On Friday news broke that Universal and Sony had finalised a deal to buy EMI, the UK music label that has been staring down the barrel of a gun for the last four years. Saddled with a huge amount of debt and mismanaged by Citigroup, a breakup has been on the cards for a while. However, it seems that the break-up of this corporate behemoth is not without some feeling. Last Monday The Guardian published an article lamenting the proposed acquisition of EMI by Warner Bros, the rumoured favourites at the time. The article put a human interest slant on the breakup, linking EMI to numerous household artists that would never have reached their status today were it not for the might of the label.
Yet before we get wrapped up in the symbolism of Abbey Road studios, we must remember that EMI is not some sort of benevolent force for UK artists. They have been the gate keepers, filtering hundreds, nay thousands, of acts down to the 30-40 new artists we hear about every year. Yes, this process has brought us multi-platinum albums, James Brown, The Beatles, and stadium sell-outs, but this power has not been used to produce an incredibly varied and eclectic scene. Instead they have concentrated on acts that will sell to the mass market, hence the impressive headline figures. To do this they use their phenomenal promotional power to make sure that people are exposed to the music that EMI et al want them to be exposed to.
Before the internet the distribution channels for music were fairly limited. Radio, TV, magazines and record stores were the four main channels to reach a large audience and these could be controlled if you had the broad promotional capability that majors have. It is not hard to see how they could therefore decide what was hot and what wasn’t. This restricts the choice of consumers, meaning the majority of the money spent on music goes to the majors.
Now, before we get ahead of ourselves, major record labels are not all-powerful and have been put onto the back foot by numerous new scenes and trends. They have by no means generated a watertight system. But they are businesses. The bottom line is that they have a bottom line, they are motivated by profit. They operate in a marketplace.
This marketplace used to be a seller’s market, with only a few distribution channels and little choice for buyers. Now the internet has revolutionised this, affording the buyers (us) a lot more power in deciding who we want to listen to and how much we want to pay for it. This has caused all the problems we’ve seen over the last few years for the music industry. This has led to the demise of EMI.
But unlike The Guardian, I will not be shedding a tear for the loss of EMI. Yes EMI brought us countless artists and sold the music that defined generations, but you have to ask yourself who didn’t they bring us? Who did they squeeze into obscurity because they weren’t the right artists for their narrative? How many artists were forced to change themselves significantly to make a living? Who really benefitted?
It wasn’t the musicians and it wasn’t the fans who benefitted from the traditional organisation of the music industry. It was the majors. I don’t know about you but I find it hard to mourn that state of affairs.