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The Music Industry as Counter-Example to the Technological Explanation for Shakeouts (Part 2)

May 21st, 2010


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Currently, the music market is dominated by six major firms: Time/Warner, Sony/CBS, Thorn/EMI, Philips-Polygram/PMG, Bertelsmann Music Group/BMG, and Matsushita/MCA.

One important factor stands above all other explanations for this consolidation: distribution. While prior to 1962 there were several strong and independent music distributors who provided an alternative to the major firms’ distribution networks, major firms began making significant buyouts in the 60s onward, creating a dominant market tendency toward the horizontal integration of distribution. Many independent distributors went bankrupt, and this tendency grew even more exaggerated in the 1980s. The six major firms mentioned above presently constitute almost the entirety of the industry’s market share at the distributor level.

In light of this evidence, one revised hypothesis is that technology can play a role in market concentration in as much as it augments scale economies. Technological innovations such as widespread personal computers with sound processing and recording capabilities, as well as advanced software for manipulating recordings, have reduced the necessary scale to begin producing consumable music recordings to anyone with or without talent, with just a $300 personal computer, a $30 microphone, and some small degree of sound engineering skills. The internet has also drastically reduced the scale required for significant levels of distribution, with peer-to-peer sharing networks, internet-based record stores, and social networking pages like MySpace. com.

On the other side of the story, some non-technological things may account for firm “lock-in” or other phenomena that lead to high industry concentration. Distribution strategy is one possible example of this, but it is likely that the dominance of particular firms that allowed them to construct their distribution networks shares a cause with their distribution strategies. Music is a very unique kind of product. Each new “product” (a song or album) also happens to be distinctly associated with a set of individuals. The quality of the music itself is controlled from a non-technological (in the physical sense) set of innovations relating to meter, pitch, tone, content, or overall theme. Some major firms may have the musical brainpower to “get it”- a group of experts, who manage bands and affect the musical product, that ultimately represents a stock of knowledge the firm has about stimulating and satisfying demand for music. Furthermore, labels fortunate enough to enlist legendary bands, perhaps by only good fortune, gain a long-lasting advantage, both from their experiences with a popular band (more concerts, albums, events, merchandising, etc. as well as from the profits, which attract more expertise, which attracts and creates better bands, etc. There appear to be many opportunities for self-reinforcement in the industry. Whatever is the case, the technology-based shakeout story lacks explanatory power in music.


Alexander, Peter. New Technology and Market Structure:

Evidence from the Music Recording Industry. Journal of Cultural Economics, Volume 18, 113-123, 1994.

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