What are the ‘Music Industries’?

On: August 6, 2009
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About Chris Castiglione
Chris is an alumni of Universiteit van Amsterdam and the New Media M.A. Currently, he is the co-founder of One Month (www.onemonth.com), and the host of the On Books Podcast (www.book-podcast.com).


The term ‘music industry’ is a misnomer. In reality the ‘music industry’ is not one industry, it is several independent industries. This is an important distinction because if we say that there is a “crisis in the music industry” it suggests an equal amount of misfortune for everyone (musicians, the recording industry, the live-music industry, Internet radio, etc.) and in fact this not true.

Misuse of the term ‘music industry’ distorts the reality of the situation. For example,

  • The RIAA occasionally misrepresents itself as being a figurehead for the entire “music industry” when in actuality it is a trade organization for a group of labels in the recording industry.
  • Peter Jamieson, chair of the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), attempted to speak about the “The Music Industry Crisis” at an industry convention in the UK in September 2003, but instead outlined issues particular to the recording sector.

In the media, long-winded articles documenting the decline and future of the “music industry” have been a recurring theme over the past few years. Almost every major news outlet including the NY Times, MTV and Billboard Magazine have weighed in on the topic:

  • In the aftermath of the Napster shut down Wired Magazine ran an article “The Year the Music Died” predicting that in five to ten years file sharing will have completely torn apart the “music industry”.
  • Nearing the close of 2007, MTV.com began a three part story that began with the article “The Year the Music Industry Broke” and asked, “If The Old Music Business Is Dead, What’s Next?”
  • In 2007 Rolling Stone Magazine published “The Record Industry’s Decline” highlighting “how it all went wrong” and the “future of the music business”.

Common throughout all of these articles is the conflation of the term ‘music industry’ with ‘music business’ and ‘record industry’. Surprisingly the same ambiguities are present in university texts and academic reports. Considering the abundance of writing on the subject it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to how the term “music industry” is being (ab)used. For instance, when a headline declares, “Piracy is Killing the Music Industry” or “The Music Industry Sues 482 More Computer Users” it oversimplifies the issue by assuming that the music industry is the only music economy.

The ‘Music Industries’
A paper entitled “Rethinking the Music Industry” published by John Williamson and Martin Cloonan has helped demystify the media’s use of the term ‘music industry’. They argue that the concept of a single music industry is inappropriate for understanding the economics and politics that surround music. Therefore, they suggest, “It is necessary to use the term music industries (plural).”

What are the ‘music industries’? At the most fundamental level the music industries encompass a wide-range of individuals, organizations and corporations that sell compositions, recordings and live performances of music (e.g. musicians, the recording industry, the live music industry, the music publishing industry, etc). Williamson and Cloonan recommend using the term ‘music industries’ when speaking generally about more than one of the sectors, and referencing the specific industry name when speaking about a particular sector.

While it may be difficult to completely eradicate the term ‘music industry’ from our everyday vernacular, journalists and media outlets should certainly be more conscious not to say “the music industry” when they specifically mean to say “the recording industry”.

4 Responses to “What are the ‘Music Industries’?”
  • September 4, 2009 at 7:12 pm

    hey chris,

    are you doing a monthly “what is” column ?
    if yes, where is this month’s edition…
    you could start an in-series for this as well,
    maybe it gets picked up by the others.

  • September 5, 2009 at 2:07 am

    @minke. that could be a good idea. I was thinking more about posting a few more articles around the topic of my thesis (on the benefits of piracy and free music for musicians). I tried to in-series them, but it didnt work. maybe you can help me out..offline or something. thanks!

  • September 8, 2009 at 11:44 am

    @chris, sure no prob lets do coffee.

  • October 2, 2009 at 10:02 am

    great to know all about music industry. very interesting.

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