Music: Art or Business?

Music has been around ever since the early civilizations. As man evolved, so did music. What began as a cultural tradition progressed to become one of the most cutthroat industries in the business world.  This primitive way of expressing thoughts and emotions has now become a profit driven corporate machine.

While I was sifting through my music collection, I chose my favorite ten albums and researched the label they were produced by.

Artist Album Record Label Parent company
Florence + Machine Lungs Universal Records Universal
Front Line Assembly Civilization Metropolis Independent
Massive Attack Mezzanine Virgin Records EMI
Radio Head Hail to the thief Capitol EMI
HIM Dark Light Sire Warner
Jefferson Airplane Surrealistic Pillow RCA Records Sony
Lacuna Coil Karmacode Century Media Independent
Led Zeppelin Remasters Atlantic Warner
Peter Bjorn and John Writers Block Wichita Independent
Tori Amos Tales of a Librarian Atlantic Warner

Not surprisingly, most of them are owned by one of the big major music companies. I also calculated where my money went from the purchase of the album. According to Rolling Stones Magazine, the typical price of a new album CD is $15.99 (Cohen. 2004). The distribution, or breakdown, of this cost is as follows:

$0.17 Musicians’ unions                        $0.80 Packaging/manufacturing
$0.82 Publishing royalties                     $0.80 Retail profit
$0.90 Distribution                                  $1.60 Artists’ royalties
$1.70 Label profit                                      $2.40 Marketing/promotion
$2.91 Label overhead                                     $3.89 Retail overhead

The total cost I paid for my ten albums was $159.9, and the money distribution goes like:

$1.7 Musicians’ unions                        $8.0 Packaging/manufacturing
$8.2 Publishing royalties                        $8.0 Retail profit
$9.0 Distribution                                     $16 Artists’ royalties
$17 Label profit                                    $24 Marketing/promotion
$29.1 Label overhead                                    $38.9 Retail overhead

Music in a way reflects the reality it also shapes. Songs are treated as vessels for us to live vicariously through, words that sing to our souls, and melodies that resonate. It is not difficult to see how music influences our lives.  Studies have shown that teenagers listen to an average of nearly 2.5 hours of music per day (Parker, 2008). That is more than enough time for the influence to take its roots in a person’s subconscious mind and alter their behavior and in some cases even their appearance. I can vouch for this from personal experience. In high school I listened to a lot of heavy metal music. The general darkness of that genre was revealed in the way I dressed, who I chose to befriend, and even my overall demeanor.

We rarely ever listen to a song just once. Music has a repetitive nature to it making us more susceptible to the message it communicates. There is also a lot of scientific evidence that suggests that music can actually affect a person’s mood. Most music these days share common themes of drugs, sex, violence, and lost loves. As a matter of fact, an article in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, claims that one in three popular songs contains explicit references to drug or alcohol use (Parker, 2008). This is bound to infiltrate the listeners mind and plant seeds that grow with time, profoundly influencing the way they live their lives.  “Adolescence exposure to music is much more frequent, accounting for an average of 16 hours each week…Music is a powerful social force that also taps into a an individual’s personal identity, memories, and mood.” (Parker-Pope, 2008) Obviously unsuspecting minds fall prey to the lyrics they hear and incorporate their meanings into their existence. Some songs advocate peace and love and emit good vibes, but this can’t be said of all music and results in what ACDC wisely termed, ‘noise pollution.’

The most predominant theme in the music industry is that of conglomeration. The market has become saturated with a mighty few who dominate both front sage and back stage. Again, notice how the majority of my albums were produced buy a mjor record label or a subsidiary of one. With their financial power they are able to own many record labels, diversify their interests, infiltrate many genres, and sign important artists. For instance, Sony, Warner, Universal, and EMI control 75% of the music industry, in a sense becoming puppet masters in their own right. (McDonald, n.d.) Their reputation for manufacturing successful artists lures aspiring musicians ready willing and able to fully entrust these companies with their careers. The learning experience curve of these industry leaders has allowed them to maintain superiority in manufacturing, producing, distributing, and promoting an album. Furthermore, they have established media ties and strong purchasing power.  (Cosser, n.d.).

Despite all the advantages of signing with a major record label, like high quality production i.e. advanced software, expensive instruments, quality equipment,etc (Red, 2007) there are some drawbacks. The sheer amount of artists that major labels represent make it improbable that each artist will get equal attention, or have their needs fully satisfied. According to Herbie Hancock, jazz pianist, major label records “have been ripping off artists, writers, and the public for close to a century, to the point where I can honestly say I don’t trust them at all.” (David, n.d.). The greed of the ‘suits’ has enabled them to innovate new ways to burn holes into their client’s pockets. At firsts, profits were a function of album sales, now major labels extend 360 offers that give them the rights to all the clients activities including “concert ticket sales, licensing, sponsorship, and merchandising” (IndieLab, 2009). The cost of wanting a hit song is loss of creative control, one must sell their soul to the business. Many studies have also indicated a relatively high employee turn over rate at these records, probably resulting in confused artists aggravated with constantly having to establish new work relations with new agents. (McDonald, n.d.).

