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20 years of CMU: the 20 stories that kept us all THRILLED

By | Published on Friday 18 May 2018

Colored birthday candles on a strawberry shortcake

Ladies and gentlemen – CMU is now officially 20 years old! We began reporting on music, music people and the music business on 18 May 1998.

With that in mind we have picked the 20 biggest stories that CMU has covered in that time and will be discussing each of them in turn on 20 special editions of our Setlist podcast over the next twelve months, starting on 21 May. Read more about those 20 stories here.

CMU launched in summer 1998, a year before a P2P file-sharing network called Napster went live. Of all the innovations that shaped the industry CMU would be reporting on in the two decades ahead, this was possibly the most significant.

Of course there were plenty of other file-sharing programmes via which consumers could access and share music online without licence, but Napster became the first big P2P brand name. By the time the CMU Daily launched in 2002, the original Napster had already been sued out of business, but the brand lived on as a download platform and now a streaming service.

That said, it’s the original file-sharing software that most people still think of when hearing the Napster name. And the precedent-setting litigation that forced that original Napster into bankruptcy still has an influence over the record industry’s ongoing battle with online piracy to this day.

While there were legitimate digital music services in the early days too – who remembers Vitaminic, Peoplesound, iCrunch and mycokemusic? – most of the headlines in the early days of downloading were focused on Napster et al. Apple’s iTunes Store changed all that.

Keen to help owners of its iPod music player legally access music that could be played on the device, Apple kickstarted the legitimate download market when it put its digital music store live in 2003. It arrived in the UK the following year.

Apple then pretty much dominated the download market until it peaked a decade later. And hey, the iTunes Store is still going, despite the now monthly rumours that the tech giant is about to bail on downloads in favour of its streaming service Apple Music.

While Apple kickstarted the legitimate download market with the iTunes Store in 2003, the early days of digital music were dogged by the major record companies’ love affair with ‘digital rights management’, technology that in theory allowed labels to control what happened to digital tracks once they’d been sold.

What DRM really meant was that no legal download service could sell major label music in the most popular digital format: the DRM-free MP3. A fact that made the MP3-filled file-sharing networks even more attractive.

Eventually the majors gave way and the digital music market became delightfully DRM free. Until the streaming services employed pretty much the same technology to power their offline listening functionality. But this time the DRM helped rather than hindered the consumer experience, so no one cared.

By the late 2000s we were well and truly in the download boom, with iTunes income helping slow down the record industry’s ongoing decline, almost to a halt in fact. But how were the labels sharing that download revenue with their artists? In the main, like it was CD income.

But that didn’t seem fair to most artists, who pointed out that the labels’ upfront costs and risks were lower now music was being distributed digitally. The lawyers, meanwhile, started to question whether the labels were correctly applying royalty clauses in old artist contracts that didn’t specifically mention digital.

When the artists and the lawyers got together, litigation followed, mainly in the US, where a lawsuit pursued by early Eminem collaborators the Bass Brothers set the agenda.

The outcome of that legal battle suggested artists on old record contracts should be seeing a greater share of download revenue than CD income, though in most cases that only equated to a few percent more. But new litigation citing the Bass Brothers’ legal battle with Universal Music continues to be filed.

While the legitimate download market was busy evolving, so was the world of online piracy.

By the mid-2000s, the record industry was busy trying to sue all the key file-sharing services out of business, citing its success in the Napster litigation, and the subsequent Grokster legal battle. But technological developments in the piracy domain often meant that by the time any one file-sharing service had been sued into oblivion, all the file-sharers had switched to another platform anyway.

Perhaps the biggest development was the emergence of BitTorrent file-sharing, which overcame a common problem with P2P that most domestic internet connections had a much slower upload than download speed. Of all the sites set up to facilitate BitTorrent file-sharing, The Pirate Bay has to be the most famous, even if KickassTorrents was more popular for a time.

For starters, the original operators of The Pirate Bay seemed to go out of their way to annoy the music industry in their public statements. At one point they even suggested they might buy their own ‘country’ (in fact a former naval platform in the North Sea) so to sit outside the jurisdiction of any copyright enforcing courts. Though those original operators were less jovial when they later served jail time in relation to their involvement in the Bay.

