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What are the ‘Music Industries’?

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, 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”.

Chris Castiglione is musician, web developer and new media writer. He holds a masters degree in New Media from the University of Amsterdam and bachelor degree in Media Arts and Design from James Madison University. More can be found on his blog

Reader Comments (13)

Excellent post, man. Language traps make communication next to impossible and this is one of the biggest language traps we deal with every day.

January 18 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I completely agree with you. What we should be talking about is the health of the music industry as a whole. When some of the sub-industries are thriving right alongside others who are dying on the vine, it says the music industry as a whole is in an unhealthy place - for whatever reason. I like the thought of it being broken up into multiple industries. Good post!

January 18 | Unregistered CommenterJake Larson

I'm so glad to be a Musician and not a member of the (so-called) Music Industry.

January 18 | Unregistered CommenterRob Michael

^^In other words, you don't make enough money to have employees yet? I guess that's something to be grateful for, it is a headache.

January 18 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

Yes. You are right. I've definitely been guilty of this in writing on The Huffington Post about the future of the music industry. It's an easy trap to fall into. Interestingly, I run into this issue when speaking with investors. Many investors are burned out on "the music industry" because there has been so much upheaval in certain areas of it but they fail to realize there are many incredible opportunities in music-related businesses. Just because LaLa or iMeem get sold for short money or just because the labels have been losing money doesn't mean there aren't excellent business models or that consumer passion for music is down.

January 19 | Unregistered CommenterMike McCready

My thoughts on this subject are contained within this podcast

January 19 | Unregistered CommenterPete Smith


I think even more specifically the term is used in reference to the major labels, not recognising the long-tail of indie musicians and labels that are (at least potentially) doing better now than ever before!

I get very frustrated hearing talks from figureheads of major labels and other record-industry-related organisations who's bulk profits are generated from consumer sales of their most successful musicians' records - its like they are living in a completely different world to me! And they are "representing" the 'music business community' (is that a better term?) to the public who no doubt feel little sympathy for them. They are constantly talking about decline, and misery, and they are scared and confused etc etc.

And I see it totally the other way round - this is pure liberation man! I am in control! I don't need to waste time and money on sending you my goddamn demo and press kit - go fuck yourselves motherfuckers! The revolution has begun and it is only a matter of time until we will have no use at all for these cigar chomping mafioso's (exaggeration intended!).

The only problem is that most musicians aren't usually the sharpest tools in the business shed. They do need help in drawing up business plans and strategy etc. But they don't need a record label to do so - they need good management and a good in-house team.

Here's to a bright future (not just from radiation poisoning)!

January 19 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy G.

Your supposition is true when talking historically about the segments which form part of a "greater" industry involved with music. However, you ignore the fact that the new opportunities to have come along - such as, internet radio, many of the alternative ways in which one can now listen and/or legally acquire music and new forms of "live" entertainment, as well as the exisiting prescense in the mix of the old fashioned "record" - are now being combined by many companies, into a new form which is best described as being a "music" business.

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Bland

Excellent point Chris!

January 21 | Unregistered

the "music" industry should now be called the "DREAM" industry. Wannabe rock stars and musicians are paying "new business models" whose only focus is praying on the dreams of the wanna-be customer.

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterRockizoid

^^How do they pay a business model?

January 21 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

The 'music industry' (yes i said it) is an interesting one. In order for everything to be done correctly, there are many parts to which make up the whole. While it is odd that many media outlets overlook the fact that it is really the business plans of the recording and distribution companies that have failed, and not that of, say, the concert promotion industry, I would not go as far to say that there is no such thing as a 'music industry', just that the term is being used incorrectly.

The industry as a whole does incorporate many different companies and parts that get the product recorded, promoted and ultimately into the hands of the consumers, but this is no different than, say, the movie industry. If the film companies like Sony or Universal or Paramount start to go under, then the media would also claim that the film industry was in decline. And there is a fairly simple reason to it- while the recording companies only make up one part of the music industry, and they are really the major fail of the industry, they do make up the largest and most important part of the industry as a whole, and if they fail, so does the entire industry. Concert promotion may be booming more than ever as touring becomes more lucritive than album sales, but keep in mind, if recording companies can't afford to stay in business, then the artists who are signed to said albums would be forced to go through indie labels with less money, less power and less influence.

Chris, I guess I could agree about your main point that the recording industry is subverting the term "music industry" but isn't it really just semantics? Should we care? As a musician, I'm well aware of the different facets of the business. Indeed, I've been involved in most of them.

Relating it to the movie industry seems particularly apt to me. The movie industry employs many different kinds of people, yet it would be cumbersome to speak of the lighting industry or the photography industry. We call them lighting technicians and photographers. Same thing in music. As in oh, what do you do? Oh, I'm a guitarist or oh, I'm a live sound guy.

In short, it's an accepted umbrella term. Everyone knows when the labels talk about the decline of the music industry they're merely talking about themselves. Of course the power they wield is undeniable and if they go down they'll be taking a lot of other people with them.

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