MySpace vs. The Labels

by on September 5, 2006 · 82 comments

MySpace is getting into the music market. And to help set them apart from the pack, they’ve opted for a decentralized approach: anyone can offer their music via MySpace, and pricing is controlled by the artist. Moreover, MySpace has opted to offer the music in MP3 format, unencumbered by DRM.

Joe at TechDirt gets the implications of this exactly right:

while many of these music stores are simply iTunes clones, MySpace is trying something different. It’s going to offer a way for bands to sell music directly to fans from their MySpace pages. Furthermore, the songs aren’t DRM’d so they’re not tied to a particular device, and the band controls the price at which they’re sold. Bands are already building up followings on MySpace, but have lacked a way to turn popularity into commercial success. This store will try to solve this problem. Predictably, there’s already talk of whether MySpace can unseat the dominance of Apple in the digital music space, but that misses the point. It’s the record labels themselves that should feel threatened. Not only has MySpace already given young bands an avenue to reach the masses, without a label to pay for their promotional campaigns, but now it’s giving them more control over their distribution as well. The value added by signing with a label is clearly diminishing, and their fortunes are likely to follow.

The labels’ traditional strengths were in distribution and marketing. Their distribution advantage is effectively gone, at least among the under-40 crowd that mostly listens to music on their iPods. And their promotional advantage is fading as more young people find new music on the Internet rather than traditional broadcast media.

As a result, the labels are largely coasting on inertia. Because they’ve got contracts with the vast majority of popular artists, people are in the habit of looking to them for new music. That, in turn, makes their artists more likely to succeed, which in turn makes the best artists more likely to seek contracts from them. It’s a virtuous cycle that’s allowed them to continue to dominate the music charts even as their distribution and promotional network is rapidly rendered obsolete.

But the momentum won’t continue forever. Sites like MySpace will make it ever easier for bands to find fans without the help of the labels. And once a substantial fraction of rock stars aren’t beholden to the labels, the labels’ remaining advantages will evaporate. At that point, their high overhead and history of hostility toward their customers will come back to haunt them. Consumer are likely to find getting music on MySpace to be cheaper, more convenient, and more interactive. And once bands can reach their fans directly, why bother with the middleman?

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