After years of doing the courtship dance with Warners, EMI is selling out to a private equity firm. There's a lot of not very well informed talk on the radio this morning about DRM and its supposedly magical effect on the business model but as Bob Lefsetz says, the mainstream record business appears to be finished. "There are no longer dominant acts that people believe in, only minor ones with relatively small colonies of believers. And if you don't have believers, you're fucked. Better off to manage a jam band than to own the masters of a pop group."
He may be right but the other big issue, with all mainstream record companies, has to be costs.
The other week I got a call from EMI asking me to do a voiceover for a John Cale ad to run on a couple of digital rock stations. I turned up at the appointed time at one of those flash Soho sound studios where there are two leggy girls on reception and they bring you coffee in designer cups. When the rep from EMI turned up - late because for some reason they'd ordered a car to deliver them into the West End during rush hour - it took about two minutes to do the ad. The studio is bound to have put in a four figure bill for their services, on a job that I could have done on my Mac at home.
The point of this story is, big record companies still make records in the only way they know how - expensively. Bob Geldof said years ago that bands were taking too long to make records and throwing too much money at the problem. It was true then and it's even truer now. Just go and look at the credits on a mainstream rock album and count the number of studios. Now imagine how much had to be spent on flights and hotels just to get between them. In the last ten years TV and film have done a far better job of adjusting their costs to the size of a fragmenting market than the record companies have. Despite the regular rounds of redundancies it seems to me that there are more people in the HQs of the big record companies than there were back in the days when the cotton was high. Many of them are doing jobs that either don't require doing or could be freelanced out.
When EMI wanted a cover for the first Beatles album in 1963 they called in Angus McBean who arrived in reception, looked up at the staircase, lay down on the floor, got them to look over and banged off half a dozen frames. "That's it," he said.
There's a lesson there.