Universal Music-EMI Deal Approved by European Union
Universal Music-EMI Deal Approved by European Union

Martin Mills of Beggars Group Says EMI-Universal Music Kills Niche Artists
Martin Mills, chairman and founder of the Beggars Group, has lodged a complaint with European regulators regarding the Universal Music Group acquisition of EMI's recorded music division, according to an article at The Telegraph. Mills told the Sunday Telegraph the deal could create a "lowest common denominator music market" that would hurt niche artists who need retail space and publicity to become successful.

EMI's Deals WIth Universal, Sony Face Inevitable -- But Different -- Regulatory Scrutiny

"We fear Universal's acquisition of EMI," Mills told the Sunday Telegraph. "The mere fact that it controls 50% of the artists that media and retail want already gives them leverage other companies don't have. "[Adding EMI's artists] obviously gives Universal more access, but it also gives other people less. When one party has the ability to be so dominant, it's going to be difficult for anything outside the mainstream to come through. It [puts pressure] on the space on shop shelves and magazine front covers for less mainstream artists. Promotion is really the oxygen of sales and if other artists on other labels can't get exposure, then they will suffer by comparison."

Previously, Mills called the acquisition "breath-taking arrogance" in a January press release from independent rights group Impala. While that may or may not be an apt description, allow me to play devil's advocate for a few paragraphs.

A merger's impact on independent artists is difficult to grasp because some independents have fared well in the four-major system. With the help of Sony Music Entertainment and Mills' Beggars Group, XL Records managed to turn Adele into a star in spite of Universal's dominant market share and the efforts of Warner Music Group and EMI. Those competitors fight for space in retail stores, visibility on morning talk shows and coverage in magazines and newspapers.

European Commission Investigation Into Universal's Purchase of EMI Music Enters Phase Two

And let's not forget about intra-company competition. While retail matters are often handled at the distributor level (the entity that represents all labels under the parent company), promotion is usually handled at the label level. As a result, labels within the same company fight against one another for scarce promotional opportunities. Talk to anybody within a major label system and you'll hear stories about the competitive nature between labels and sometimes even between factions within the same label.

What makes it difficult for a typical niche artist is usually the music rather than the lack of promotional and retail opportunities. Independents usually steer clear of the type of mainstream music for which mass merchants and terrestrial radio is so important. By definition, niche music is not mainstream music. A few niche titles might break into the mainstream, but as a rule niche music is relegated to a niche audience. When the niche starts to get mainstream attention (see dubstep), the majors are usually there to help take the song or album to the next level.

Well-funded, mainstream music can succeed on an independent level. Here in the U.S. there have been some examples of independent music companies that have created stars. Big Machine Records, with the help of Universal Music Group, has turned Taylor Swift into a global star and created a mini-empire that includes the Valory Music Group and B.A.D. Management. Broken Bow Records, with the help of Sony's independent label distributor, RED, has turned Jason Aldean into a top-level country star.

Independents can fare well on a smaller scale, too. Recent examples include Alabama Shakes, whose ATO Records debut album entered the album chart at #16 on the strength of only digital sales, and Mac Miller, whose INgrooves-distributed album Blue Slide Park debuted at #1 with first-week sales of 144,000 units (it has sold 310,000 units to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan).

But Mills has put into words what other critics of the merger have failed to effectively communicate: independents may be harmed if a post-merger Universal can secure more of the scarce promotional opportunities that exist in the music business. It's already plenty difficult for an independent to break through to the mainstream. And there are only so many artists who can break out of the pack and grab consumers' attention. Regulators, who typically worry most about a merger's impact on consumer prices, would be right to weigh any possible impact on consumer choice, too. ( The Telegraph)

Album Sales in U.K. Hit Century Low
U.K. album sales have dropped to their lowest level this century. The 1.45 million albums sold last week was the lowest tally in the 640 previous weeks of the 21st century and 23.2% lower than the same week in 2011. Part of the problem could be a mediocre slate of albums - Adele topped the album chart for the 22nd time. One clear problem is the decline of the CD. Physical sales revenue in the U.K. was down 14.1% in 2011, according to the IFPI.

It appears the U.K. is in the most painful part of its digital transition, the phase where the bottom starts to fall out of the CD and digital revenues aren't growing fast enough to make up for the losses. But if the U.S. is any example, this sharp decline in sales could ease in a year or two and digital sales will improve enough so that physical losses are balanced by digital gains. U.S. recorded music revenues fell only 0.1% in 2011, according to the IFPI, after dips of 5.4% in 2010, 10.8% in 2009 and 15.1% in 2008. ( MusicWeek.com)

Soundrop Tweaks Improve its Spotify App
Soundrop, one of the best Spotify apps, is better after a few changes announced Monday. The app has virtual rooms, usually arranged by genre, where you can listen to a playlist of music and chat with other people in the room. People add songs to the playlist and you can move a song higher in the rotation by voting for it. It's a little like Turntable.fm (without the animation) and a little like a collaborative playlist. According to Facebook, the Soundrop app currently has 60,000 monthly users and 3,350 likes on its Facebook page at press time.

All 12 New Spotify Apps Come From Record Labels

The best improvement is that users will no longer see the "track not available in your region" message that would appear when a song on the playlist was available in other regions but not your region (it's an unsurprising result when people in various regions don't share the exact same catalogs of songs). Soundrop also added the ability to search for rooms and has enhanced the ability to create and share rooms, and updated the chat function. ( Soundrop's Facebook page)