The December merger of record labels owned by PolyGram and Universal predictably provoked laments that corporate suits are once again slaying Art on the altar of Commerce. Big Culture is fast supplanting Big Brother in the nightmares of many intellectuals, who are increasingly haunted by visions of book, record, and video stores that contain nothing but John Grisham and Danielle Steele, Garth Brooks and Britney Spears, Tom Cruise and Sandra Bullock.
But just as consolidation in book publishing has coincided with the availability of more and more books from more and more publishers, the merging of two of the Big Six record labels is unlikely to restrict the options of consumers, artists, or even fired executives, most of whom leave with very comfortable compensation packages–and plans to start independent labels of their own. Indeed, far from representing an aggressive attempt to corner the music market, the PolyGram-Universal merger can just as easily be read as a rearguard action to shore up power in a rapidly decentralizing industry.
Over the past few years, the rise of MP3 (a technology that allows bands to upload CD-quality sound to the Web), the proliferation of independent labels (a function of cheaper recording technology), and more-accessible distribution systems have all put more power into the hands of artists, not major labels. In fact, as alternative music journalists have started pointing out with glee, with the exception of the very biggest acts, most bands get little out of being signed to a major label other than the chance to play around in an expensive studio and eat a meal or two in a fancy restaurant–perks that are charged against future album sales anyway. With the huge overhead and stacked accounting practices of big labels, few artists have reason to weep about being dropped, or passed over, by the majors.
Similarly, music fans have little reason to worry about record mergers. Despite some consolidation at the top of the industry, consumers will continue to benefit from more choices offered by more labels. There is less chance than ever that one record executive, or even a cabal of them, can summarily decide that some band's music should not have the chance to reach a potential audience.