A question came to me the other night. Having read an article in the Guardian about the high street pharmacy Boots turning into a corporate retail monster, I sat listening to Going for the One by Yes, one of the first albums ever lent to me by a schoolfriend.
As Jon Anderson warbled over Chris Squires’ squirming bass lines two issues coalesced. Corporate greed and recording albums. You see, back in the day, when I put an album onto a C30 cassette (which in the case of Going for the One, meant losing about ten minutes of Awaken), record labels were run by music enthusiasts. They were business men, don’t get me wrong, but they knew about blank tapes and how they were used.
These days, record labels want us to pay for a line of code and then pay again if you want that line of code to play on more than one device. And woe betide anyone caught making a copy, even for personal use. At the height of tape recording some of the richest and most well known people in the world worked in the music industry. The taping did little to turn these people into paupers.
The question that came to me was: when did it change? When did corporations turn from energetic businesses into greedy near-criminal enterprises?
Let’s ask a basic question. What are corporations for? They specialise in large scale international operations. Think car manufacturing, mobile phone communications, oil production, banking, retail. They have two things in mind: growth and remuneration. It’s the latter two conditions that lead to a business swelling into a corporation. They multiply, consume localised businesses and competitors, inevitably they develop a certain immunity to law and justice.
But goods and services don’t need the kind of scale of operation we see with the likes of Volkswagen or Vodaphone or Barclays. Cars were once built by small companies, a communications network can be facilitated by government say, and then leased to smaller companies, Germany has regional and local banks. (Just like the old British pattern of building societies.)
Like any large herbivore, there is a constant need to keep eating, however corporations are not herbivores, they’re more like carnivores, but they weren’t always like this. Did the rot set in with the deregulation of the 1980s? An ever-evolving round of consolidations of companies buying up smaller companies, swelling like snowballs until, in the music industry, there were only three major labels left: Sony Music Entertinment, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group. And even they are now entangled with other media conglomerates like LiveNation so that the whole musical ecosystem becomes controlled by fewer and fewer companies.
Economists prepared to stick their necks out will tell you that unlimited economic growth is unsustainable, impossible. But the pressures to do so filter through the supply chain from middle management to the customer. Even shareholders are ignored. BP shareholders rejected a £14 million bonus for their Chief Executive Bob Dudley, but it made no difference; the vote was only advisory, not binding. The CEO had already been paid anyway.
This post isn’t a rant about corporate crime and bad behaviour, there are plenty of posts and articles and documentaries on the subject. It’s simply a question: how did it come to this and can we trace the origin of the change?
With the revelations from the Mossack Fonseca leak politicians appear to be reacting; how effective these reactions are we’ll have to wait and see, but I don’t see how we can change this culture without knowing when and how it started. Consumers can’t change their habits in a world of diminishing choice and there are so many of us, corporations can afford to piss us off, and rip us off, and exploit us if we work for them, and ignore us if we invest in them. . . .
Do you have the answer? If so do tell.