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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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    Popular music is with us constantly whereby it has become a part of our everyday environment also music has been humanities most essential way of cultural expression. However, the cluster of music industry at the turn of twentieth century gave rise to a new musical culture in terms of musical production.  “This commercial revolution relied on the convergence of market capitalism and musical aesthetics, a strategy that fostered consumer desire for musical commodities by permeating the modern soundscape with the latest hit songs. As the pursuit of profit became the motivating factor for musical production, companies systematized the manufacturing of musical commodities (from composing, publishing, and recording to advertising and sales practices) in order to reduce fluctuations in sales” (Carter and Suisman, 2010). The increasing control of worldwide music industry has become densely concentrated among few very influential multinational corporations over the past years. These corporation giants have been successful in gaining control of markets all over the world that was previously under small local companies or government organisations, such developments have led to the global commercialisation of music which in turn leads to the homogenisation of music. This commercialisation happens to homogenize the diverse musical styles from all over and marginalise those that do not fit into the industries idea of ‘what will sell'. Furthermore, there is also a growing concern over the manipulative and exploitative methods promoted by these recording giants to increase their sales by the intrusive effect of mainstream Western culture on non- Western cultures. Anderman (2004) states, “once upon a time record companies were run by entrepreneurial music lovers, not accountants”.

   According to Burnett (1996) the six multinationals WEA, BMG, EMD, Polygram, Sony and UNI distributed “more than 90% of the gross sales worldwide of recorded music in 1994 came from albums, singles and music videos” that were owned by either one of the giants.  These giants have used methods such as ‘coalition' and ‘purchases' to gain their grip on the world music industry over the past decades. This has given rise to a situation where there are literally no other companies that can give them competition at any level. It had reached to such an extend as “the culture of independent music supported the proactive, do-it-yourself musician, rejected the perceived homogenization of mainstream music, and challenged the property rights that music corporations enjoyed over cultural resources” (McConnell, 2006).  The six corporate giants also have power over other forms of media other than music industry and hardware that is used to play music.  This gives them the power to implement policies that work in their favor. Such techniques work best in films, where the commercial links between the movie and soundtracks are very strong. A good example would be the movie Suicide Squad that featured the song ‘sucker for pain' sung by five artists. The success of the movie led to the success of the song and vice versa, leading to double profits for a company that had hands in both. Manuel (1993) asserts, “film and music are even more closely linked” in Bollywood (Indian film industry) “where film music is the predominant popular music idiom”.

   Although Western music was sold only in the West earlier, according to Burnett (1996) that has changed drastically as “American and British music industries now obtain over half their revenues from foreign markets” especially due to the availability of cassette players in these developing countries.  Despite WEA being the only US owned company among the six other companies, the developing nations still don't have any ownership over any of these companies. These corporate giants have virtually bought every local recording company in the developing countries, leaving the recording industry in the hands of the big six. Furthermore Taylor (1997) asserts, besides US still being the “cultural center of the music industry” in commercial terms, “American musicians sell the most recordings” along with them being the inventor of “music television and dominant commercial forms like pop, rock and rap”.

Corporate Loyalty

   Music is known for its strength to carry culture and a means of socialization, however with the company's ultimate goal for profit and only profit, issues surrounding artistic and social issues regarding music aren't considered much. Therefore as soon as music comes under corporate control, there are concerns for these functions of music being misused. Just like how national anthems are sung to reinforce loyalty, multinationals use music to reinforce corporate loyalty; one prime example would be the use of jingles in TV commercials.  As Bloch and Worldwide (2012) states, “the advertising and music industries” became more like business from 1980s era, “more exclusively concerned with profits, and advertising agencies realized they could potentially increase profits by hiring stars or licensing songs”. Additionally the content of many pop songs displaying consumption of certain lifestyles reinforces the thought that mass consumption leads to happiness, hence product placement in music videos serves as a gainful source of money for artists. Furthermore commercial pop music is known for giving off the ‘feel-good effect' by camouflaging peoples reality of oppression and replacing with music that glorifies the super rich lifestyle. The conditions mentioned shows that commercial pop music has immense control over socialisation among people by silencing them and making them believe in their legitimacy by mass-producing blaring pop music.  

Music censorship

    When the corporation has so much control over everything it is no surprise that they censor music that contains political content that contradicts with their own. So instead of completely banning a song, they choose not to record or promote it in any way and the artist is said to be free to record with other companies. However virtually all of the recording and distributing companies are owned by the big six and it means that if one had refused the artists music and so will the other following companies. This leads to the musicians censoring their own music in an effort to have their work recorded or recognized. “When music is banned, the very soul of a culture is being strangled” (Korpe, 2004).

   In an effort to maximize their profits the record companies don't take the risk of exploring new music. Since American pop music is already popular world wide, the major corporations tend to only promote Western style music rather than anything that is out of the mainstream music.  According to Taylor (1997) the dominance of Western music is made clear by the fact that it is “easier to buy Western music in other countries than it is to buy world music in the West”.  Furthermore Burnett (1996) asserts the record labels focus their resources on their biggest stars rather than promoting artists with diverse musical background due to the fact that “only one out of five releases generates enough income to cover the cost of production and distribution”.  It is due to this reason than there are a certain number of exclusive musicians who receive such resources for their promotion. “The artists signed by record companies and the repertoire prioritized for recording and release are not in any straightforward way a reflection of the talent that is available. It is a selection made according to a whole series of commercial judgments” (Negus, 2013).  As most of the local record labels are all purchased by the big six, those local companies who used to record local musicians can no longer have any opportunity for their music to be heard due to the its foreign ownership. Burnett (1996) also points that there are now “fewer musicians signed to major labels than there were in the 1980s” as the record companies would prefer selling 700,000 copies of one record than 70,000 each of different records.   

