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The record market II. The failure of Barbra Streisand

At article In the preceding section, where the history of the recording industry was briefly described, its gradual and organic evolution was evidenced. Two determining elements have been the technologies and the commercial interests of those who had power over the production and reproduction of goods associated with cultural consumption. In other words, (and to no one's surprise) the market has guided the path of contemporary music development.

It is not surprising that in the Cuban context the "normal" ways of cultural consumption in the world have been turned away (it can also be interpreted that the "normal" ways have turned their back on Cuba; but it is a matter of perspective). In any case, it is prudent to put the normative in quotation marks, because at the end of the day reality (especially the current one) is constructed from stories and not entirely from data. The normal, too, is what is naturalized from the narrative and not necessarily what exists objectively.

A simple demonstration of this can be seen by looking at the following graph published at OpenMind BBVA:

What is observed illustrates the volume of record sales between 1973 and 2012. The author added a note explaining that "Digital" includes long duration and singlesVinyl", "Vinyl" the LP and EP formats, and no music DVDs are contemplated.

The trends described by the statistics of large corporations and associations within the music industry do not necessarily reflect the reality of the Cuban archipelago. So we are at the mercy of the experiential and experiential rather than the reliable knowledge of statistics, when talking about the recording market in Cuba. The available data are of little use to us.

As can be seen in the graph above, there was a drop in music sales; but that does not mean that people consumed less. They simply invented ways of not paying to enjoy music. A crack appeared that led to the leakage of part of the money generated by the record market. 

The music consumption industry paid through the Internet is still not widely, legally and openly available in Cuba in 2023, although there is an attempt at business with the appearance of the platform Sandunga. The lateness of this is not random. It could be said that, in general, we are late in entering virtual life compared to other Caribbean countries. Let us take a look at some historical data. 

In 1999, the recorded music industry had been in continuous expansion for more than 25 years. It is estimated that in 1974 alone, 1 billion records were sold worldwide. By the end of the 20th century the figure had more than tripled annually. Therefore, it is understandable that the record companies would have no reason to suspect that a group of young, almost teenagers would unleash the noisy process that managed to break the functioning of the entire sector up to that moment. 

In 1996, Cuba was officially connected to the international Internet network. It was not until 2012 that satellite connection was achieved and the number of users began to grow significantly. According to the World Bank, until that year, 21.2% of the national population was an Internet user and by 2017 we reached 57.1%, which indicates that in the five-year period 2012-2017 the number of people who joined the use of the service exceeded by 35.9 percentage points the total number of users in the period 1996-2012.

To talk about current affairs, it's time to go back to the 2000s; to Napster, the most popular free music platform at the beginning of the decade. The logo of the cat with headphones is an image that many will recognize, even if they have never used its services. It was launched as a beta version in 1999 by Shawn Fanning -who before his 20th birthday had already contributed to revolutionize what was understood as a music distribution network- as the main actor. 

A student at Northeastern University in Boston, USA, at the time, Fanning programmed and launched a novel file-sharing service under the name Napster, which approved and facilitated users to download and exchange music without any compensation to rights owners. 

Today their successors are Spotify, SoundCloud, Deezer and other less popular ones. It is not unusual that in Cuba some essences of these P2P (peer-to-peer communication) models persist, such as the use of Telegram to distribute music among users from their bots to the channels of independent artists. Meanwhile, at the institutional level, in this same country (Sandunga), they have opted for a distribution model more similar to that of the industry.Shawn Fanning did not take long to be sued by the music industry (Metallica starred in one of the most mediatic lawsuits against the platform) and forced to discontinue the service. What happened next could be coined the Napster effect; but Barbara Streisand had another way of telling the story.

During the early 2000s, the American singer had photographs of the facade of her house, which had been posted on the Internet, removed. After all the legal fuss, Streisand succeeded, but the case had become such a media story that the photographs had already gone viral. The same happened with "pirated" music. on-line. Napster was followed by increasingly sophisticated platforms that came to replace it. Certainly, the methods used by the most powerful players in the traditional music industry to stop the growing impact of these so-called piracy services - Napster, Kazaa, LimeWire, Grokster, DC++ and The Pirate Bay - were not what one would call successful. Aggressive legal and technical deterrence and attack strategies were used against them and their users, which, in general, proved futile.

This was called "the Streisand effect", which explains why actions to stop free and massive access to music ended up turning it into a massive and unstoppable necessity. When a file-sharing service was taken to court, others appeared to take its place. As we discussed in the previous article in this series, physical music sales experienced precipitous drops that brought the figures back to those of the early 1970s (in terms of copies sold).

Free access platforms were uncomfortable for those who made their living from music rights and distribution. So they had to bring into legal and monetizable territory what a mass of consumers were already doing. Faced with the challenge of how to exploit music sharing and distribution platforms while still making money, even if users did not pay, several alternatives appeared.

The iTunes Music Store emerged in 2003 under the Apple brand and leveraged Apple's credibility to convince some of the major retailers to establish an online store for songs. However, the initial model lacked options convenient enough for most Internet users: they had to access it from Apple-produced devices and, although it was possible to buy just one song instead of the whole album, users still had to pay. 

Today, the idea that when you don't pay for a service, the product is yourself is very popular. This is the principle that makes social networks so profitable and that some clever people decided to exploit with music distribution. This is how the business model based on promotion and streaming that Spotify exploits.

Although it was founded in 2006, it was not until 2008 that it gained strength as a result of commercial agreements with the main figures in the reproduction rights and licensing scene. Since then, things have become more complex with the appearance of new subjects and intermediaries (but that is another story).

In Cuba, meanwhile, we are on a different track. Our equivalent to Napster were the stands selling and/or renting records and cassettes, at first spontaneous and then endorsed by an authorized self-employment activity, which officials of the Ministry of Labor and Social Security interpreted in a broad sense. Few nationals bought records in the country's "official" stores. However, urban music, digital native, escaped from the usual practices and, in general, from the "established and correct" in terms of distribution of its products, spurred by the attempts of the Ministry of Culture to curb its massification. The more it was criticized, the more strength it acquired -the Streisand effect- and the distribution channels, due to their informal nature, were mostly beyond the reach of statistics. The music spread uncontrollably throughout the archipelago. 

Cuba and its "record market" will remain a mystery for some time to come. What we know for sure is little. Here, since the early 2000s, music was available in the streets, from person to person, from cassette to cassette, from USB to USB. The changes in the context brought the emergence of the weekly packageThe Internet as a direct way to get and consume music (also with traps, such as VPNs) has gained space more recently.

In principle, although it may not seem so, even here profitability has been shaping the ways of generating consumption. In other words -and to no one's surprise-, access to technology and the market have guided the path of music development, also in Cuba.

Avatar photo Edu O'Bourke Professor and Researcher in Social Sciences. Psychologist and singer-songwriter. More posts

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