Maya Hariri
American University of Beirut

The Power of the Beat

Throughout the past 10 years, the music industry experienced drastic changes with the emergence of new technological advancements. Music was formerly coupled with the art of self-expression, but now it is a business by itself. Have you ever noticed the inverse relation between the profitability of music and its quality? Cheap music that sticks in the head is what the major record labels are going after because it reduces cost and unfortunately generates a lot of profit. They don’t care whether lyrics reflect culture, or whether singers are role models. All they are concerned with is making money! After the introduction of digital downloading, major companies were forced to find a new way to profit and promote purchasing CDs. iTunes, an online virtual music store, successfully passed Wal-Mart, which is the leading music store.How did this happen? And how do these companies continue to reshape the music industries?

Song Artist Album Record Label Parent Company

1-You and I Lady Gaga Born this way

Interscope Vivendi ( UMG)

2- Telling the World Taio Cruz “Rio” Soundtrack Island Vivendi ( UMG)

3- Marry You Bruno Mars Doo-Wops & Hooligans Elektra Warner Group

4- Fi Hagat Nancy Ajram 7 Rotana Rotana

5- Cheers Rihanna Loud Def Jam Vivendi ( UMG)

6- Starting Over Jennifer Lopez Love Island Def Jam Vivendi ( UMG)

7- Mirrors Natalia Kills Perfectionist Cherrytree Vivendi ( UMG)

8- Qusset Ishaa Wael Kfoury Bihinn Rotana Rotana

9- It Girl Jason Derulo Future History Beluga Heights Warner Group

10-Rolling in the Deep Adele 21 Columbia Sony Music

According to the Rolling Stones Magazine, the typical price of a new album CD is $15.99 (Cohen, 2004). In my digital collection I have 10 tracks, that makes a total loss $159.9, and the money distribution is as follows:

$ -1.7 Musicians’ unions

$ -8.0 Packaging/manufacturing

$ -8.2 Publishing royalties

$ -8.0 Retail profit

$ -9.0Distribution

$ -16 Artists’ royalties

$ -17 Label profit

$ -24 Marketing/promotion

$ -29.1 Label overhead

$ -38.9 Retail overhead

According to the Rolling Stone magazine, the typical cost of an iTunes digital song is $1.29 (Knopper, 2011). The general breakdown of the price of this a major label release is:

$0.60 Label

$0.40 Retailer (Apple)

$0.20 Songwriter

$0.09 Recording Artist (Mechanical Royalty)

Hence the loss accumulated from downloading 10 free songs is 12.9 $, distributed as follows: $ -6 from the labels, $ -4 from the retailer, be it Apple or other, $ -2 from the songwriter and -90 cents from the artists.

Today, the international music industry is being dominated by four major record labels: Sony BMG, Vivendi (who now owns UMG), Warner Music Group, and EMI. Before the Internet, and applications like iTunes, an artist had to sign with a label just to be heard of (Knopper, 2011). With the emergence of iTunes, YouTube, Spotify, MOG and other services, artist can rise and shine through the internet. A very convenient example is Justin Beiber, who basically became famous after uploading his homemade videos on YouTube. However, after he got the attention he needed, he felt the urge to sign with a major record label in order to move to a national or international level in a professional way. Unfortunately, when it comes to the independent labels in music industry, there isn’t enough room for artists to shine like in major companies. Why? Well because they provide a marketing line that only a major label can bring. A major label has money, leverage and influence that is simply unavailable to most independents and that isn’t going to change any time soon (Pallot, 2011). The question is can we be serious fans and support artists yet, resist dominant music companies?

Major Vs Independent label recording

To be a serious music fan is a challenging function, and to be a media literate person is a crucial aspect of it. In order to support an artist, one must be aware of all the media propaganda surrounding that artist, be it the record label he/she is signed in, or the parent company that owns that record, or the level of freedom that the artists enjoy…? It is very difficult to enjoy good music and be an artist’s faithful fan without noticing how the major label companies are polluting the music industry. An artist, signed in a major company, can no longer choose what lyrics to sing or what theme to sing about or even how to appear to his/her fans. He/she is now bound to satisfy the market’s demand (or the company’s commands) rather than portraying good music freely. This issue highlights the importance of having a free voice heard through independent recording labels. Such labels allow artists, dedicated solely on making good music and expressing themselves to the audience, to rise as art figures rather than “stars” whose lives rotate around affluence and eminence. But what is it, in terms of style and content, that differentiates independent labels from major labels?