But the file-sharing platform survived the conviction of its founders, and countless other lost lawsuits, and somehow continues to operate to this day. Though, as the legit digital market shifts to streams, download-based file-sharing becomes less attractive to consumers, especially for music. Which means it may be the market, rather than the courts, that ultimately sinks The Pirate Bay.

As music consumption changed in response to the rise of the web, so did music marketing, and no more so than with the emergence of social media. Of all the social networks, the first to have a major impact on music was surely MySpace, which originally launched the same year as the iTunes Store.

When the MySpace platform started to gain momentum artists began to embrace the social network as their main route to fans. It felt like pretty much every artist dumped the official websites their labels had spent a fortune building and instead started directing fans to their MySpace profiles.

The people behind the service quickly spotted this trend and capitalised on it, offering extra functionality to artists. Which saw said artists starting to offer more music for their fans to stream on their MySpace pages, a trend that posed a number of licensing challenges. The social media firm – by now part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire – decided to tackle all that by launching its own digital music service. And so MySpace Music was born.

But by that time all the cool kids were jumping ship to a rapidly expanding Facebook, which – unlike MySpace – actually worked most of the time. Facebook was much slower to provide extra tools for artists looking to connect with their fans on the platform, and has only now got round to doing licensing deals with the music industry. But when it comes to social media, artists follow the fans, not the other way round. And so began the journey from MySpace to Facebook to SnapChat via Tumblr and Instagram.

MySpace was left well behind, meaning that even a Justin Timberlake-led revamp that put music at the heart of the experience attracted very few fans, and therefore very few artists.

In amongst all this digital frenzy emerged a nice little video-sharing platform called YouTube. Is it a file-sharing network? Is it social media? Is it a streaming service? Is it a TV station? Is it a marketing channel? Well, really, it’s all those things, which is why the music industry can never quite make its mind up about YouTube.

What is true is that the record companies quickly noticed, when YouTube first went live in 2005, that this website for ‘user-generated content’ seemed to host an awful lot of music videos. So, more user-nicked content. And even the actual UGC was soundtracked by other people’s music without permission. The video site’s owners, already being courted by Google, responded by entering into speedy deals with some key music companies. Though not all music companies by any means.

That said, while it still had its critics in the music community, artists and labels quickly embraced YouTube as a marketing platform. No longer were said artists and labels reliant on the programmers at MTV et al to get their expensively produced promotional music videos in front of consumers.

Meanwhile YouTube became a useful extra revenue stream for a music industry still dealing with slumping CD sales, with the video site sharing ad income with labels and publishers, on both official videos and UGC. Which meant for a time the labels could use YouTube as a promotional channel to drive sales on the iTunes Store, while earning a little ad income on the side. Win win.

But then download sales peaked and the streaming market emerged as the real future of digital music. Which posed the question, what were the labels actually promoting when they put videos on YouTube?

If fans weren’t going to buy a download and instead would simply stream the track, why not just stream it again on YouTube for free, rather than paying to sign up to Spotify? But – the labels noted – the royalties paid by Spotify were way better than the share of ad income paid by YouTube.

And so began the music industry’s long drawn out YouTube battle. There were tedious copyright law reasons why the music companies couldn’t just force all the music off the now Google-owned platform. But YouTube – now competing with the more lucrative audio streaming services – wouldn’t agree to the music industry’s demands for more cash. So, mused the music industry, could copyright law be rewritten?

Maybe. Though that rewriting is taking a very long time, the main rewrite currently occurring in the European Union. Even if – via its high profile ‘value gap’ campaign – the music industry gets the rewrites it wants, will that really make any difference?

YouTube, meanwhile, is telling its music industry critics that it is going to launch its own subscription streaming service and once that’s happened everything will be just fine, without any need to enforce rewritten copyright rules.

We’ll see, I guess.

08: Phil Spector | LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
CMU is perhaps at its happiest when in the pop courts covering petty squabbles within the music community and the misdemeanors of pop stars and music makers. Though there was nothing fun about one of the biggest pop court cases we’ve ever covered: the murder trial of legendary record producer Phil Spector.

On 3 Feb 2003 emergency services were called to the Californian home of the famously reclusive Spector, where a woman called Lana Clarkson had just died. She had met the producer at the House Of Blues club in LA and then accompanied him back to his home. She died from a single gunshot wound to her mouth.