   With the corporations interest to assimilate its audiences tastes and instill in them a programmed consumption for its economic gain, these multinationals go beyond to convince its audience to listen to its Western musicians than their local music style. “The still common preference of listeners and record buyers for foreign-originated sounds, rather than the product of their local artists and labels, is associated with the cultural imperialism thesis. Cultural imperialism developed as a concept analogous to the historical, political, and economic subjugation of the developing countries by the colonizing powers in the nineteenth century, with consequent deleterious effects for the societies of the colonized. This gave rise to global relations of dominance, subordination, and dependency between the affluence and power of the advanced capitalist nations, most notably the US and Western Europe, and the relatively powerless underdeveloped countries” (Shuker, 2016). Due to such reasons the local artists tend to never get the opportunity to get their music recorded or promoted, hence they resort to playing music that conforms to record labels. This loop between the musicians and its audience, who demand Western sounding music, as that is what it has been used to, leads to the marginalization of any music that falls outside of the Western standard of music. Although there is nothing wrong with artists wanting to make music that has Western components, the artists should however not be forced to do it by the record labels.

   This mass production and standardisation of music by the corporates to maximize sales and reduce costs has led to homogenization of music. It has led to the repetition of one idea over and over again and use of same mechanical formulae is hardly helpful for artists to express through their music.  However artists have started opposing to such norms, for example: In 1993 George Michael filed a suit to be freed by his record label claiming that record labels sign artists for long term deals exclusively as a way to not release any of their music if they didn't like it, he was under eight- album, fifteen- year deal. George Michael stated “Musicians do not come in regimented shapes and sizes, but are individuals who change and evolve together with their audiences” which according to him “Sony obviously views this as a great inconvenience. They have developed hard sell, high profile sales techniques, and their stance is that if George Michael, or any other artist for that matter, does not wish to conform to Sony's current ideas, there are plenty of hungry young acts who will “ (Burnett, 1996).

   But in defense of commercialisation they claim the consumers have control over what they listen to and the record labels are supplier of their demand, hence the dominance of Western music is merely a response to the consumers demand.  However consumers are never given the luxury or freedom to ever experience the wide range of music that is out there other than the ones they choose to promote. But Burnett (1996) asserts, “this all sounds very close to the description rendered by Tremlett: ‘the music industry is nothing more than that: an industry that makes money out of music, dealing and trading in this commodity with as much refinement as the second- hand car trade'”.


    According to Taylor (1997) “in 1988, Tower Records' international buyer told Newsweek that his section was “definitely the fastest growing part of the store”, more than tripling in the previous three years. By 1991 the market share of world music was equal to classical music and jazz” which according to the Recording Industry Association of America, the market share of classical music was 2.9% and for jazz 3.0% in 1995.  Taylor (1997) also assert, although it seems like West is acknowledging the existence of non- Western music from the given data, the music that is promoted as non- Western is actually just Western mainstream pop that is sung by a non- Western artist. A good example would be “Pakistani Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan sang a duet with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam for the soundtrack to Tim Robbin's film Dead Man Walking, which raised Khan's fame to the extent that he was recently signed by Rick Rubin's American Recordings” (Taylor, 1997). Furthermore the music awards are also more hesitant with awarding music awards if it doesn't have anything to do with Western influence.  For example “1993 and 1994 Grammies went to Ry Cooder for two different collaborations that he was involved in” (Taylor, 1997).  This shows the willingness of West to listen to world music but only if it has any aspect of their Western music.

    Record labels are well aware of the fact that consumers don't want music that is completely different from what they are used to instead consumers want music with familiar elements that give the illusion of being different. Hence record companies make musicians change their music and play from the perspective of what certain music would sound like from Westerns concept or they insert elements of mainstream music into the artists work to appeal to its western consumers to make them feel that they are actually listening to something different.

   For their desire to capitalize, these corporates tend to categorize music based on the ethnicity of the artists.  Taylor (1997) states that Filipina teen singer Banig was given a full spread ad about her music in Rhythm Music Magazine, which was “one of the few magazines devoted to world music” in the US, however the problem was that despite being a Filipina all of her music was sung in English with Western mainstream pop as her genre. Myer and Kleck (2007) state, “Horkheimer and Adorno viewed the cultural industry as a producer of capitalist principles not because corporations controlled it, but because of the way the industry treats culture as a commodity. The problem occurs not when culture becomes a vital functioning part of the capitalist economy, but when the culture is produced as a commodity in order to gain profits rather than serving primarily as a means of challenging the dominant ideology”.  Such commodification of culture transforms the values into exchange values.

   To conclude one of the most prominent problems with commercialisation of music is that it takes away the freedom of choice from the artist to create music that they genuinely feel and prefer. It also takes away consumers to have their choice by limiting to only that ‘sells', which means producing with the same elements, this pushes people to respond to their mass productions only due to lack of variety in music. According to Robinson (2006) when products are differentiated based on “personal preferences” such as “taste” consumers differ as to which item they like best- a situation known as horizontal differentiation”, such situation clearly doesn't exist in music. Corporates concepts for generating profit have also replaced music diversity with homogenization. The dominance of the corporates leads to the marginalization of music from other regions and further more their marketing strategies to profit off non-Western music removes them from their cultural context. However with the accessibility of new technology, it has become easier for people to put up their music independently via Internet although it does not solve problems related to distribution.

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