Monday, 28 January 2008

Happy Happy Merry Merry

What a start to the year.

So I come back into the office, a handful of days after my second daughter is born and discover that things are going to be even tougher this year than they were last year. My friend who runs a PR company has given me some space in his office to use while we kickstart the management company. One of the fringe benefits of this, I've discovered, is that he always knows news stories ahead of them breaking in the papers. So before the wires were sizzling, Andy says to me: "Happy New Year? Not at EMI. It's going to be carnage" And it was.

Before EMI employees had fully recovered from their Christmas splurge or even plonked down in front of their computers to greet 2008, one of their biggest artists Robbie Williams went to the press saying he's 'going on strike'. And contained in the body of the Times piece which appeared on 11 January was the bombshell that 'massive layoffs' were about to happen.

And sure enough, the following Monday, Guy Hands, director of Terra Firma, the private equity company that now owns EMI, told his assembled staff that there will be job cuts of up to 2000.

I looked that figure up online just now and the first news link I got - a BBC one - gave me the headline EMI announces 1,800 job cuts. Funny, I thought, I was under the impression that it wasn't a specific number - that Hands had only given a ballpark figure of 1500 to 2000 redundancies, roughly a third of the international EMI workforce. But then I noticed the date on the feature - 20 March 2002! The story was about the cuts about to be made by then-chairman Allain Levy to try and save the 'financially indebted company'. Plus ca change. Mind you, back then they could at least claim that it was Mariah Carey's fault. They'd just spent £38 million quid getting out of their deal with her which had gone - and here the expression takes on a deeply significant meaning - tits up. In 2002, the 1800 figure was a fifth of EMI's workforce. Now the 2000 cut represents a third. So in five years the workforce will have gone from 10,000 to 4000! Er, why I am attempting to remain in the music business? This thought wafts over my horizon as I take a call from the studio where one of our band rehearses and discover I owe them £253. How am I going to make that back, let alone £38 million?

A friend of mine who works for EMI phoned me up over the Christmas break. Like me, he enjoys writing and he'd spent his festive period writing a bullet-point guide on how to save the record industry. He was probably fearing for his job - unnecessary in my opinion as he's one of the few undeniably successful members of staff. Christ, if he feels insecure imagine what the rest of the building is like. So he'd had a go at this analysis of where the record business had all gone wrong and what should be done about it. It was a letter he planned to send to Music Week, a kind of music biz variation on a letter to The Times. It was doomed to failure. There is no step by step guide to solving the current conundrum which is that people can copy and duplicate their own music from friends or file sharing . Record industry currency - the finished, mastered, shiny new product is now only distinguishable from what we can burn at home in that it has artwork, and sometimes that means a 'four page booklet' which is a piece of folded paper with the artist's name printed on the front and a tracklisting on the back. And the kids don't even want artwork! We do, us middle -aged men, the ones who got a whiff of new wave, or new romanticism or even got off our mash at Shoom - we want artwork, we demand packaging. I want the box set of Pink Floyd albums in replica sleeves. DON'T ASK ME WHY! I just like artwork and packaging. But if I was 15, I wouldn't give an arctic monkeys, I'd download the whole lot overnight, and spend the money on trainers and cider.

In his letter, my pal- like me, an A&R person - put faith in 'making great records' and to a large extent I agree with this. He proposed that a certain album that is currently selling really well, a CD that was one of the few 'must-haves' in 2007 is a record without a single duff track on it and that's why it's doing so well. Make records like this, my friend argued, and people will buy them. The problem is that most albums are, to quote my mate Sarah Cawood, "Two killers, the rest of it fillers." And now, given that we can get the two killers for the princely sum of £1.58 on iTunes, why should we pay a tenner for the rest of it in a plastic box? Oh, and it was Amy Winehouse's album which my mate was going on about, which, say what you want about the smack-taking, is an unarguably palatable record. Better than Mika's anyway.

So do I expect to make equally thrilling records with the artists I manage? Here's what I think: Always expect the least expected thing. I don't know if I appropriated that bit of unhelpful wisdom or whether it's based on my own A&R experiences but I know that it is pretty much always the case in the music business. No one wanted Radiohead apart from Keith Wozencroft - at EMI incidentally. Why? Because the singer had a wonky eye, their songs were so-so, and crucially, they were all different heights! Imagine the Beatles or the Stones if there'd been a really tall one and a really short one! Riddiculous! Like Radiohead were ever going to happen! Last year, everyone, every single record company and publisher were queuing up to sign a certain female singer. She was feted; wined and dined, and everyone thought that signing her was, in current industry parlance, a 'no brainer' A friend of mine in music publishing asked her what she wanted out of a career in music and rather than saying, 'artistic satisfaction', or 'to get my songs heard', or even 'to get laid by skinny-trousered Camden pretties', she was honest and said, "A Coutts bank account'. Her record bombed and I suspect she's still with Nat West.

So the swan who signs for millions will frequently end up in the bargain bin, whilst the ugly duckling, who a solitary A&R person begrudgingly does a development deal with, frequently blossoms into a million seller. How's that for a January mixed metaphor?

So I make no expectations on my charges. We're just getting them to write the best songs they can And with that in mind, we've decided it's time to do some recordings ...