Spector insisted that the gunshot was self-inflicted, and that Clarkson’s death had been an accidental suicide. But shortly after her death Spector was heard to say “I think I’ve killed someone”. He was subsequently charged with murder and – at a high profile televised trial in 2007 – prosecutors called a number of other women to testify who all recalled times when, alone in Spector’s company, he had pulled a gun on them.

At the conclusion of that televised court hearing the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. That outcome required a second trial, at which Spector was found guilty of murder. In 2009 the producer was sentenced to nineteen years to life in prison, with various subsequent attempts to appeal the verdict proving unsuccessful.

Back on the business side of music, another of the biggest stories CMU ever covered was the slow demise of the British major music company, EMI. The final chapter in EMI’s history began in 2007 – in the midst of the record industry’s decade of decline – when the music firm was acquired by private equity outfit Terra Firma. Not that they knew they were kickstarting the final chapter at the time.

Terra Firma’s EMI buy was eventful and, at times, controversial. The new owners wanted to very quickly downsize and reinvent the music company. Given the state of the wider record industry in 2007, that wasn’t too bad a proposal, though the way they went about it, and the speed with which cuts were made, proved counter-productive.

They lost key execs, fell out with key artists, and the rumour mill was filled with stories about Team Terra Firma being totally clueless about the business they’d just bought themselves into.

That said, while Terra Firma’s acquisition caused chaos at EMI HQ, the company did evolve and some decent innovations occurred, many of which have since been replicated elsewhere in the industry. And it wasn’t the chaos that followed the Terra Firma deal that caused the death of EMI, it was the nature of the deal itself.

Because Terra Firma’s EMI acquisition was debt-laden, with one lender – Citigroup – providing much of the finance. The plan, presumably, was to sell those debts on, and slice them all up, so to buy EMI the time it needed to recover and grow, and ultimately pay those debts off.

But then the credit crunch happened, scuppering those plans. And then Terra Firma fell out with Citigroup. EMI couldn’t service its debts, Terra Firma couldn’t afford to plough in more money to fill the hole, and so – in 2011 – Citigroup took control of the EMI business and put it up for sale.

Had Citigroup found a single buyer for the entire EMI business, the company might have lived on and – now revamped and with its debt liabilities greatly reduced – would have been well-equipped to capitalise on the incoming streaming boom.

But no single buyer could be found, so Citigroup split the company up, selling the EMI record company to Universal and the EMI music publishing business to a consortium led by Sony, which basically – in terms of day-to-day operations – merged the firm with Sony/ATV.

Needless to say, one major music company being sliced up and sold off to two other major music companies led to competition law complaints by the indies. Though ultimately the deals went through, albeit with Universal being forced to sell on some EMI assets in Europe, principally the Parlophone label in the UK.

The EMI brand does live on, in the name of Universal’s Virgin EMI label for example. Meanwhile, all eyes are currently on dealings between Sony’s partners in EMI Music Publishing, which seem keen to sell on their respective shares. It’s most likely that Sony will buy them out, but some have speculated that the outcome of all that could be the EMI songs catalogue being acquired by another party, making the EMI publishing company a separate entity once again. That seems unlikely, but who knows? Maybe this wasn’t the last chapter in the EMI story after all.

We are currently running through the 20 biggest stories reported on by CMU. But this is probably the biggest of them all. And it seems unlikely we’ll ever have another story to cover quite as multi-layered and high profile as this one.

In March 2009 the king of pop himself – Michael Jackson – announced his much anticipated comeback in the form of a lengthy residency at London venue The O2, a major partnership with live music giant AEG under the brand ‘This Is It’.

Some questioned whether Jackson was physically fit enough to perform what quickly became a 50 night residency. Although given the numerous reports that had circulated in preceding years about the star’s finances, such a big commitment made commercial sense.

And there was undoubtedly high demand for tickets to the shows. Despite the various controversies that had dogged the pop star over the years; most notably the child abuse trial we’d covered in-depth in 2005, which had undeniably further tarnished Jackson’s reputation, despite his acquittal.

