Any embryonic art form with commercial potential is looked upon by envious eyes, just as the Martians observed planet Earth in the late nineteenth century, according to HG Wells. The first such art form in the age of the mass media was cinema; a glut of little film companies sprang up in the early silent era, many of which grew into the giants we all recall from their memorable idents – MGM’s lion, Paramount’s mountain, Universal’s spinning globe, 20th Century Fox’s giant logo illuminated by searchlights and so on. Smaller companies that had flourished during the heyday of the silents had been absorbed into the larger outfits come the talkies, which soon achieved virtual dominance of the global cinema market. Running parallel with the rise of the Hollywood studio system was the music business, first through publishing and then the formation of record companies to facilitate the advances in reproducing recorded sound.
There were mutually beneficent relations between the movie studios and record labels in the pre-rock age, when the majority of hit records emanated from hit movies or hit Broadway shows. Songwriters rated higher than performers in terms of earnings, as the same song could be covered by a variety of singers, giving rise to the ‘standard’ that no individual performer had an exclusive claim on. Singers were little more than serfs as far as record companies were concerned, limited to pitiful royalty rates and chained to contracts signed without reading the small print.
At the beginning of the 1960s, British record companies such as EMI and Decca were headed by Old Etonians who could just as easily have been running the Bank of England, addressing everyone by their surnames; their recording studios were staffed by men in white coats who treated the job like any other 9-to-5 occupation. Maverick outsiders such as producer Joe Meek were very much on the fringes of the elite, running cottage industries from their own homes and leasing the end results to labels, as had been the case during the brief eruption of US rock ‘n’ roll before it was eaten alive by the big bucks of the big boys.
By the end of the 60s, the logo in the centre of the vinyl had not only become as identifiable as the movie studio ident, but many embodied a particular style of music, giving the listener an inkling as to what to expect even before they placed the needle on the record. Most majors had an offshoot label to cater for the more experimental end of the pop spectrum, and the men who ran these offshoots were often counter-cultural dudes with a business brain, a long way from the titled toffs at the top of the pyramid – at least on the surface. Even if there was an apparently extreme contrast between the man who condescendingly welcomed a new signing into his office with a tray of tea brought in by his secretary and the one who opened a box on his desk housing several ready-rolled joints, what headmaster and head-boy shared was a very British sense of amateurism. To use old cricket terminology, they were gentlemen rather than players.
All that changed in the 70s and 80s; the phenomenal money-spinner that the 60s had turned pop into gave birth to what was truly a music industry, and the players wrestled control from the gentlemen. Despite Punk spawning numerous independent labels, these were gradually bought up by the majors to supersede the old subsidiary labels that changing musical fashions had removed from the record racks. Improved awareness by artists as to just how much their predecessors had been ripped-off was matched by the new professional rock manager, personified by Led Zeppelin’s Peter Grant.
Few acts that sprang to prominence during the halcyon days of rock as business saw ownership of their golden eggs slip through their fingers via poorly-executed deals as The Beatles had suffered. Record companies as well as their artists and management were now all well enough versed in the pros and cons of making a mint from music to run the industry with a slick ruthlessness that ensured a splendid time was guaranteed for all.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s evident that record companies assumed this state of affairs would be permanent; as they began buying each other up in an act of corporate cannibalism, the new kid on the block called the internet was poised to shake up an industry that had grown fat and complacent on the profits of past glories. The arrival of illegal downloading sites such as Napster opened a divide between producers and consumers that would issue a challenge to the Godlike authority of record companies that the record companies thought they could dismiss with a campaign similar to the short-lived ‘home taping is killing music’ crusade of the 80s. They claimed songwriters and performers would be denied their due royalties if the public weren’t prepared to pay for music, yet copyright on the likes of YouTube can be easily implemented, thus neutralising any income the poster of a song or music video stands to derive from it.
A couple of months back, assembling a Beatles CD compilation for my own personal listening, I sourced the songs I needed via YouTube, as all my Beatles albums are on vinyl. I had no problem locating the material and the CD was put together quickly. Typing in other Beatles songs for a different compilation a couple of days ago, I found most of them had disappeared. Those that survived in visual form only were without their musical content; the excuse given was that the copyright was ‘owned by UMG’ – not Parlophone, not even EMI, but UMG. UMG – who’s he when he’s at home? The record industry’s very own Judge Dredd, that’s who.
UMG stands for Universal Music Group, a behemoth of a corporation that is a subsidiary of the French media monster Vivendi, and is based in California. It owns the vast majority of pop’s most valuable back catalogues and has sought to counteract any unlicensed music videos appearing on YouTube with its Vevo brand. Famous names that fall under the UMG umbrella include Geffen, Chess, A&M, Capitol, Island, Def Jam, Decca, Polydor, Motown, Virgin and EMI. The latter was purchased in 2012 for £1.2 billion. UMG has recently started throwing its weight around online, cracking down on anyone daring to post favourite songs that UMG ‘owns’. It would be nice to think UMG is simply a collective of music lovers ensuring songwriters and artists are paid their due royalties, but it isn’t. It has more in common with News Corps, but is very much in synch with a one-time art-form that is now little more than a leisure industry whose aim is to generate a feel-good factor to its fast-food consumers. So, RIP the record company, from Sir Joseph Lockwood to Colonel Sanders in fifty years.
© The Editor