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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

All they needed was love

By Norman Lebrecht / May 24, 2007

Like the final track on Sergeant Pepper, like the Beatles themselves, the end for EMI came with a sob and a sigh. At tea-time on Monday, the world’s oldest record company declared losses of £264 million and no hope of recovery. A sale was announced to Terra Firma, an equity firm which will strip the ship for early resale, probably to Hollywood rival, Warner. A century of record history and the heart of British music was tossed onto the auction block with no regard for public sentiment or the devastating cultural consequences that attend the destruction of tradition.

The sale price itself tells a large part of the sorry story - £2.4 billion is exactly half what EMI was worth seven years ago, when it sought an equal merger with Warner. Since then, CD sales have crashed – down 20 percent in the US in the first half of 2006 – and a succession of expensive signings, both artistic and executive, have ended in record payoffs. Maria Carey was sacked for £18 million after miserable sales, and the bosses who fired her were themselves chopped at Christmas. Eric Nicoli, the present chairman, will not depart unremunerated.

To survive in what Nicoli called ‘challenging’ conditions, a company needs luck and EMI’s had run out. Robbie Williams never came close to justifying his £80 million deal , the Beatles Love remix fell short of expectations and Coldplay’s Chris Martin revealed the pressures that EMI was putting on its artists when he attacked ‘the slavery we are all under to shareholders’.

Creative priorities had taken second place to share price and EMI’s technology was typically behind the times. The company almost went bust in 1954 by resisting long-playing records; it was the last label, in 1983, to adopt CD; and lately its download strategy has been sluggish. A Canute-like stubbornness was part of EMI’s charm, and of its innately British character. This was a company that made producers come to work in striped trousers; as late as the 1960s; George Martin remembers artists being sent home from Abbey Road for being improperly dressed.

The Beatles, however, were no fluke. Rejected by every other label, they flourished in the peculiar EMI blend of classical discipline and progressive experiment that spilled onto Abbey Road tea-tables as musicians of all types jostled for session-break refreshment. Nowhere else could a passing string quartet have been dubbed onto a pop ballad, as it was in Yesterday. Nowhere else could Yehudi Menuhin, who recorded the Bach double concerto as a lad with his teacher Georges Enesco, have turned up 50 years later (before my incredulous eyes) with a 12 year-old Chinese pupil, Jin Li, demanding to perpetuate the legacy. Nowhere else was music nurtured amid the somnolence of Victorian mansion blocks. EMI was a unique alloy of past and future, pull and push.

Ever since its foundation in 1898 as the Gramophone and Typewriter Company on Maiden Lane, behind the Savoy, it buried innovation behind a bluff façade. Head office forbade Fred Gaisberg to record Enrico Caruso; he went ahead anyway and created the first record star. The tempestuous Maria Callas could not have worked with any other label, valuing its sedateness as a counterweight to her furies. The Beatles did not call their album Abbey Road for nothing: it was the crucible of their art. The studio, a tourist shrine, was eerily quiet when I strolled past yesterday; it is locally rumoured to be up for development sale as soon as the parent company’s fate is settled.

The removal of EMI rips the heart out of British music. As our only major player on the world stage, the third or fourth largest label internationally, its very existence served as a fulcrum for indigenous activity. Indies flourished in London from the 1960s on, but they could not have come into being without the centripetal energy of EMI and they cannot now survive without its clout. OnceEMI is gone, opportunities wither and creativity wilts. New bands in search of a voice will head for Hollywood, where the deals are done.The British sound is relegated to the level of Denmark’s.

At EMI Classics, the writing is on the wall. Warner shut down its classical wing last year by means of an overnight email. If EMI falls into its clutches Simon Rattle, Nigel Kennedy and Ian Bostridge become homeless. Whatever the future holds for recording, this is the end of its island story.

Weep as we may for the burnt-out Cutty Sark, a ship can be rebuilt and its objects retrieved from storage. EMI is a piece of heritage that died this week without protest or lament. No government grant can replace the dual loss of experience and opportunity. One man could have saved the company with a small dip into his personal fortune, but Sir Paul McCartney is otherwise preoccupied and evidently disinterested.

EMI has gone the way of all stragglers in a cultural revolution. Its collapse was probably inevitable. But its extinction threatens to leave Britain a land without music – a culture without a musical voice in the coming download civilisation.

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


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