Read “The New Distribution Oligopoly: Beat, iTunes and Digital Music Distribution” in Media Fields Journal‘s special issue on Digital Distribution.
Digital music distribution changed everything, and yet it changed nothing. Stoking the techno-utopian vision of the Internet in the late 1990s, Napster signaled the promise of a decentralized music distribution system that eclipsed the authoritarian stronghold of the major record labels’ distributors. People thought that by exchanging music as bits and bytes, the recording industry oligopoly would be overthrown as musicians gained the capacity to distribute music to fans directly, part of what Tom McCourt and Patrick Burkart term the “internet nirvana theory.” The Internet brought the possibility of a robust music commons where everyone has access to all music; a commons which could be used to create new culture. But the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was signed into law in 1998 restricting the free flow of digital information using Digital Rights Management (DRM) before Napster was even developed. Where major record labels always controlled distribution under physical media regimes, the DMCA, along with repressive surveillance of peer-2-peer (P2P) file sharing networks, has allowed the major labels to reestablish their dominance in the digital era.