Independent labels are not invisible from the music scene, however their share is not as grand as those of major labels. Despite this fact, they are able to make a contribution to the industry and have some advantages. First of all independent labels offer more flexible deals than those provided by the major players. They also allow musicians to maintain the rights to their music, a privilege not extended by bigger labels. (Cosser, n.d.). Furthermore, because of financial constraints, independent labels typically employ a smaller number of agents who work closely with the artists leading to even better representation.  (McDonald, n.d.).  “Because they are committed to a fewer number of artists, have less time constraints, and lower demands, independent labels take their time in production and pay more attention to the small details and techniques that can help create high-quality music” (Red, 2007). Another important characteristic of Independent labels s that they are presumably owned by passionate music fans, which is a great comfort for an artist when the label is supportive and believes in the music. (Frucci, 2010). Furthermore, independent labels actually have fans, they are also better able to adapt to rough times in the market because they are privately owned, with few employees, they can alter the business model quicker than is possible at a major record. (Frucci, 2010).

However, due to the fact that independents cannot match the financial strength of major records, their services are lacking. For instance, they do not guarantee promotional activities, their influence on the market is not as potent, their purchasing power is somewhat low, and media connections are not competitive. (McDonald, n.d.).

Even though there are certain advantages to independent labels, the reality is that the strings are controlled by a dominant few. Even though major productions transcend a variety of genres and produce many types of ‘sounds’ the fact of the matter is, that because their influence is so far reaching it is mostly their agenda that is being pushed. The diversity they boast about is in a sense shallow because the spirit of music is lost in their pursuit of the all mighty dollar. Commercial music treads softly on the true essence of the art and we are left with a shell of a message, which best serves as background noise. There is no longer a passion that drives the industry forward. Major labels, and the media business in general, are more concerned with profit margins, and maximizing returns, that they lose sight of the heart of music. Their focus on what sells more rather than what is actually good, results not only in a recycling of sound, but also homogenization of music. People react to sex, drugs, and violence, so the businesses ‘give them what they want’. Is this to the people’s benefit? The controversy surrounding the responsibility of the media and the role it actually assumes is a topic better left for another discussion.

Depending on the type of music one prefers, or artists they like they can either resist or give in to the dominant music companies. To elaborate, if one listens to commercial music, then chances are that the music is created at one of the big major labels. However if ones taste is not so mainstream, perhaps they can be avoided.

It is important to briefly mention the Internet and how it has revolutionized the way music gets sold. Wal- Mart had long assumed the position of industry leader employing a low cost strategy to maintain a large market share. Many people used to purchase their music albums from Wal- Mart to take advantage of its cheaper pricing. However, now music is sold mostly online. The IFPI reported that between 2007 and 2008 the material sales of music decreased by 15.4% worldwide, and digital sales increased by 24.1% (Frucci, 2010). Apple exploited this trend and created ITunes, an online music store that became the number one music retailer in the US (Brown, 2010). A prevailing trend now is the rise of peer-to-peer downloading offering people a chance to download music for free. This halts the flow of cash to artists, and music corporations, who voice their disdain to this illegal activity very loudly and disapprovingly. The Internet provides more variety in music, the ability to purchase singles instead of whole albums and many other attractive features that draw customers away from physical retailers and towards virtual ones. An article in USATODAY entitled ‘ITunes passes Wal-Mart as top U.S. music retailer, the title says it all, but it also says, “Cheap individual downloads are the latest challenge to a recorded music industry still struggling to fight a wave of digital piracy, especially among younger generations. This has led to a historic decline in sales of CDs, which could soon join vinyl and 8-track tapes as vintage recording formats.”(Tanner and Hills, 2010)

The music landscape is changing, however the search for profit remains constant. Many major companies are facing losses because of the now virtual nature of music exchange. What innovative ways will they conjure for survival? Only time will tell.











(2010, May 26) The NPD group: Amazon ties Wal-Mart as second-ranked U.S. music retailer, behind industry-leader iTunes. Port Washington. Retrieved from

(2008, Sept). The influence of music and music videos. American Academy Of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40. Retrieved from

Brown, D. (2010, March 19). Music industry drops CD prices – Too late. BNET. Retrieved from

Cohen, W. (2004). Wal-Mart wants $10 CDs. Rolling Stones. Retrieved from

Cosser, S. (n.d.) Indie labels Vs major record companies. Retrieved from

David, P. (n.d.). How are independent artists and new technologies dismantling the impact of major record labels? Retrieved from

Frucci, A. (2010, March 12). Record Labels: Change or die. Gizmodo. Retrieved from

IndieLab. (2009, Sept 25). The major record labels. IndieLab. Retrieved from

McDonald, H. (n.d.). Big four record labels. Retrieved from

McDonald, H. (n.d.). Major record label deals: Pros and cons. Retrieved from

McDonald, H. (n.d.) Indie labels. Retrieved from

McDonald, H. (n.d.) Indie label record deals: Pros and cons. Retrieved from

Parker, T. (2008, May). Under the influence of music. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Red. (2007, Nov 19). Indie labels and big labels. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from

Red. (2007, Nov 19). Indie labels and big labels. [Web log comment]. Retrieved from



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