If your 2022 bingo card didn’t include Neil Young vs. Joe Rogan, you weren’t alone. Over the past week, however, a conflict between the legendary songwriter and one of the world’s most popular podcasters has spilled over into a broader discussion about the modern music industry. Briefly: Rogan’s show has been a font of coronavirus misinformation. Young told Spotify (which purchased exclusive rights to Rogan for a reported $100 million) that it could either have the podcast or his music. The next day, he removed his catalogue.
While Young’s actions have been widely applauded, a handful of commentators noted that few artists are able to follow his example. To pull music off a service such as Spotify, you need to own rights to the recordings. For most musicians, those are held by the major labels — powerful corporations that dominate the contemporary music industry. Driven by the expansion of streaming services such as Spotify, and buoyed by the promise of future income from social media, advertising and NFTs, these firms see only blue skies (and vast riches) ahead. The clearest indication of this optimism comes via the stock market, where Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record label, went public to the tune of roughly $45 billion — a sum unthinkable only recently.
It’s a remarkable change given that less than 20 years ago, the Internet seemed poised to obliterate the industry. During the 2000s, the majors were viewed as slow-moving and old-fashioned, fatally anchored to physical releases in an era of rapidly expanding digital culture. File-sharing services such as Napster eroded the ability to restrict access to audio recordings, upending a long-standing profit model. Music, easily consumed free, seemed to have little or no commercial value online.
Yet, the emergence of digital media is far from the first large-scale technological shift the music business has survived. Indeed, the ability of companies such as Universal or Warner Music (Young’s label) to successfully adapt places them squarely within the 150-year history of modern commercial song. Examining the return of the major labels within a broader perspective not only allows us to better understand the contemporary industry, but also reveals some of the underlying social and economic dynamics that mark the evolution of American popular culture.
In the 1890s, long before records or films achieved commercial dominance, the business executives who founded Tin Pan Alley (the nation’s first major music industry) focused on the cutting-edge technology of the time — sheet music. Pianos had long been the status symbol for respectability among both middle-class Americans and those hoping to join their ranks. New production methods rendered the instrument increasingly affordable for a large swath of the population. A market explosion in sheet music followed behind.