In 2008, the view calculated that the four major international record companies had a collective global market share of 77.3%. Downsizing that a little, say to 75%, on the basis that as a ratio the majors release fewer titles than the independents and you might expect when you turn to the review pages of the national press that around three quarter of the  reviews would be of albums on the majors’ labels and a quarter on independent labels. You’d be very mistaken.

This weekend I tracked the reviews of non-classical albums in the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times and the Observer’s Music Monthly magazine. Here are the figures:

Major Independents
Daily Telegraph 1 6
Sunday Times 2 7
Observer MM 18 11
Total 21 24

This means that of the 45 albums reviewed, in total only 47% were released by the majors, a figure that falls to 37% if one omits the 18 albums given two sentence reviews by the Observer’s Music Monthly magazine.

Moreover, if you leave out “event” releases – the Robbie Williams’ album, a four CD Frank
Sinatra set, or the Norah Jones and Michael Jackson sets – the percentage falls even further.

The discrepancy between albums released and reviewed is partially understandable and yet at the same time puzzling. If you’re a young would-be gunslinger of a rock critic it’s highly unlikely you’ll be much interested in Barbra Streisand or Snow Patrol now – earlier they were cutting edge, or could be argued to be so, and so a reviewer could make his mark, pushing the band forward or stamping firmly on its hopes.

Always better to write about “the next big thing”, whether it is or not, than the fourth album by Starsailor. Similarly, outside the dedicated music press, national newspapers, seeking to develop and grow younger audiences, want “the new”, want to be the place where “the new” is regularly to be found. But about the “once new” —   a broad range, for example, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Eels, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Lionel Ritchie, Diana Krall ….

Of course some of them (Carpenter and Earle, for example) have been dropped by the majors. Why? Well one reason is that they don’t attract the attention of reviewers, so their
sales slip (and their contracts follow). Some, like Richard Thompson and Earle are happy in independent land. They like their freedom. But not everyone is that way constructed.

So two weeks ago Lyle Lovett, an artist who has had considerable critical success,  released Natural Forces,  his 13th album – 11 studio outings, one live album and two compilations, all for various UMG labels —   to a resounding silence in the UK’s mainstream press.

Or think about re-issues. We all praise Ace and its brother re-issue labels, even those who wait for the latest Bear Family mega compilation and then slice it up into a series of out of copyright cheapies.

The majors are best known for mainstream re-issues. Some of these have been enormously successful, such UMG’s Dreamboats and Petticoats series in the UK, which has virtually created a new market for re-issues.

Releases, like these are not reviewed rather they are written about in the press in the manner of event releases by the likes of Robbie Williams in articles about silver surfers and shopping patterns in supermarkets.

But, what of the likes of Davy Graham? A hugely important guitarist, operating on the fringes of jazz and folk in the UK in the 1960s, Decca’s two CD anthology has received little publicity. Over the years, like UMG, EMI, SME and WMG have put out similar groundbreaking e-issues to a mixed reception in terms of publicity.

In general, the exceptions noted above – and it’s early days yet for Davy Graham —  the re-issues of the majors get (almost) reasonable press coverage, but how many Lyle Lovetts are there on the majors’ rosters and how many will there be next year?

The cost-cutting practices of the majors will inevitably mean less.  But each act axed means sales of between 40,000 and 50,000 albums lost. Those lost sales add up. They might also add up for the national press, in terms of (new) readers who don’t read the dedicated music press but have a wider interest in music than Greatest Hits and Dreamboats .

How to reach them? Print a wider range of album reviews.


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1 Comment

  1. I’m curious how this short essay “defends” the major labels, and even more confused about what, exactly, you’re defending them from.
    In your massive search of single issues from three publications, I’m willing to bet most of the “independent” labels you found are imprints owned by majors. Even if they’re not a subsidiary, they’re probably paying for some sort of label services from a major, usually distribution or promotion.

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