updated 01:00 am EST, Wed February 1, 2012
Calls Google Music 'an oxymoron'
On his last day as chairman of Warner Music Group, industry leader Edgar Bronfman Jr. sat down for an interview at the D: Dive Into Media conference in Dana Point, California. He was asked about a wide variety of topics, including his thoughts on various technological aspects of music which inevitably includes Apple, Spotify, Google and other players in the digital music scene. While defending the necessity of record labels, he warned of over-consolidation.
Bronfman dismissed the popular online notion that the day of record labels is nearing its end. The reason they will persist, he said, is the same reason they were created originally: creative people often need an organization behind them to handle the business, promotional and other less-creative aspects of capitalizing on their talent.
He said that "very few artists can succeed without the help" of a label, nothing that widespread commercial success is extremely rare for artists not signed to a major label. He argued that consumers need labels as well, to help sort and discover artists they would like. "Trying to sort through millions and millions of artists," he said, "just requires far too much work. That is where the labels come in."
There have been periods and specific labels that were driven by such a sense of vision or the personal taste of the owners that buyers could have faith that nearly any release was likely to appeal to them, such as the Motown sound of the 60s, Casablanca Records and RSO in the 70s, Sire and Stiff in the 80s, Subpop in the 90s and other indie labels later on. In more recent years, however, major labels have largely acquiesced to shifting public tastes in the last decade and find themselves again in a period with great diversity of offerings but also a lesser sense of buyer loyalty.
Bronfman addressed this in part with a comment on Universal's attempt to acquire EMI, which would reduce the number of major labels from five when iTunes started in 2001 (and which represented considerable consolidation since the 80s) to just three. Bronfman, who has been with Warner since the early 1990s and thus has guided the company through both the transition from vinyl and tape to CD to digital music, blasted the idea of Universal buying EMI.
He expressed doubt that "reasonable regulators" would let the deal go through, since the merger would create "a super-major [label] that will have far too much power." He did not mention that Warner itself had courted EMI.
He added that the move would "impact not just labels, but artists and cultural diversity ... Warner is going to fight this tooth and nail, and I hope others will join us." By "others," Bronfman presumably means Sony BMG and the independent labels. Together, Universal and EMI currently control about 40 percent of all music sales in the US and nearly the same percentage in the global market.
On another topic, Bronfman was enthusiastic for the future of mobile as a music platform, but said "it's still not really there" except for the iPhone. Apple has found success with having music as a primarily mobile market because it "has a content strategy, but it's not really there on other devices." He went on to call the potential for mobile music "massive," saying "the iPod made music mobile, but how many devices do you need to walk around with? You want it on just one ... and inevitably, that's going to be the phone."
When asked specifically about Google Music, he dismissed the service as "an oxymoron." He was not pressed on the point by host Peter Kafka.
He did have some small criticism of Apple's approach to digital music as well, praising the company for "believing in music and content," but saying that "they decided all songs were created equal" (in terms of pricing) and that he had "fought Steve" on that point. "Ultimately," he added, "I wish we'd gotten more pricing flexibility."
Bronfman was asked about Spotify and still had enthusiasm for the service, which has recently come under fire for not being transparent about the money it's making, resulting in some artist mistrust and at least one label pullout. He called the service "incrementally positive," reflecting a view espoused by pop group U2's manager Paul McGuinness. "It's not slowing down music sales or downloads," he noted.
"We would all love to be making more money from Spotify, but Spotify needs to make money too. But artists should know that it is a real and growing revenue stream," he said. [via AllThingsD]