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Revenues have been tumbling for the music industry. They fell from more than $14 billion in 1999 to $7 billion last year. EMI, one of the big four record labels, was taken over by venture capitalists, but they defaulted and Citigroup took over. Now, Universal Music Group wants to buy the recorded music division of EMI, but critics say if the two companies merge it will create a super label that will dominate the industry.
As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the proposed deal is drawing the scrutiny of regulators in the U.S. and Europe.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Here's just a taste of the recorded music a combined EMI and Universal could own.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEATLES SONG "HELLO GOODBYE")
PAUL MCCARTNEY: You say yes, I say no, you say stop, but I say go, go, go.
(SOUNDBITE BITE OF SONG "BORN THIS WAY")
LADY GAGA: I'm beautiful in my way, 'cause God makes no mistakes, I'm on the right track, baby, I was born this way.
(SOUNDBITE OF KANYE WEST SONG)
(SOUNDBITE OF COLDPLAY SONG)
SYDELL: That was the Beatles, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, and Coldplay, though that might change, if rumors are true, and Universal sells Coldplay's label Parlophone, in a bid to gain approval of the proposed purchase. It has already offered to sell off some of its smaller labels but the combined EMI-Universal would still control close to 40 percent of the international recorded music market. David Balto, an antitrust attorney who consults for Universal, doesn't think that's a problem. He believes no single record label can dominate the current market when artists can reach their fans directly through a variety of online distributors, from Bandcamp to CD Baby to iTunes and Spotify.
DAVID BALTO: The record labels are no longer the kinds of gatekeepers they were a decade ago and that's because the Internet has led to a dynamic explosion of competitive alternatives here. And it's those competitive alternatives that really control the market.
SYDELL: That sounds like it makes sense, but Gigi Sohn, president of the consumer rights group Public Knowledge, says it's just not true.
GIGI SOHN: The fact of the matter is, if you look at the Billboard Top 100 for 2011, every single one of that one hundred is a musician that has a contract with a major label.
SYDELL: Either directly or they have contracts with the major labels to distribute their music. On top of that, the majors control radio play, and they've played hardball in negotiations with streaming services to license their music. So, Sohn says, a combined EMI-Universal would have the power to quash any new services in the growing online market. Universal declined to comment for the story, but at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing, Lucian Grainge, the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, told lawmakers it wouldn't make any sense for his company to get in the way of any new service that could make Universal money.
LUCIAN GRAINGE: It is in our complete interests to create as many opportunities for the music that we create, so that consumers can buy it.
SYDELL: And Grainge pointed to one artist who's made it without a big label.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "ROLLING IN THE DEEP")
ADELE: There's a fire starting in my heart, reaching a fever pitch, it's bringing me out the dark.
SYDELL: Adele is signed to the small British label XL, which is part of the Beggars Group, a collection of independent labels. Martin Mills is its founder and CEO. He says, nice try, Mr. Grainge, but Adele is a bad example.
MARTIN MILLS: I think an artist like Adele is such a phenomena that she would have been hugely successful under any circumstances. But bear in mind, in America we release her records through Sony. So we release her records in partnership with a major, which we felt we needed to do to access the market properly.
SYDELL: Mills opposes Universal's possible purchase of EMI. He fears the combined company will try and push out independents like Beggars Group. He believes Universal is trying to maintain the dominance it had in the old world, where he says 90 percent of the artists that get played on terrestrial radio are signed to major labels. Now, he says, the majors are trying to keep competitors off of new digital services.
MILLS: We as independents are always fighting to be represented on services and to get reasonable terms in comparison to what the majors get.
SYDELL: A case in point is eMusic. Mills says Beggars had to pull out of the download service after the majors made a deal that changed the terms of the contract. Beggars Group won't discuss the details, but he says the new terms were impossible to accept. And there are other cases like this says consumer advocate Gigi Sohn.
SOHN: Actually, the history of cool new music services that didn't get off the ground, or were litigated out of existence, is much longer than the two or three that you can name that exist today.
SYDELL: Sohn points to Deezer - a streaming music service that's similar to Spotify. If you've never heard of it, that's because it's only in Europe. Deezer hasn't been able to reach a licensing agreement with Universal so that the streaming service can launch in the U.S. market. Universal has also sued Deezer in France to get higher fees. That kind of behavior could work against Universal's attempt to acquire EMI music, says Eleanor Fox, an expert on antitrust law in the U.S. and Europe.
ELEANOR FOX: If they can use market power to keep out new independent challengers - and they have used it in the past and they will get more power to do that - that's very damning of a merger.
SYDELL: The deal between Universal and EMI has gotten the green light from regulators in Japan and New Zealand. But officials in Europe have demanded significant concessions that would reduce Universal's market share and could affect the value of the final deal. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission is still evaluating the proposed purchase. But, says Fox, it usually follows European regulators. A decision is expected by the end of the summer.
Laura Sydell, NPR News.