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Monday, July 19, 2004
How would music be different if there was a league commissioner?

It's been said that professional sports leagues are the most socialist things in American life: profit sharing, regulated market expansion, strict trade laws, and mutually agreed-upon operating principles. Like music, they're a form of leisure activity which has been made into a profitable thing to ask people for money to experience, and both are now big businesses. The difference is that the vast majority of professional sports in this country are controlled by five or six organizations; indeed, if you're not working for an organization that is a member, you'll have a hard time making a case that you're actually a professional. Whereas with music, that line is much more finely drawn. There are tens of thousands of professional musicians that don't answer to the RIAA, or often even the FCC, whereas the vast majority of football players (and team owners) have to do what the NFL tells them to.

Sure, that means they're a monopoly (or close to one, anyway), but why use that dirty word when there's such a nicer one: leagues. With music, we have labels and companies and distributors; with sports we have teams and leagues and players. So much nicer!

Yes, it's a bit ridiculous: it's a lot harder for two teams to play against each other and to then compete in a league without semi-universal, mutually agreed-upon rules than for a band to play a show. But that's the one aspect that's not useful to consider. So think, for a second: what would it be like if music was a league?

The main thing to consider is that the reason sports have leagues is not to maximize profits. Well, OK, it sort of it, but it's a second-order thing: in order to maximize profits for everyone, that means they have to maximize competition, so in a free market system where one team had all the money and therefore all the best players, there would be no competition, which means there would be no entertainment value, which means there'd be a lot less revenue for everyone. It's a demonstrable fact[1] that in seasons where the races are tighter, there's more ticket sales, there's more TV viewers, there's more merch sales, etc. Competition is a large part of what makes sports interesting to watch, and a bunch of lopsided contests is bore-city. Oddly enough, a monopolistic superstructure[2] exists in order to make sure the market it regulates is productively competitive.

In music, this impetus does not exist; individual companies, having no need to serve the narrative of pop (if you will), can do things like cut off the nose to spite the face, or have such disproportionate resources that there's no need to develop a long-term strategy. If there was profit sharing and regulation of "trades," then this would not only limit the overall expenditures of individual labels--definitely a good thing since it would calm down the marketing/promo "arms race" that produces some of the biz's worst outrages--but it would ensure that labels had to foster some mid-level or even small-market talent; it would make a lot more smooth, in other words, the whole idea of a "farm system" that's incredibly crucial to artist development, whether the talent came from subsidiary labels or indies.

Of course, one of the reasons labels don't do this currently is because it's to their advantage to sign acts that a) don't know much about the business and b) negotiate from a position of almost total weakness so they accept terms that are sort of punitive of success. But if there was a league, that would make a non-studio musician's union[3] a viable propositon, because there would be a unitary entity to negotiate. The end of the reserve clause and advent of free agency in Major League Baseball (an absolutely fascinating thing, by the way, for the non-sports-fans out there) happened in part, I think, because there was something concrete to challenge. While a lot of contractual abuses are standardized in the record business, they're not really dictated from above or in collective bargaining agreements. If music was constituted as a league, a lot of the really ridiculous employment outrages in the biz right now--a label being able to shelve a record but not drop a band, or retain the rights to a band name and not allow the band to record under that name for another label, or to have absurdly long terms on new-artist contracts[4]--would, I think, have to disappear. You might even get pension plans or healthcare or uniform termination procedures, but let's not go nuts.

Finally, professional sports has done the neat trick of convincing people that they're good for the community, and as such they've been uniquely successful at getting goverment to contribute to their operating expenses, mainly by giving them land, subsidizing their facilities, building roads, and so forth. The actual economic benefit of these sorts of efforts is highly debatable, but for our purposes, this kicks ass, considering how amazingly unsuccessful Americans have been at getting public subsidies for the arts. Let's look at the Swedish system and how oddly productive that's been! Even better, we could get stronger subsidies for music education (at least as strong as the subsidies sports get!) as well as public support for struggling musicians so they could concentrate on their music, to say nothing of being able to helping out indie labels just barely staying above water.[5] We could harness some of that public goodwill (massive public rock concerts as a source of revenue, vital music scenes generating tourist dollars, rock/jazz/blues/hip-hop music as a uniquely American tradition) and turn it into cash, cash, cash!

Of course, there are also negative aspects to this model. Record labels are a lot cheaper to start than professional sports teams, and so the idea of regulating expansion would be very restrictive. You could also argue that since league offices currently regulate TV contracts, a music league might end up regulating all music licensing, which would suck, given the productive revenue/promotion source it's become.

But of course, it'll never happen. Still, there would be some nice things about it, wouldn't there?

[1] That I am too lazy to Google right now.
[2] Ah, I'm going to hell.
[3] AFTRA/AFM are very nice, but they haven't really adapted well to the new model, to say nothing of the fact that it's a pretty big burden on indie labels or small studios to deal with the regulations and fees that go with using AFM/AFTRA talent.
[4] Football has, I believe, a five- or seven-year term on new player contracts; a major label new-artist deal could last for 10 years if they were successful and reasonably productive, and how many bands have careers longer than 10 years?
[5] Unless they're Sub Pop. Those guys were just stupid.