“The traditional role of a record label, in the broadest sense, is to bankroll a band until they start making lots of money, at which point the label gets to keep most of it. They own the master recordings a band makes, and by taking on this ownership they put all of their resources behind selling said recordings “(Collett-White, 2011). Being an artist in a major label is a big responsibility to handle. In such companies, making a single “mistake” is unforgivable. Once an artist starts to flop, he/she is going to flop big time. These labels do not tolerate fallbacks; simply they get rid of the artist and move on to the next potential hit artist. On the other hand, indie labels offer a lot of attention to their artists regardless of how much money they can generate out of them. That doesn’t mean that they endure losses, it is just that their main concern is not as commercial as major label recordings. Indie labels could be a great start for promising artists like Adele for example. The Independent record label XL Recordings, home to chart topper Adele, underlined a record-breaking year with seven nominations at the inaugural AIM Independent Music Awards (Collett-White, 2011).

Arabic Music Scene

The road that Arabic artists trod on differs from that of Western artists. The Arabic music industry is dominated by several companies. There are very limited figures and statistics about who owns what in the Arabic music business, yet it is evident that the leading music production company in the Middle East is Rotana. The dominant player, Rotana, owned by Saudi Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, has exclusive contracts with most top-selling pop and folk artists (Bloomberg Business Week, 2007). Arabica, Melody Music, Alam El Phan (now a Mazzika subsidiary) are other remarkable record labels in the Arabic music industry. However, Arabic companies do not focus solely on producing and distributing records, rather they are often responsible for funding their own radio channels, TV channels and other entertainment interfaces. These record companies work in a similar “wanna-be” manner as the major record labels in the US.

Themes and Trends

It is hard to miss the repetitiveness and lack of creativity in Arabic and Western themes and lyrics. After examining my music collection I realized that whether it is an English or an Arabic record, the main theme usually is one of the following: love, marriage, beauty, relationships, foul language etc… Nevertheless, it is important to notice that Arabic songs usually use “decent”, sugar quoted lyrics while English music explicitly use words such as sex, f****, as well as mentioning body parts openly. Arabic songs very often address the love partner expressing love, gratitude, respect, and reprimand in a passionate yet “cheesy” way. Since our Arab culture doesn’t tolerate public speaking of sex, they compensate the lack of sexual words in their songs through their video clips where women are usually viewed as sexual and beauty figures. In contrast, western songs do not address specific people; rather they express a certain state of mind usually conquered by a party mood. For instance, in Lady Gaga’s official video for “You and I” there are several appearances of a nude woman along with violent sex scenes. Similarly, in Natalia Kill’s “Mirrors” she clearly divides her video clip to 4 acts: sex, love, control and vanity. Also, there is a very clear intended attempt at advertising the record label Cherrytree through demonstrating the logo on the pins (minute 3:23 in the official video). As a media literacy seeker, it is noteworthy that the artists who are signed in major label companies tend to tackle daring trends and themes and have no problem using foul language in their songs. Why? A possible reason for their confidence may be that they feel “safe” and protected by their parent companies that have great power in the music market.

The Digital Age

A huge chunk of the entertainment business is migrating to online digital delivery (Center for Creative Voices in Media, 2007). Wal-Mart, once a leader in the CD and music sales in USA, played a huge role in directing the music market. Unlike a typical Tower store, which stocks 60,000 titles, an average Wal-Mart carries about 5,000 CDs; that leaves little room on the shelf for developing artists or independent labels (Anderson, 2005). An industry insider once said: “What Wal-Mart chooses to stock can basically determine what becomes a hit.” Isn’t it very ironic how one business can determine the route of music fans? Well it is unfortunately true that the Wal-Mart once had that kind of power, however today iTunes replaced it (Kreps, 2008). The current generation has migrated towards downloading music from the net instead of buying actual CDs mainly because it is cheaper, and allows them to buy single songs instead of paying for a complete album. Record stores are dying at an alarming rate, and fewer and fewer people are buying CDs every day (Frucci, 2010) A CD album’s average cost is $15.99 and on iTunes one can purchase that same album for $10.97, knowing that one can choose to download single songs for around 99 cents each. So why buy a complete album with some undesired songs for more, when we can buy a bunch of desired songs for less? Recorded music companies are desperately trying to counter losing CD sales to digital sales, and album sales to track sales, with products or services that can make up the difference (Peoples, 2009). In addition to digital media’s low cost, it creates an interface for us “listeners/music consumers” to interact with each other and build communities and discussion threads easily. It is important to shed the light on the rising issue of piracy. Piracy is the act when people “steal” digital music or movies from the internet. Major forces have joined to stop “pirates” from stealing digital music however they haven’t completely succeeded.

Music is now being “consumed” more than ever in history. More and more people are getting involved in music under the control of the four major record companies. Those companies determine who “lives” and who “dies” in the music industry leaving little room for independent labels to communicate with their audience. The demand on digital music is growing and the supply is responding positively. But the question remains: Why does the demand on, literary, cultural, meaningful music remain static?


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