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What the Neil Young-Joe Rogan dust-up tells us about the music industry

The music industry is thriving — but it’s not always trickling down to artists

Neil Young, on left, and UFC announcer and podcaster Joe Rogan. (AP)

If your 2022 bingo card didn’t include Neil Young vs. Joe Rogan, you weren’t alone. Over the past week, however, a conflict between the legendary songwriter and one of the world’s most popular podcasters has spilled over into a broader discussion about the modern music industry. Briefly: Rogan’s show has been a font of coronavirus misinformation. Young told Spotify (which purchased exclusive rights to Rogan for a reported $100 million) that it could either have the podcast or his music. The next day, he removed his catalogue.

While Young’s actions have been widely applauded, a handful of commentators noted that few artists are able to follow his example. To pull music off a service such as Spotify, you need to own rights to the recordings. For most musicians, those are held by the major labels — powerful corporations that dominate the contemporary music industry. Driven by the expansion of streaming services such as Spotify, and buoyed by the promise of future income from social media, advertising and NFTs, these firms see only blue skies (and vast riches) ahead. The clearest indication of this optimism comes via the stock market, where Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record label, went public to the tune of roughly $45 billion — a sum unthinkable only recently.

It’s a remarkable change given that less than 20 years ago, the Internet seemed poised to obliterate the industry. During the 2000s, the majors were viewed as slow-moving and old-fashioned, fatally anchored to physical releases in an era of rapidly expanding digital culture. File-sharing services such as Napster eroded the ability to restrict access to audio recordings, upending a long-standing profit model. Music, easily consumed free, seemed to have little or no commercial value online.

Yet, the emergence of digital media is far from the first large-scale technological shift the music business has survived. Indeed, the ability of companies such as Universal or Warner Music (Young’s label) to successfully adapt places them squarely within the 150-year history of modern commercial song. Examining the return of the major labels within a broader perspective not only allows us to better understand the contemporary industry, but also reveals some of the underlying social and economic dynamics that mark the evolution of American popular culture.

In the 1890s, long before records or films achieved commercial dominance, the business executives who founded Tin Pan Alley (the nation’s first major music industry) focused on the cutting-edge technology of the time — sheet music. Pianos had long been the status symbol for respectability among both middle-class Americans and those hoping to join their ranks. New production methods rendered the instrument increasingly affordable for a large swath of the population. A market explosion in sheet music followed behind.

For the previous century, Americans had purchased a wide variety of sheet music, everything from “classical” European composers or sentimental parlor ballads to Blackface-derived minstrel tunes. Tin Pan Alley, however, focused on producing what came to be known as “popular songs” — easy-to-play, novelty-driven compositions designed to catch the listener’s ear.

The commercial potential for such material was enormous. A success could circulate for years, working its way into daily life across the nation — and garnering hundreds of thousands of sales. Over time, these songs began to move with increasing speed, swiftly peaking in popularity before falling off. Instead of a handful of long-lasting tunes such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (which, even as late as the 1880s, was still referred to as the prototypical pop song by commentators), 20th-century music would be defined by shifting temporary favorites — each of which offered another opportunity for Tin Pan Alley to rake in cash.

Tin Pan Alley’s publishers had stables of songwriters, ready and willing to crank out hits. But, to convince people to buy popular songs, they first had to hear them. To solve this problem, publishers hired “pluggers” — performers paid to sing a composition everywhere from the era’s cabarets and concert saloons to department stores and amusement parks. The most successful pluggers worked in the nation’s booming theatrical circuits, introducing songs to audiences in cities and towns while touring on a Vaudeville chain or Burlesque “wheel.” Through such promotional methods, a sheet music publisher could help make a song popular. If the song became popular enough, people across the country would purchase its sheet music, generating profits for the firm.

For Tin Pan Alley, songs were fundamentally social. Instead of being restricted to closely guarded recordings, they were intentionally circulated — free — by the publishers via their pluggers, in the hopes that the public would be enticed to buy the sheet music. Only after such circulation could publishers hope to translate social engagement into dollars and cents. From this perspective, music wasn’t valuable because it was an item with innate value that a consumer could possess, like a chair or a car. Instead, music was valuable because listeners liked it and shared it. In this way, audiences transformed the cultural production of, for example, Irving Berlin banging away at his piano, into a desirable set of printed goods.

Even after Tin Pan Alley traded sheet music for shellac in the early 20th century, the social value of music remained crucial. Sponsored content dominated radio — which nearly killed the sales of phonographic records during the 1930s — as brands paid performers to mix testimonials and tunes. Similarly, the inclusion of popular songs (and performers) in a wide variety of films in the ‘40s and ‘50s reflected the continued importance of alternate avenues through which compositions could generate profits (just think of the financial importance of the song “Singin’ in the Rain” to the movie of the same name.) In subsequent decades, music videos, video game soundtracks and concert festivals all operated along similar lines.

While Tin Pan Alley set the stage for the industry we know today, in many ways, its operations were the inverse of those adopted by its mid-20th century successor. From the late 1940s onward, music was dominated by labels that sold physical products — LPs and 45s, cassette tapes and eventually CDs. Within this system, songs were defined by the media that contained them. Music became a tangible commodity reproduced and sold to American consumers, gaining social meaning (and earning profit) as it grew in popularity.

While the financial success (and cultural impact) of the mid-century record industry made the link it created between the sale of physical products and the value of commercial music appear natural, a longer time-frame reveals how contingent that connection was. Although labels struggled during the early 2000s, music-adjacent companies such as Apple (which introduced the iPod before the widespread availability of legal MP3s) and YouTube (which remains far and away the most popular way to listen to music online) saw years of incredible growth. Music never lost its worth in the digital environment. These companies thrived by translating the social power of recordings into profit — just not through direct sales. The rise of streaming has enabled labels to do the same. Much like pluggers inducing audiences in the early 20th century to purchase sheet music, the circulation of music online convinces today’s listeners to pay through advertising and subscriptions.

The enormous valuation of companies such as Universal is a ringing endorsement of music’s continued economic potential. It’s also a powerful argument against the exploitation of artist labor. Labels may be making big money again, but by most accounts, the same cannot be said for musicians. As sales of recorded music decreased, many performers turned to touring to make up the difference — a grinding lifestyle that the pandemic has made far more difficult. Similarly, although digital technologies can make it easier to cultivate a dedicated fan base, the last decade has seen the crystallization of a winner-take-all “superstar” model in which top artists reap an increasingly large percentage of the total rewards.

The austere dynamics of modern music emerged during a period in which the entire industry seemed on the brink of collapse. That is no longer true. Warner Music’s willingness to agree to Young’s demands reveals the power that labels still have — and their ability to shift in response to social concerns without much financial risk. This has shed light on who makes decisions about access to music and on the profits being made at the expense of artists. If the majors aren’t going under anytime soon, maybe they could try sharing some more of the pie.