Amid the driveling hysteria surrounding the UK launch of Apple’s pointless mini-laptop (fun parlour game for those in the media: plunge a corkscrew into your thigh every time you mention the word ‘iPad’ today), a potentially far more significant story has been buried: Apple is being investigated by the US state department for alleged anti-competitive activity.
Admittedly that’s the kind of sentence that makes most right-thinking people want to glug an Air Wick canister, or at least click on something less tedious, like a grainy twitpic of Hayley Williams’ boobs.
But it matters. Apple now have a near-monopoly of the music download market, and they’re exploiting that dominant position to crowd out rivals, in particular Amazon (backstory here).
Neither is this the first time Apple have caused regulators to scrunch up their faces and go, Uh? This is at least the fourth anti-trust inquiry into the technology company, which was recently valued at £155 billion, the kind of figure that makes the “big four” major record labels look about as significant, business-wise, as the average tube station vending machine.
Almost 80% of all music downloads are now sold via Apple. Is that healthy? If this was Big Oil, or Big Pharma, the internet would’ve erupted with frowning Facebook groups and blood-boiling blog posts.
But it’s not, it’s Apple – and everything they do is Cool and Modern and Game-Changing. After all, no company that Stephen Fry raves about at punishing length can possibly be evil, right?
Well… maybe. But we’d do well to ask the question: how did this happen? How did a computer firm, which had never previously displayed any outward sign of giving a shit about music, come to dominate the industry inside just a few years? It’s incongruous, the equivalent of Jack Daniel’s deciding to flog peanut butter – and then immediately driving Sun-Pat out of business.
You might say: boo-hoo, that’s capitalism. But there’s a deeper point here. Apple’s winner-takes-all triumph is entirely in keeping with the trajectory of the music biz in the internet age, whereby a handful of giant aggregators reap all the profits, while taking none of the risks.
Just look at the live agencies. The recent merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster has created a sprawling mega-corporation that – according to a string of teeth-gnashing tweets by singer-songwriter Imogen Heap – has kept ticket prices high while squeezing artists’ touring revenue.
And these companies give little back. Web advocates and freetards like to caricature the “major label system” as greedy and outdated – but record labels have traditionally ploughed a hefty chunk of their income back into developing new talent. There’s a whole network of A&Rs, crawling the coalface of the live scene, taking a punt on new bands at great expense.
Isn’t it time the big live agencies started doing the same thing? They reap eye-bulging profits when bands become huge and sell out the O2. Shouldn’t they invest in up-and-coming artists too, instead of letting labels shoulder all the costs and all the risk?
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Apple, too, would do well to engage with the wider industry, if only to make the rest of us feel less hard done by. When have you ever seen an advert for iTunes in a music magazine? Or anywhere, for that matter?
Apple don’t need to advertise – their army of nerdy fanboys do all the marketing for them. But it would be nice if, just once, the company acknowledged the extent to which they’d profited from steamrollering the music industry, and maybe, just maybe, showed a shred of remorse.