Fans vs. Corporations: Who Really Controls the Music Industry Today?

Posted by Tyler Allen on Sep 8, 2015 07:00 AM
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The music industry is weird in a lot of ways. But you already knew that. Technology seems to change every six months, revenue streams are evolving rapidly, and as usual, trends change every quarter. It's a tough terrain, and as a DIY or indie artist, you have to wonder – who really runs the industry? Is it the labels and corporations, or is it the fans?

This certainly isn't just a thought to mull over; it's very important, because it dictates your end goal. If corporations run the industry, your end goal is going to be to sign some sort of deal. But if fans run the industry, then it's about harnessing the power to connect with them on your own.

As with most things in life, it's not cut and dried or black and white – it's certainly a combination of both. Here are my thoughts on it, boiled down into some takeaways to help you determine where you stand on the issue.

Do you still need to get signed?

While the music industry has been in a constant state of flux ever since the gramophone days, there has been one big dream that comes up time and time again: getting signed. The phrase and idea of getting signed has made its way into our pop culture lexicon, and even when teaching music business courses to today's eager youth, talk of record deals still come up. That is how an artist knows they "made it," right? But getting signed can mean dozens of things. It also goes back to a day where labels really did 100 percent run the show.

[5 Surprising Things You Probably Didn't Know About Record Labels]

If you've researched your music industry history, you're likely familiar with terms like "oligarchy" and "monopoly" because they come up a lot. Columbia Records had a monopoly on the music industry during its inception because it was damn near the only publisher and label that existed in the 1800s.

Starting in 1988, there had been an oligarchy of record companies running the show, which was referred to as the "Big Six." But throughout the '90s and '00s, the "Big Six" consolidated into the "Big Five," the "Big Four," and, as of 2012, all we have left are the "Big Three": Universal, Sony, and Warner. These three companies distribute, own, and manage the vast majority of record labels in the United States.

Once upon a time, if you wanted to get any music recorded or distributed, virtually the only way to do that was to sign a deal with a label. This could be a simple recording deal where they just recorded your music, but it was more likely a combination of recording, distribution, and promotion.

But then the internet happened. Today, it's possible to get a commercial-quality recording in your producer friend's basement. You can get your music digitally distributed around the world through self-serve services like CD Baby and TuneCore. This is absolutely huge, as none of this was possible just a few short decades ago.

Now don't get me wrong, a major label deal can certainly help you get a level of exposure that you wouldn't have been able to achieve through the DIY route alone. But in a lot of ways, by simply having the option to bypass the labels and corporations, it puts the power right back into the hands of the artists as well as the fans.

Be Heard at SXSW

The power of viral marketing and social media

So you can distro on your own, you can record on your own, but let's not be naive and pretend as if major music corporations don't have amazing contacts and media relations. You can be an amazing artist, but if you're not getting those media pick-ups and getting the word out about your music, you might find yourself stuck.

Then again, we've also seen plenty of cases where fans get behind an artist on social media, and they blow up pretty heavily. Don't forget that Justin Bieber was found through social media and, with the help of his team, has mastered the art of the superfan. Sage the Gemini was found when his song "Gas Pedal" went viral on Vine. Tyler the Creator's Odd Future took off through underground and social media measures. You can also add Lil' B to the mix, as well as A$AP Rocky and A$AP Mob's success, as they all got their start from having a fun and energetic social media presence that caught the attention of fans. More recently, crowdfunding websites such as PledgeMusic and Patreon have become huge names in music marketing, and new outlets such as Soundudes help artists seamlessly connect with potential superfans.

Social media and online marketing have become arguably the biggest driving forces in today's music industry, and it's all because fans – not corporations – have gotten behind artists.

What about radio?

One of the biggest corporate-influenced music discovery sources existing today is radio. Essentially, if you're not spinning with a major radio conglomerate, the chances that you'll get national spins are a bit tougher.

Contrary to what you may think, radio is actually still the number-one way people discover music, according to 2014's Edison Research Report. And being that it's very much operated by large entities, it makes delving into radio a bit more difficult, especially for the indies and DIY crowd.

But although radio is very much corporate-run, getting on radio isn't necessarily impossible. You just typically need to start small, and then gradually grow larger. By hitting up college stations, and then moving into regional stations, you'll be more likely to make it to the national stage. There are no guarantees, but you can budget for a radio promoter to start seeing some momentum.

[How to Get Your Music Played on College Radio (And Why It's So Important for Indie Artists)]

However, don't get discouraged by the politics of radio. While it's undeniable that radio play still matters, it's far from the only method of music discovery today, and it depends largely on demographic. In fact, YouTube is the number one way that 12- to 24-year-olds discover new music, with Pandora not far behind.

Marketing dollars don't always guarantee success

Corporations and major labels have money and clout. That's why they can get their artists in Rolling Stone and get article pickups even when all their artist did was debut a new hairstyle. However, let's not pretend that the majors can't flop, too. In 2014 alone, there were dozens of major label failures – they just don't resonate with us, because, well, they failed.

Robin Thicke's Paula sold a dismal 24,000 units in the US, which is incredibly low for a major (some DIY artists have seen larger numbers than that). And it's not as if Thicke was having a bad year; he had just come off of his smash single, "Blurred Lines." But at the end of the day, fans just didn't get behind the record.

Even though Jennifer Lopez was in the limelight as an American Idol judge and not only had major label support, but also Fox TV and all of their major sponsors helping to push the record, A.K.A. was also widely considered a flop. Again, fans just didn't get behind it.

The list could go on and on. While a major's flop numbers might be a DIY artist's success numbers, we can't be tricked into thinking that just because a corporation has money, we'll automatically be more successful. (You wouldn't believe how often major label artists' albums get shelved and never even see the light of day.) At the end of the day, if the fans don't get behind an artist, then they simply won't get behind an artist.


These are just a few small examples of how fans really do have power in the music industry. Although the major labels might be making a lot of noise, the fans ultimately have the power to make even more. Sometimes, we just need to realize it.


As a music marketing strategist, Tyler Allen works with an extensive array of artists, labels, music tech, and music retail entities. Tyler began his music industry career with Sony Music Entertainment and RED Distribution, as well as the advertising industry. He is dedicated to giving veteran artists the tools to preserve their legacy, and new artists the tools to begin theirs (as well as everything in between). Learn more at

Topics: Music Business 101, opinion


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