The case against Madonna

By Brad Aisa
web posted December 6, 1999

Now that regulation or even breakup of Microsoft seems assured, it is time for the U.S. Government to direct its attention to another insidious monopolist: Madonna.

The parallels between Microsoft and Madonna are striking:

Both are monopolies. Microsoft has a monopoly on Microsoft Windows. Madonna has a monopoly on, well, Madonna.

Both overcharge the consumer. Microsoft considered selling the Windows 98 upgrade for $49 but chose to sell it for $89 instead, to maximize its returns (all prices in US$.) Well, given that CDs only cost about a buck to make, I'm sure Madonna and her record company could make a decent profit selling them at, say, $7 -- but they are sold for more like $13, doubtless to maximize the returns.

Both engage in unfair competition. Microsoft gives away its Internet Explorer browser software, undercutting its competitor, Netscape. Madonna and her record company subsidize her glossy, expensive videos, unfairly competing with new artists who don't have that kind of cash.

Both have substantial bases of locked-in customers. For example, no record store could afford to stop selling Madonna albums -- it would lose the business from all of Madonna's fans. The same applies to dance clubs, pop music stations, MTV, and so on. Madonna is absolutely essential to all these endeavors -- she has complete customer lock-in at the wholesale level, regardless of the existence of other pop acts.

Even at the consumer level, Madonna probably enjoys a substantial degree of user lock-in. Of course Madonna might try to argue that consumers have alternatives, such as Cher or Ricky Martin (just as Microsoft had cited Mac OS and Linux.) But this is disingenuous. When you want Madonna you want Madonna -- Ricky Martin just can't scratch that itch.

So what remedy should be sought in an antitrust action against Madonna? I would suggest that many of the remedies proposed for Microsoft are equally applicable to Madonna.

Madonna could be forced to license her music at low cost to any and all comers -- this would provide alternative sources for her recordings, thus providing competition and driving down prices. She could likewise be ordered to license (and perhaps even train) professional Madonna impersonators. This would create competition in the area of videos and live performances.

Or, as has been suggested for Windows, Madonna could be declared an "essential facility", on account of her ubiquity, monopoly status, and importance to her millions of users. A public commission would be set up to control the prices of all Madonna products. This would bring an end to the Madonna price gouging and monopoly exploitation, and bring the benefits of Madonna music to even the poorest user.

Now, far right-wing pro-capitalist extremists might argue that the charges in both these cases are specious and irrelevant, and that the proposed remedies are an outrage. They might claim that antitrust is arbitrary, non-objective, and, as ex post facto law, legally invalid. That "competition" is a derivative, non-essential attribute of a free economy, not a fundamental feature or necessity. That the real issues governing commercial law should be individual rights, property rights, and the full, unrestricted, unregulated freedoms of expression, production, association, and trade. That "level playing field" is really a code phrase for "level killing field." That antitrust is, in short, a grotesque abomination that should be completely and irrevocably abolished.

Well, they're wrong. Most economists and businessmen defend antitrust -- are they all wrong? Hell, even Bill Gates (who is obviously no dummy) has stated that we have "the right amount [of antitrust law]". Who are the right-wingers to argue with its validity?

Besides, (can we be grown-up?) antitrust isn't really about competition or consumer benefit at all. (That should be pretty obvious when the only "harm" the judge in the Microsoft case could find was that users had to put up with an Internet Explorer icon on their Windows desktop.) Microsoft is being whacked down because it is prodigious, successful, unapologetic, arrogant, and seemingly interested in nothing but its own self-interest. And that pretty much describes Madonna too, doesn't it? Case closed.

Antitrust is the twentieth century's answer to the Inquisition -- it is the tool for exorcising the timeless evils of Pride, Independence, and Willfulness from men's souls. Let Microsoft, Madonna, and all others guilty of these sins be subjected to antitrust's purifying remedies.

Brad Aisa is a computer consultant and writer living in Toronto, Canada. He is a long-time satisfied Microsoft and Madonna user. (c) 1999 by Brad Aisa. All rights reserved.

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