Sunday, April 15, 2012

Finding the sweet spot in the argument about the Universal-EMI merger

I'm sure Martin Mills, the chairman of Beggars Group, has reasons for not wanting the merger of Universal and EMI to go ahead (and they may be good ones) but I'm not sure that it's because it stands to squeeze out "edgy, left field artists". According to an interview in the Telegraph he says:
"When one party has the ability to be so dominant, it's going to be difficult for anything outside the mainstream to come through. It [puts pressure] on the space on shop shelves and magazine front covers for less mainstream artists."
To which we might say, which shop shelves is he talking about and, while we're about it, what magazine covers? If you've got a record that people want, Tesco will find room for it and the valve that really controls access to public exposure is operated by BBC radio, not by any magazine. But record execs never go on the record about the BBC. Off the record they rarely talk about anything else.

The "edgy, left field" argument is a classic example of the kind of argument businesses and pressure groups employ on public forums like the Today programme, not because they really believe it but because they know it will play into the larger narrative of the uninformed. The uninformed are always looking for a baddie and a goodie. This kind of argument rarely says "we would like things to stay as they are because we're doing fine, thanks". Instead it says, "if this change takes place then an entire culture will be brought down and this cute puppy will be drowned". That's the kind of argument that plays to the sweet spot. It's surprising how often it prevails.


  1. Forgive me if I've missed it, but what's your view on the proposed merger?

  2. When I worked in the music business, in the mid 70s, Stiff, Virgin, Island, RCA, A&M, Chiswick, Rough Trade, Decca, Polydor, Phonogram, CBS, EMI, Arista, WEA, MCA, Transatlantic and lots of companies whose names I can't call to mind right now were all to some extent independent. They signed their own acts, paid for the pressing of their own records and had their own press and PR people. Since then lots of new small companies have come along but all these and more have been absorbed into three or four large companies. This has generally been done with the active encouragement of the acts, who may well have liked small label TLC but tended to prefer big label advances.

    The irony is that this consolidation - which it's standard practice to deplore - doesn't appear to have resulted in a less diverse record market. There are far more records from a far greater range being released today than there were thirty years ago. That doesn't mean I'd recommend the consolidation of the market but it seems to be an inevitable consequence of the contraction of the market. If less records are sold then less companies can make a living from the record market. Furthermore, now that it's no longer a manufacture and distribution business, it ought in theory to be possible for more small companies to survive and flourish. That doesn't seem to be happening and I can't see that it's got very much to do with the majors.

  3. You'll probably know better than us David - where are the new Jake Rivieras and Dave Robinsons? Is Simon Cowell's stranglehold on the business really so great that the very idea of setting up a new Indie label is seen as p*ssing in the wind?

  4. I don't think Simon Cowell has a stranglehold on the business, any more than anyone else does. There are hundreds of Jake Rivieras and Dave Robinsons. They're probably not quite as good at hype as those guys but they're around. The difference is they're not a story anymore and, like Dave and Jake, they'll sell out to a bigger label as soon as they get an opportunity.