My first music purchases were records. Mostly, I bought 45 RPM singles. But when I could afford them, I splurged on 33 RPM albums. The money from my newspaper delivery job didn’t go far, which meant that I listened to the same songs again and again. Pick a Midnight Oil song from the 1980s, and it’s a fair bet that I know every word.
A generation later, my three sons listen to music through Spotify. They have access to virtually everything ever recorded, and jump happily through artists and genres. My boys literally have access to a million times as much music as I did.
Something else has changed. When I was buying vinyl, there were plenty of indie record labels. Today, Spotify dominates the streaming market. As a result, musicians and songwriters are feeling the squeeze. Cellist Zoë Keating estimates that Spotify pays her just one-third of a cent per play. For most artists, streaming doesn’t pay the bills.
The rise of technology megafirms has led to a lot of discussion about algorithms and artificial intelligence. But in their new book, Choke Point Capitalism, Rebecca Giblin and Cory Doctorow argue that the fundamental challenge with big tech isn’t ‘techness’, but ‘bigness’. Amazon dominates e-books. YouTube dominates video. Apple and Google dominate mobile. Google and Facebook dominate access to news.
Recent decades have seen a decline in economic dynamism. The largest firms have a bigger share of the market, while the new business startup rate has declined. Workers are less likely to switch jobs (and get the wage gains that follow). The gap between costs and prices – known as markups – has risen.
Since coming to office last May, we’ve begun to tackle many of the competition challenges. The Australian Government has raised the penalty for anti-competitive conduct, and banned unfair contract terms. Following on from a major report from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission into digital platform services, we’re now consulting on their proposed reforms, including platform-specific regulations and a ban on unfair trading practices.
But as the market changes, it’s important we keep an eye on emerging monopolies, and the ways they can tend to squeeze the economy. Innovation isn’t just exciting – it’s a driving force of productivity growth and higher living standards. If you’re a culture vulture, then there’s never been a better time to consume music, podcasts and e-books from around the world. The trick is to ensure that modern monopolies don’t choke off capitalism. With the right competition rules, we can have a fairer society and a more dynamic economy. That should be music to all our ears.