Goodbye EMI…?

So I said I’d have a blast at the EMI situation and I will give it a bit of a go. I am reminded horribly of the last track on the Sex Pistols’ ‘Swindle’, where Johnny Rotten is making much of their transfer to A&M records with the typically sneery and just as typically profound refrain of ‘goodbye EMI, goodbye EMI’. Well, the major label in question is down 1.8 billion quid in the last quarter of trading, and has pulled in a 120m quid cash injection from somewhere or other to bolster up what remains of their operation. The public reaction has been predictably unsympathetic. After all, the majors are the ones who stamp on the creativity of the artists and whore them out to Mammon and destroy all that is good about music, right? As a small indie label, that would be the view that most would expect us to take. As @kalyr commented on Twitter yesterday when I wondered out loud how the industry would be affected: ‘mammals and birds did ok after the dinosaurs went extinct’. I can see his point. This is not some hugfest where I give props to all my online buddies, but the guy is a proper music fan, who gets out to gigs, pre-orders albums, supports his favourite acts etc. So I take his opinions seriously. Yet during a bit of a sleepless night, a different analogy came to mind – that perhaps the majors are sharks, but without the sharks, the seals overbreed and the small fish go extinct. OK, this is all conjecture, so let’s get back to facts. Major labels made shitloads of money out of punters for far too long when they had the monopoly on recorded music sales. That is a fact, and they have been hit hard by the public’s revenge now that they no longer have the monopoly. That’s all a different issue. But if you look at the music that exists because of them, you have to start to feel saddened by their inevitable demise. Hendrix, Led Zep, write your own list. A lot of the great records happened because major labels funded the lushest and most ridiculously bacchanalian excesses by their acts (yes, funded by the record-buying public and at the expense of the lesser acts on their rosters). A lot of the great bands we love were picked up by major-label a&r men, put into studios, set up with producers, mastering engineers, distributors and all the other services that meant all the artists had to worry about was making records. Sometimes that led to self-conscious wank and concept albums full of nothing but feedback, other times it led to masterpieces. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but it’s effectively gone now.

A major label is, essentially, a specialised bank. How could EMI lose so much money? Because whilst they take huge cuts out of the revenue of small acts and advance them tiny amounts, with an act like U2 or REM, the advances have to be huge an the sales have to be correspondingly huge to cover them. This is how a Madonna album that sells four million copies can be called a flop. The advance was based on her selling 10m. Can they get the advance back? Not with Maddy’s lawyers. They’ll claw it back from the smaller acts with smaller lawyers, but not from her.  Banking is always risky. Filesharing has hit the industry hard, but it probably could have survived that. A global downturn, survivable. Both together, difficult.

Every major label is packed with people who love music, live for it, push for their favourites and want to see music thrive and survive. The guys at the top are fatcats, just like they are at football clubs, but you wouldn’t blame football’s current problems on the groundsmen, would you? In a week where I’m still seeing people refusing to buy Kraft products because of their actions towards Cadbury, it intrigues me that the probable loss of hundreds of jobs at EMI has prompted a wave of glee. For a product that is as indispensible to most of our lives as chocolate. Just my opinions. I anticipate that the comments on this one will run and run.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Goodbye EMI…?

  1. I think the problem is that the sharks have eaten all the seals, and are now starving to death as a result.

    I think the the song Moment in Time from Karnataka I linked to on Twitter says a lot about where I’m coming from.

    That’s clearly cost a lot of money to record, but in today’s music climate I cannot imagine music like that being released on a major label. What will happen is that at some record company marketing meeting chaired by a cloth-eared MBA graduate, they’ll say something like “27.8 percent of our target demographic doesn’t like guitar solos, so all those solos will have to go”. Then it will be “If there are ten minute songs there’s a 17.9% chance the Tesco’s might refuse to sell it. And so on. The end result will be, well, Coldplay.

    • You’re right about the focus-group approach. You’re also right about ten-minute songs and guitar solos, which used to go on albums as the album tracks (I won’t say fillers, because they were often way better than the singles). Now, I’m usually the whiney one, and I know that my post is pro-major label, but to be honest, what I really think about all this stuff is too wide and rambling even for a blog of this length. Truth is, I’m not even sure where I stand. But I think we need to all take heart a bit, despite my usual whingeing. This has all happened before, and will all happen again (to quote BSG). Music has been around a long, long time, and will always manage to survive. Thing is, that although the frantic rush from the majors to come up with plasticky please-all acts has failed for them, it has also created and galvanised a growing minority of music fans who don’t feel well-served by the current musical climate and are searching out the ten-minute songs and guitar solos and suchlike. It happened in 1970-odd, when a bunch of folk-rockers started to converge on LA, because the New York music scene was just not reflecting what they wanted to play, or what people wanted to hear. It hasn’t quite reached breaking point here yet, but it can’t be far off.

  2. Pingback: Where Worlds Collide » Blog Archive » Götterdämmerung for the Major Record Labels

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