Majors, Indies, and Internships

The Brits have been and gone. Which was excellent for me, as there was something to flick across during the breaks between Ultimate Emergency Bikers and Mrs Brown’s Boys. It also meant there were several buildings along Kensington High Street that were empty since about three o’clock yesterday, as the music industry celebrated another year of growing music revenues by wearing a bloody tie for once.

But wait – the music industry is more than the three majors headquartered in the Royal Borough, isn’t it? Well, yes. But it doesn’t always seem that way. As John Williamson and Martin Cloonan have pointed out, the distinction is quite happily and frequently blurred, not just in informal conversation, but by the media, government and academia too. Even trade bodies and umbrella organisations fly fast and loose with terms like the ‘music industry’, ‘record business’, and so on, as if it were one homogenous mass.

This is, of course, understandable when the BPI and IFPI want to present a coherent public face, lobbying for policies regulating digital services and so on. But even if these bodies talked only of representing record labels (which they don’t always), in reality, the majors’ market dominance means that they tend to have somewhat more influence within the umbrella organisation – if this were not the case then AIM would not exist.

Considering the Brits is a BPI initiative, therefore, my embarrassing mistake in confusing major record labels with the music industry as a whole might be forgiven. After all, in all the nominations, across ten categories (not including British Producer), there were thirty-eight separate artists in total – of which I counted five not currently signed to a major label (Arctic Monkeys, London Grammar, John Grant, Macklemore, Passenger). Impressively, Bastille (Virgin-EMI) and Disclosure (Island) gained four nominations each. In statistics, as well as aesthetics, this ratio seems to be fairly representative of the country’s mass listening habits (whether you go by the OCC or Spotify streams) – and we can argue over whether increased market concentration impacts negatively on musical diversity, as Richard Peterson and David Berger did in the nineties and Lily Allen did at the start of the year – but fair enough.

In the run up to the Brits, while most of us might have been planning sleepover parties in our PJs, while the executives practiced their carousing and Prosecco-swilling techniques, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs saw an opportunity to announce its latest campaign – cracking down on unpaid internships in the music industry. Particularly taken to task by HMRC’s tiresome insistence on following standard employment law are what they call the ‘Brit Awards Record Labels’ – in other words, as they helpfully go on to point out: the major labels. The minister for employment relations Jenny Willott was wheeled out to add her warning in support:

The music industry is often seen as a glamorous industry to work in, particularly for young people. However, that is no excuse for interns not to be paid at least the minimum wage if they are employed as a worker. We need to make sure that interns who want a career in music are getting a fair deal and are not being exploited.

Stern stuff. The trouble is that, as far as I’m aware, unpaid work in the majors is generally the stuff of yesteryear (at least in the UK). It’s a legend from an era before corporate social responsibility initiatives suggested that, if you’re trying to prove to the world that you’re not as exploitative as they think you are, you should probably get your house in order first – plus, in an industry founded on constant innovation, it just doesn’t make long-term business sense and perhaps even contributes to a lack of diversity in musical output. To quote UMG, they now pay all interns the London Living Wage as the unpaid positions they offered before 2009, ‘narrowed the talent pool as not everyone could apply’ – not great if you don’t want to replicate the past forever. For this move, the company was described in the House of Commons as a ‘fantastic leader in the field’.

In their press release, HMRC state that thirty five letters have been sent out, but they do not name names. The Mail reported that, amongst these, was one addressed to Simon Cowell’s SyCo label (although Sony also seem keen to officially distance themselves from unpaid internships) – but if true, then this must be the exception considering it has been explicitly outlined to me by both Warners and Universal Music Group that they do not allow anyone to work unpaid (outside of short-stint work experience) – this includes, in particular, interns. But even if all three majors were unfeasibly behind the trend here, then this would still constitute a tiny percentage of the overall number – unless HMRC have been contacting these companies’ label divisions separately (which would be weird considering they all have centralised HR operations).

So why the focus on ‘the majors’ as the main offenders? Clearly hopping on the back of a well-publicised award ceremony featuring celebrity artists attached to these three companies is a sure-fire way of getting the message more widely heard – and perhaps this is forgivable considering the worthiness of the cause. Internships are indeed a real issue and the intern perhaps the defining symbol of work in our time (alongside the consultant) – their transitional status between education and employment is a murky and ambiguous grey-area that can be difficult to police. But, though majors continue to set the tone in the US context, wording like HMRC’s conveniently underplays the essential role unpaid interns play in startups, SMEs and independent record labels (even if they do call them ‘volunteers’). Focusing on large, visible corporations inaccurately suggests that these are the only environments in which ‘exploitation’ (as Jenny Willott MP would have it) occurs, ignoring ways in which precarity is increasingly the default experience of work in general.

This relies on a particular understanding of what a major is and, more to the point, what an independent isn’t. In a recent music business seminar I observed, a group of Masters students were asked how they would distinguish between majors and indies. They came up with the following list:

Majors Independents
Economic power: Vertical integration – control of multiple levels of the supply chain

Organisational structure/division of labour


Big income

Big hits

More resources

Faceless business distanced from artistic creation


Small groups of fluid, multi-skilled workers

New products

Small, consistent income

Fuck the hits (difficulties meeting demand; problems of scale)


More accessible individuals with interpersonal skills

It’s a reasonable list, and probably one with which few people would argue – I would add ownership structure and political influence but I’m being nitpicky.  Those representing the majors (though perhaps not all) would most likely suggest that these differences are superficial at best, and totally outdated at worst. Indeed, many of the individuals that I speak to about my PhD research question its major label focus on exactly these grounds.  I’d suggest the distinction is a murky one – but perhaps can be explained in the following terms.

1) There is no essential (or, to be technical, ontological) distinction between the two. 2) The differences outlined by the MA group are implicitly qualitative (differences in approach, attributes or ethics) but 3) these are only essentialised in as far as they reflect a deeper quantitative difference (in scale, available resources, or income).

That is to say: Companies grow either through investment in innovation or through acquisitions, or both, and it is one of the inherent contradictions of a capitalist economy that the profit-motive relies on competition but tends towards monopoly. Consequently, there is no reason to think that an independent label that managed to grow to a similar size wouldn’t carry itself in the same way as a major, if it wanted to succeed in the same market conditions. You will find as many passionate and accessible individuals at a major label as you will find hits-hungry artists signed to independents – and if you enjoy talking about ‘exploitation’, then you will find much to entertain you in a book like How Soon Is Now?This doesn’t answer the problem though.

The unpaid internship (like all invisible labour) is a phenomenon that does no one any favours and it is perfectly correct to continue to draw attention to it in this way. However, essentialising the problem in terms of a simple ‘indies good : majors bad’ narrative may help news outlets to pick up on your story – but, ultimately, scapegoating one or two companies misrepresents the field, demonstrates a poor understanding of the industry, and distracts attention away from broader socio-economic issues which it should be the government’s priority to address.



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