on the dramas of the past decade. Like Williamson and Cloonan, Marshall’s prognosis for the US industry is not good, though he does admit with a back-handed compliment that, while the “Big Four” remain in the top five biggest music sellers, their clout has diminished and their dominant position is far from assured. He also suggests that a larger focus on big investments in international stars and the imposition of 360-degree contracts on all locally signed artists could become the norm.

The case studies section begins with three chapters which tackle larger-selling regions, each with different concerns. For instance, Masahiro Yasuda reveals Japan as a market lucrative enough to overtake the dwindling US market but one which also currently stands at a curious crossroads between the two contradictory trends of centralising dynamism—which brings the Japanese recording industry in line with more conventional markets via locally embedded commercial practices such as “so-called ‘tie up’ production(s)” and 360 deals (154)—and a decentralising tendency towards “more diffuse participatory creativity”(168). He also outlines the specific set of peculiar issues it has presented to the four transnational major labels which, though highly profitable, hold an equal if not lesser influence on the market than the thriving domestic labels. This, he argues, is due to local practices such as the limited diversity of radio stations and once-strong, domestic J-pop tie-up productions which would simultaneously plug product to all strands of the “complex web of consumer services” (154) including transnational megastores, karaoke boxes and record rental businesses. Yasuda also discusses Japan’s idiosyncratic and more open approach to copyright protection and P2P sharing. Hugh Dauncey and Philipe Le Guern’s chapter on France focuses on how and why the French government developed one of the world’s most aggressive and proactive legislative responses to the problem of digital piracy, leading to the controversial and repressive HADOPI (Haute Autorité pour la Diffusion des Oeuvres et la Protection des droits sur Internet) law adopted in 2009 to protect creativity and profitability. Similarly, Sam Howard-Spink discusses how rampant P2P and mobile-based piracy have negatively affected Brazil’s relations with the US since the 1990s. He also reveals that on the other side of Brazil’s notorious wealth divide (and beneath the radar of its official statistics) exists a legion of dynamic cultural economies such as organised and established independent labels which are attuned to Brazilian market sensibilities.

Two further case studies describe how music retail has survived in the smaller markets which are closely integrated with the dominant industry. Pekka Gronow explains how the small but strong Finnish domestic market has benefitted greatly from favourable copyright laws on secondary uses of music (such as broadcast) which see all income taken from foreign recordings used to support local production. In contrast, Tuulikki Pietilä argues that for the highly fragmented ethnicities and distribution of wealth of South Africa’s 50 million strong population, most of the activity in the non-major industry, such as sales at live shows, is unaccounted for by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

The two case studies which focus on peripheral regions where global labels have little if any influence in the domestic market are perhaps the most fascinating. C. Michael Elavsky describes a Czech music culture that is both fully integrated into global industry practices but highly resistant to the Westernising cultural imperialism of copyright and intellectual property regulations. Here piracy, rather than being just a matter of legality, takes on a different ideological purpose among low-wage earners. This brings up the importance of considering how the issue of piracy has a different meaning depending from which side of the corporate power dynamic you are looking at it. This point is also addressed by Adriana Helbig in her chapter on the even more peripheral market of the Ukraine, where the crackdown on piracy by national and international organisations has not been effective due to widespread political corruption. This, she says, is exacerbated by global online corporations such as Apple’s lack of presence in the region, coupled with the fact that international and local Internet sellers refuse to accept Ukraine-issued credit and debit cards.

The International Recording Industries offers a series of important insights into the turbulent recent history of the diverse global industries and different localities of what Marshall describes as “the first major content industry to have its production and distribution patterns radically disturbed by the Internet” (1). All readers will discover something new in this absorbing anthology.