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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How money men stole our brands

By Norman Lebrecht / September 25, 2003

Much-loved imprints and record labels are losing public trust in pursuit of quick profits

In a brand conscious age, it is extraordinary how little we care about the providers of culture. Which of us notices the colophon on a book spine when buying a Booker-shortlisted novel? Who can name the label on Norah Jones’s Grammy-winning records? Which Hollywood backlot is responsible for the latest Sylvia Plath biopic? And how long can we carry on kidding ourselves that brand anonymity doesn’t really matter?

As a bookish kid, my tastes were shaped by Penguin. The orange cover was a marque of confidence, assuring readers that a consistent set of sensibilities had chosen titles of quality and interest by authors of style and authority. The Penguin ethos, established by Allen Lane long before my time, mirrored the BBC’s exemplary mission to educate and entertain, affordably and without fuss. Penguin was a brand we could trust. It sold books by the bundles.

At the cinema, the United Artists banner before the main feature denoted a group of actors and directors who had rejected the corrupt studio system and done their own thing. In record shops, Epic and Decca stood apart as labels that were run by and for connoisseurs, shields of taste and discrimination.

None of these trademarks count nowadays for a row of beans. Penguin puts out the same airport chick-lit as everyone else, UA is part of MGM and Epic and Decca have been gobbled up by faceless giants. The purveyors of culture have been monopolised and merged to the point of meaninglessness. You may buy a book with Jonathan Cape’s name on the title page, but where the name once betokened a determined owner’s aesthetic preferences, it is now no more than a corporate convenience. Cape, Secker & Warburg, Hutchinson and several other owner-imprints that once inhabited rambling houses on Bloomsbury squares have been agglomerated into a Thamesside office block as part ofRandom House – itself no longer a buttondown-shirted New York publisher but a subsidiary of the Guetersloh-based Bertelsmann empire, which also commands an unhealthy chunk of the global music business, along with television and magazines.

The music business during the early 1990s surrendered its individuality. By 1995, six giants controlled the market. Then Matsushita pulled out, leaving five. Universal is presently being broken up for sale by its French owners, Vivendi. Warner-AOL and Bertelsmann’s BMG are pursuing a merger, either with each other or with EMI. The future of Sony Music is enigmatic. By the end of this year, four groups – perhaps three - will control more than 80 percent of the world’s recorded music. A monopoly by any other name.

The forces behind these mergers trot out all the usual arguments – economies of scale, consumer advantage, shareholder benefit, that sort of thing. The larger the group, the greater the pressure it can apply on distributors to keep prices down and small fry out. As a result prices are static but choice has been brutally restricted. Anyone seeking an independent British recording in America, or a Birmingham-published book in London, might just as well try asking the till attendant for Osama’s next video. When outsider Claire Morall sneaked last week onto the Booker shortlist, there were few copies of her Astonishing Splashes of Colour to be found anywhere in the capital.

Big companies can offer huge discounts and dispense ridiculous advances. When Robbie Williams signs for EMI, or Martin Amis moves from Cape to Collins and back again, they are not choosing a label for its integrity and tradition. The appeal is rather more basic.

The in-creeping corporate mentality has overturned the embedded priorities of publishers and record producers. Where record labels once employed A&R executives to treat artists and repertoire as their core business, they now employ A&M chiefs for acquisitions and mergers. Quality has suffered, both textually – million-dollar writers refuse to be edited - and texturally. Modern books and CDs are often shoddy objects, victims of corporate economies.

The biggest impact, however, has been on vulnerable arts with a niche audience. Classical music veterans rightly predicted that, once the CD boom was over, sales would subside from a heady 10 percent market share to a sustainable four or five percent. Corporate bosses refused to accept it. Trained to regard a falling graph as the end of civilisation, they stopped recording symphonies and operas and replaced them with crossover gimmicks, designed to attract fickle under-40s.

Has the strategy worked? Judge for yourselves. Last year UK so-called classical sales, spearheaded by such confectionery as Bond (Decca), The Planets (EMI) and OperaBabes (ex-Sony) dropped from 15.8m to 13m. With crossover commanding the bulk of investment, classical records are taking their biggest bath since the Great Depression. But mega-corps never admit error. If at first they don’t succeed, they throw more money at the product until its sticks. So EMI Classics are plugging 15 year-old Becky, Taylor 'hailed as the new Charlotte Church', and Universal-owned Decca, once a haven for vocal purists, has spent £3m on a 16 year-old busker, Hayley Westenra, whose debut album, a blend of smoochy ballads, tops this week's 'classical' charts. If she, too, follows in the footsteps of Charlotte and EMI's Vanessa Mae she will soon drop the classical figleaf and embrace a bulb-popping pop lifestyle. Meanwhile, tens of thousands who once trusted EMI and Decca to deliver vocal refinement may never buy another record.

The one factor unconfigured by the corporate monopolists is the cost of the trust they have so recklessly squandered. Never again will a wire-glassed kid walk out of a shop with an armful of Deccas or Penguins. The only brand loyalty left is to the handful of owner-operators - to book publishers like Thames and Hudson or Canongate and record labels like Chandos, Hyperion and Sweden’s Bis, which this week jubilates its 30th anniversary under the same single-minded owner, Robert von Bahr. Naxos, Klaus Heymann's £5 impulse-buy label, claims more customer fidelity than all the corps combined.

Loss of trust, politicians will tell you, is the prelude to losing power. Corporations come and corporations go. When the present monoliths crumble to dust, they will leave behind a brandless morass in which seekers of truth and beauty will stumble empty-handed through homogenised shops, past shelves that are stacked with characterless products towards an unedifying future. Believe what you like about big business, but do not for one moment believe that it is good for civilisation.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001