But, of course, the comeback and the ‘This Is It’ extravaganza was not to be. On 25 Jun 2009 Jackson went into cardiac arrest and died. It transpired that his death had occurred after Jackson’s personal medic – a Dr Conrad Murray – had administered the surgical anaesthetic Propofol in order to help his patient sleep. For a drug of this kind to be administered in a domestic setting to aid sleep was highly unusual, resulting in Murray being investigated over allegations of negligence.

This meant that the death of Michael Jackson led to two major court cases. First the criminal case against Murray, which resulted in his conviction for involuntary manslaughter in November 2011. And then an explosive civil case in which the Jackson family attempted to hold AEG liable for the star’s death because it hired Murray. AEG insisted that it was Jackson who had hired the doctor, even if it had paid his bills, and the live firm ultimately defeated the claim for damages made against it in 2013.

Add in the all-star memorial service, the ‘This Is It’ movie, the subsequent business dealings of the Jackson estate, a plethora of posthumous lawsuits, and the various ventures celebrating the king of pop’s legacy, and you have probably the biggest story CMU will ever cover.

But what about the live sector? ie the side of the music industry that boomed in the 2000s as the record industry saw its revenues go into freefall. Well, if we had to find a live industry story that we’ve been covering throughout CMU’s history, that would be the unstoppable growth and many multifarious acquisitions of Live Nation.

When CMU launched in 1998 the company that would become Live Nation was known as SFX, the live music business of Robert FX Sillerman, who would later turn up the CMU Daily via the second live music company he created using that name. That being the dance music centric SFX that had a lively slide into bankruptcy.

But long before the EDM boom, Sillerman was busy building his original live music company by buying up regional concert promoters, first in the US, then in Europe too, and merging them into one live music powerhouse. In 2000 he sold the company to American radio giant Clear Channel, which subsequently spun it all off as a standalone business in 2005, which is when the name Live Nation was adopted.

Throughout all this the acquisitions continued, with festivals, venues, merch outfits and artist management companies also among its purchases along the way. Though by far the biggest deal was surely the merger of Live Nation with ticketing giant Ticketmaster in 2010, a deal which remains controversial in some quarters to this day.

Officially trading as Live Nation Entertainment since that merger, the business continues to acquire companies around the world, with a number of key buys in the UK in recent years, plus big deals that have allowed the firm to push into new international markets. Add in the big Jay-Z joint venture known as Roc Nation, and it’s rare that a month goes buy without at least one big Live Nation deal to report on.

Grooveshark was an interesting one. An early player as on-demand streaming started to gain momentum in the late 2000s, our coverage of Grooveshark went from it being a streaming start-up with an alternative approach; to it being one of the record industry’s top piracy gripes; to it being on the receiving end of litigation impacted by the copyright safe harbour that has become such a big talking point in subsequent years.

Grooveshark let its users upload their record collections into the ‘cloud’ and then built a streaming service out of all of that music. So sort of an audio version of YouTube. Though it was never seen by the labels as a major marketing platform like the video site, meaning the music industry was more adamant on Grooveshark signing up to deals like the other on-demand streaming services. Some deals were done with some labels and publishers, but plenty of unlicensed music remained on the start-up’s platform.

When the owners of that music complained, Grooveshark stressed it was a user-upload service, that it had a system in place via which rights owners could request unlicensed music be removed, and therefore it had so called safe harbour protection: so the labels and publishers couldn’t sue. The music industry felt that to be something of an abuse of the safe harbour system, though didn’t want to test that argument in court, and therefore sought technicalities under which it could launch legal action.

In the end those technicality-filled legal wranglings worked and the once bullish Grooveshark ultimately issued a wide-ranging apology and shut its platform down, bringing this particular story to an abrupt halt. Though the music industry possibly missed a trick. Grooveshark’s users had digitised lots of old tracks that have never been uploaded by the labels to the legitimate streaming services. Maybe rather than insisting that Grooveshark switch off its servers with immediate effect, the record industry should have instead demanded that its content be shared with all the other streaming platforms first.

13. Amy Winehouse | LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
CMU has always covered music and music people as well as the music business. Which usually means reporting on the big releases and tours, the collaborations, the splits, the reunions, and all the great music that gets pushed online each day. And, sometimes, the eventful adventures famous artists have along the way.

