View from City Road: Music industry likes MMC's tune

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The Independent Online
Those hoping that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would ride roughshod over the music industry as it did with beer and gas will be sadly disappointed. There is nothing in the least radical suggested in its report on the 'supply of music', due to be published today - the outcome of a year-long investigation into whether the music industry is ripping us all off with expensive CDs.

The MMC finds evidence of a scale monopoly but takes the view that this does not act against the public interest. If anything, it is a benefit, the MMC seems to believe, since CDs are cheaper here than on the Continent (though not the US), and in any case the music industry is a great British success story that should be encouraged and nurtured.

There is a sideswipe at WH Smith, which is judged to be a monopolist, but since it does not make excessive profits out of selling music (one wonders whether shareholders would thank WH Smith for that), it's perfectly all right, too.

Coming hard on the heels of Sony's victory over George Michael, it looks like being a good week for the industry. Consumer groups and others are bound to dismiss the report as a whitewash, evidence of Michael Heseltine's determination to support monopolists regardless of the interests of consumers if he thinks it good for Britain and if it helps our export performance. In this cause the President of the Board of Trade seems to have found a friend in Graeme Odgers, the new chairman of the MMC. Gerald Kaufman and others on the National Heritage Select Committee who campaigned so strongly for this inquiry will accuse him of swallowing the industry's smooth-talking charms hook, line and sinker.

In truth, however, it is the voice of reason that has won through. Mr Odgers' background in construction and at the Industrial Reconstruction Corporation, not to mention his brief spell at British Telecom, certainly make him better suited to a pro-industry stance than some of his predecessors. It seems to be the case that the pendulum of competition policy is swinging strongly back towards the interests of 'big business' under his stewardship of the MMC.

That in itself may be no bad thing, given the harm misguided consumerist meddling has done to great chunks of industry over the past 15 years - but when it comes to the music industry it plainly makes sense. Music is one of the few examples of an industry where Britain is up there with the best in the world. One of the reasons it has thrived is that, in accordance with ancient laws of copyright, it has been allowed to charge what it likes, wherever it likes. No other luxury branded consumer product would be prevented from doing this; why music? Thank goodness Mr Odgers didn't listen to Mr Kaufman's siren calls.

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