Leading article: Dance to a different beat

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It has been another seismic week in the music industry. Radiohead's new album went on sale online, allowing fans to name their own price to download it. Meanwhile, Madonna ended her association with Warner Music to go into partnership with a live music promoter. The major record labels must be feeling rather queasy. Already caught up in a firefight to protect sales amid the downloading revolution, they are now abandoned by artists whom they have turned into global forces.

For all the opprobrium that is heaped on big record companies by disgruntled artists and fans, the major labels deserve a little sympathy. They have played an important role over the past century of the industry's existence. They have nurtured talent and taken popular music to a mass, global audience. But the rot set in when they could not resist profiteering from the invention of compact discs in the late 1980s, forcing people to buy their record collections again at inflated prices.

This was the root of the breach of trust with the public that persuaded many people that it was justified to copy music illegally. Their second big mistake was adopting an ostrich-like response to new technology. Rather than seeing musical downloads as an opportunity to broaden their consumer base and generate new revenue streams, the record labels tried to pretend that it was not happening. Then, in a panic, they gave away music in newspapers and magazines, devaluing their product. It is almost a textbook lesson in how not to run an industry.

It would be foolish to write off big record companies. They still own the rights to massive back catalogues. And recent mergers mean that four labels – Universal, EMI, Warner Music and Sony BMG – control a formidable 70 per cent of the international music market. Reports of their demise are rather exaggerated. There is still an artist development function for them too. Some bands may want to manage their own affairs, but others will want to concentrate on the music.

Yet there can be no disguising that a new reality has dawned in commercial music. More control is flowing to artists. And it is not just big, established acts such as Madonna and Radiohead that are benefiting. Emerging acts have a new freedom too: witness the rise of the Klaxons or Arctic Monkeys. Power has shifted irreversibly to artists and consumers. And that can only be a good thing for music.

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