The very first episode of South Park, broadcast in 1997, featured Eric Cartman having an alien probe stuck up his backside. Cartman would spend the entire episode denying its existence, yet he would frequently complain of farting fire whilst the alien probe occasionally made itself known to everyone but the boy himself.
Which broadly describes the position record executives at the three majors are in right now. The Competition and Markets Authority in the UK are thinking of rifling through their business to see whether they’re treating their artists as fairly as they say they are. They don’t like the prospect one little bit – even though they’d publicly have you believe otherwise.
The CMA has now launched what it calls a market study into streaming and the three majors. This is roughly the equivalent of doing a sweep around your house to see where you left your keys – and depending on who’s looking, they might find other things they didn’t plan to in the process.
But be in no doubt, the three men who run Sony, Warner and Universal – Rob Stringer, Stephen Cooper and Lucian Grainge – won’t welcome the prospect. The majors have always prided themselves on their secrecy, usually stretching the definition of “commercially confidential” to breaking point.
And if the regulator finds something it doesn’t like? Things move on to a full probe, much like forensics would carry out at the scene of a crime. Which is something they’ll like even less. But I can’t help but think that this probe into the majors – necessary as it is – only fixes part of the problem.
No one seems to have looked at the other culprits yet – and yes, I’m looking at you, Spotify boss Daniel Ek and all the other streaming platforms. When will their role in this devaluation of music be scrutinised?