Competition in the Music Business

Alex Tabarrok at MarginalRevolution posts recently about Deloitte’s recently released Shift Index, an empirical study of long term economic trends. He particularly notes that:

As a result of increased competition and also, I believe, greater wealth and reduced interest rates, the economy wide return on assets has decreased by 75% (see the report).

If the return on assets has decreased but productivity and wealth are up then where has the wealth gone?  To consumers and the creative class.  Thus, increased competition in the economy has driven down the return to capital and at the same time has increased the return to the complementary input which is in greatest fixed supply, creative labor.  More data in the full report.

This article in the New York Times is a pretty good story about an industry in which this is particularly true: the music business. Specifically, it details how increased competition in how music is marketed and sold changes the dynamics of the music game, allowing musicians to garner greater returns on their valuable human capital assets.

Much of that has to do with the rise of the Internet as a means of promoting and distributing music. Physical album sales fell 20 percent, to 362.6 million last year, according to Nielsen, while sales of individual digital tracks rose 27 percent, to 1.07 billion, failing to compensate for the drop. Mindful of these changes, in the last few years marquee musicians like Trent Reznor, the Beastie Boys and Barenaked Ladies have created their own artist-run labels and reaped significant rewards by keeping a larger share of their revenue.

Under the Polyphonic model, bands that receive investments from the firm will operate like start-up companies, recording their own music and choosing outside contractors to handle their publicity, merchandise and touring.

Instead of receiving an advance and then possibly reaping royalties later if they have a hit, musicians will share in all the profits from their music and touring. In another departure from tradition in the music business, they will also maintain ownership of their own copyrights and master recordings — meaning they and their heirs can keep earning money from their music.

“We are all witnessing major labels starting to shed artists that are hitting only 80,000 or 100,000 unit sales,” said Adam Driscoll, another Polyphonic founder and chief executive of the British media company MAMA Group. “Do a quick calculation on those sales, with an artist who can tour in multiple cities, and that is a good business. You can take that as a foundation and build on it.”

Pretty sweet. I think there are some very worthwhile lessons here for journalists…


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