We initially covered Amy Winehouse’s career because of the magnificent music, but as time went by more column inches were dedicated to her life story than her releases. Of course, with hindsight, we know the tragic end to that life story, which inevitably makes you revaluate many of the events that generated the headlines in the preceding years.

We interviewed Winehouse after picking ‘Back To Black’ as one of our albums of the year in 2006. It was a suitably chaotic yet charming conversation. That chaos and charm was what made Winehouse such a great artist and performer, and made her premature death in 2011 all the sadder.

It’s been interesting to see in more recent years a much more frank conversation about addiction and mental health in the music community, and the need for the industry to better support its artists as fame takes its toll.

While there are various factors behind that trend, it does feel like the tragedy of Winehouse’s life being cut so short – and the retelling of her story through the 2015 documentary ‘Amy’ – contributed to that new conversation. There is still much more to be done, of course, but that conversation moves forward, and we hope that in the future music stars who are likewise struggling to cope will get the help that they need.

Somewhere between the fad for P2P and the fad for stream-ripping, the top piracy preference of the moment was the sharing of unlicensed music and movie files via otherwise legitimate digital lockers. Links to content stored on these platforms were shared on message boards and social media.

The music industry moaned about the inaction of many of the digital lockers to stop this from happening, though one digital locker was criticised more than most, that being “MegaUpload, Mega Mega Upload, Send me a file, for free!”

So much so, shortly after the release of a pop-star filled promotional video for the controversial file-storage company, and under pressure from Hollywood and the record industry, the US authorities swooped. They forced the whole MegaUpload platform offline, and arrested its most senior execs, including larger than life founder Kim Dotcom, by that point a resident of New Zealand.

This all happened in 2012, yet in 2018 efforts by the US authorities to extradite Dotcom to face copyright crime charges in an American court are somehow still ongoing. With the MegaUpload man still employing every legal technicality in the book while accusing the governments of America and New Zealand of all round unfair play. Though if the case ever does get to court, Dotcom will claim his service had safe harbour protection, putting this controversial element of US copyright law very much to the test.

It wasn’t just the record companies who suffered from the slump in CD sales in the 2000s, of course. The music retailers, already facing new competition from the cost-cutting supermarkets and mail-order websites, had a very challenging decade indeed, especially as few seemed able to capitalise on the opportunities thrown up by digital. As a result we saw hundreds of independent record sellers, plus music retail chains large and small, going out of business.

For a while HMV was, in some ways, a beneficiary of this trend, as many of its competitors disappeared from the high street. But it too was facing an uncertain future, its own digital ventures having never got off the ground. By the late 2000s we saw HMV diversify its operations in other ways in a bid to future proof the business. There was a move into live music and venue ownership, and a greater range of products were introduced instore, beyond CDs, DVDs and video games.

But that diversification proved expensive and – with its core business selling entertaining discs still on the slide – it struggled to service its debts. After months of speculation that collapse was imminent, in early 2013 the big British record seller entered administration. For a time it looked like HMV might disappear from the high street entirely, but a bid to buy the business by a company called Hilco allowed an albeit significantly streamlined chain of shops to remain. Though we still wonder for how long.

16. Justin Bieber | LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
Ah, the Bieber. At various points in CMU’s history there seems to have been one artist who went out of their way to fill the Daily with a regular round of escapades, and for a few years that artist was Justin Bieber.

We first reported on the pop teen when his fans were causing chaos at the US shopping malls where he was doing short promo spots. It seemed clear this guy – pretty much still unknown in the UK at that point – was a pop phenomenon in the making, but we didn’t know quite how eventful his story would become.

Of course in more recent years Bieber seems to have calmed down a bit, meaning we run more reports on new records than run ins with the law. Though for Team CMU, the classic period of Bieber history will always be those few months in 2010 when he kept walking into glass doors.

If iTunes dominated the digital music conversation in the 2000s, Spotify has surely taken over that role in the 2010s. It’s the streaming boom that has taken the record industry back into growth and – while Apple’s rival service is catching up – to date Spotify has been the undisputed leader in paid-for streaming.

Indeed, so successful has Spotify become, it usually takes all the heat whenever artists, songwriters or other music people decide they have problems with the streaming business in general. A status that has resulted in mega-bucks litigation in the US, mainly over the mess that is so called mechanical rights Stateside.

Of course, while Spotify is the big success story in the streaming music domain, it’s yet to make any profit. Now listed on the New York Stock Exchange, there will be even more scrutiny on whether its business model can actually work long-term.

Let’s hope so, given the record industry is increasingly reliant on Spotify and a small number of its rivals, all of which are based on that very business model. The hope is that it will all work at scale. Quite how much scale Spotify et al need to go into profit very much remains to be seen.

18. Web Blocking | LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
The music industry’s battle against online piracy has been a constant feature in CMU over the last 20 years, as we have already seen. There was the legal action against Napster, Grokster, Kazaa, LimeWire, The Pirate Bay, Kickass, YouTube-MP3 and the rest.

And who can forget all those counter-productive lawsuits against individual file-sharers, especially in the US? Looking for an easier way to go after those individual file-sharers, for a time the music industry was a big fan of so called ‘three-strikes’, a system whereby file-sharers would be sent increasingly stern letters from their internet service providers, with the ultimate threat of having their internet cut off if they continued to pirate music or movies.

Though in the end the piracy tactic that has been most prolifically pursued is web-blocking. This is where record and film companies get court orders that force ISPs to block their customers from accessing piracy websites. Whenever web-blocking is first introduced in any one country, the ISPs usually moan loudly, but once the web-block orders roll in they usually comply.

Web-blocking isn’t a perfect anti-piracy tactic, because it is usually quite easy to circumvent the blockades via a Google search. But rights owners reckon any barrier that makes piracy less user-friendly is a step in the right direction. And imagine if Google could be persuaded (forced?) to play its part in the web-block party!

Oh, let’s not forget secondary ticketing! How much have we written about secondary ticketing? Lots, that’s how much.

From the early days of tickets being touted on eBay, to the rise of the bespoke ticket resale sites, to everyone in the music and political community demanding something must be done, to nothing being done, to everyone in the music and political community demanding something must be done again, to something actually being done. Albeit light regulation to date.

Of all the secondary ticketing companies, Viagogo has garnered the most headlines, especially in recent years. In the early days Viagogo was always getting in touch with quotes on this or that development in the ticketing domain. But then, as the campaign against online touting gained new momentum a few years back, the entire company seemed to disappear into a bunker in Switzerland, never to speak again.

Today Viagogo is the secondary ticketing site that all the other secondary ticketing sites like to hide behind whenever the anti-tout brigade is out in force. Refusing to talk to the industry, or lawmakers, or journalists, or anyone really, Viagogo has kind of become the pantomime villain of the music industry.

It is finally now feeling the heat from various regulators around the world, in the main responding with its customary wall of silence. Will those regulators go all the way to force Viagogo into line? We’ll see. If so, you might find that the heyday of Viagogo is, well, “it’s behind you”.

And finally, the New Musical Express. CMU has always put the spotlight on media trends that impact on the music business, and especially the ups and downs of the music press, which has had to deal with its own challenges caused by the rise of all things digital. And without a Spotify-shaped saviour appearing on the horizon.

Pretty much all the music magazines have seen their print circulations slump over the last 20 years, though NME saw its sales decline faster than most. Various efforts to re-invent the title did nothing to stop that decline. Until the day in 2015 when the NME decided to go free, ensuring its print run was now at a record high. Though as a free title dished out at shops and tube stations it needed a more mainstream approach to appeal to the right kind of advertisers, making it a very different kind of magazine.

NME’s publishers hailed the shift to free as a big success, but seemingly not successful enough to last the distance. Hence the announcement earlier this year that NME would become an online-only title.

Actually NME had long spoken to more people online than in print, even once the print version was free. The challenge here, though, is the challenge every magazine owner now faces. Online it is easier to reach a much bigger audience, but it’s hard to persuade people to pay for your content, and it’s a real challenge to make any decent ad income with so much of the world’s internet advertising spend going to Google and Facebook.

Can the NME make online-only publishing profitable? Well, let’s all agree to regroup on CMU’s 25th birthday and see.

Tune in to the music business podcast from CMU to hear our discussions of each of these stories over the next year. Sign up at

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