Well they tied it up in a plastic bag / and turned it upside down ma

I think I men­tioned Andrew Dub­ber’s Delet­ing Music blog once before. Yes I know I did.

He’s been kind enough to men­tion this blog a few times too.

It seems an appro­pri­ate time to men­tion it again in the wake of the pos­si­bil­i­ty (and I’ll say that, because, until the EU sings it’s still up in the air) that EMI is going to be absorbed by Viven­di Uni­ver­sal next year.

In my quick, very much off the cuff, thoughts about this a week or two back, there was one thing that I found more dis­turb­ing than any­thing else, even though I did­n’t devel­op it at the time, and it’s not real­ly been dealt with any­where that’ve seen, in the mad rush to pro­claim a vic­to­ry for the ‘music peo­ple’ (I’m not sure exact­ly what this means — Warn­ers and Sony are no more or less ‘music peo­ple’ than Uni­ver­sal in my expe­ri­ence. Indeed the cur­rent head of Sony Music Enter­tain­ment, Inc. is Doug Mor­ris who built Uni­ver­sal to what it is over the past decade). That the most quot­ed per­son here was sil­ly old Mick Jag­ger, a man who prob­a­bly lost touch with the peo­ple, music or oth­er­wise, around the time of his last half decent con­tem­po­rary album back in ’78, does­n’t help.

I’ll repeat what I said in that last post:

  • It’s a neg­a­tive for back cat­a­logue. Expect more of the vast cat­a­logue owned by the group to lan­guish unheard. Once again there sim­ply isn’t the time or resources there to ensure it gets the space it needs.

Man, that’s an understatement.

Con­sid­er the labels and their cat­a­logues Uni­ver­sal will con­trol or have under its wide wing:

Poly­dor, Dec­ca, Philips, Ver­ti­go, EMI, Par­lophone, Har­vest, Angel, Capi­tol, A&M, Island, Motown, Colum­bia (the EMI one), His Mas­ter’s Voice, Deutsch Gram­mophon, Pye, Unit­ed Artists, MCA, Lib­er­ty, Impe­r­i­al, Chess, Blue Note, GRP, CTI, Impulse, Fan­ta­sy, Apple, Charis­ma, Elec­tro­la, Cooltem­po, Ruth­less, Bronze, Mer­cury, BASF, MPS, Der­am, Death Row, Tro­jan, Back­street, Dot, Para­mount, Roulette, Lon­don, FFRR, Odeon, Unit­ed Artists, ABC, Smash, Dun­hill, Gef­fen, DGC, Pathe Mar­coni, Regal Zono­phone, Hol­ly­wood, TK, Go-Beat, 4th & Broad­way, Duke, Pea­cock, Sanc­tu­ary, Chrysalis, Vir­gin, Ten, Siren, Man­go, Rock­et, Def Jam, Inter­scope, EmAr­cy, Polar, Dream­works, Talkin’ Loud, Solar, Fontana, Tabu, Verve, Pablo, RSO, Fic­tion, MGM, Urban, Motor Music, Casablan­ca, Man­hat­tan, Coral and Uni­ver­sal itself.

There are count­less more. That list does­n’t include the many, many region­al labels or most of the labels absorbed by both com­pa­nies in the cloudy recess­es of his­to­ry. Nor does it account for the vast size of many of those cat­a­logues —  at Discogs the EMI label on its own lists some 22,000 releas­es, Poly­dor 28,000, Island 13,000, and .…well you get the idea.

There are mas­sive vaults (the good news) that go back to the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry in sev­er­al loca­tions around the world, full of tapes, imagery, graph­ics, mas­ters and dig­i­tal data, as well as region­al archives (although not in New Zealand — the Poly­Gram and EMI archives were long ago trashed). Giv­en their respec­tive his­to­ries (both go back to Emile Berlin­er’s Euro­pean branch­es in the late 1890s) they would hold the copy­rights for at least 1/2, or — not unrea­son­ably — clos­er to 2/3 or all music record­ings cur­rent­ly in copy­right (recent­ly extend­ed in the EU to stretch it back to well over half the peri­od since record­ing began) and at least that per­cent­age as a total of all music ever record­ed by record com­pa­nies, bear­ing in mind that both EMI and UMG have absorbed a large num­ber of com­pa­nies that have them­selves gob­bled up many indies.

It’s ter­ri­fy­ing and there is absolute­ly no way any one record com­pa­ny can under­stand, curate or do jus­tice to a cat­a­logue of that volume.

So what hap­pens to it?

Well, that’s the easy part of it: the star and major cult acts get end­less deluxe reis­sues, a few fans peri­od­i­cal­ly com­pile a few col­lec­tions after con­vinc­ing some exec that there is mon­ey in this and oth­er pas­sion­ate souls in the com­pa­ny rework or revi­talise the small part of the cat­a­logue that they per­son­al­ly have a thing for.

The odd bou­tique divi­sion will appear and, as the com­pa­ny los­es inter­est in the min­i­mal return for work put in, it will get qui­et­ly fold­ed. This pat­tern has been repeat­ed across the majors many times over the years and this uber-merg­er will like­ly throw up a few such archival projects or labels. Uni­ver­sal cur­rent­ly has Hip‑O Select, whose releas­es have includ­ed some won­der­ful Motown sets, and their Japan­ese divi­sions have long been active in recy­cling things like jazz and prog-rock. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Hip‑O Select, if you look at their web­site which is copy­right­ed 2006, have almost no resources and thus their scope is very nar­row. Anoth­er cat­a­logue label was launched a cou­ple of years back, sup­port­ed by an exec who was soon moved on and got no fur­ther than a press releas­es and a web­site announc­ing its immi­nent arrival.

It released nothing.

But, most­ly, the bulk of the past will dis­ap­pear for­ev­er. The Long Tail was a nice the­o­ry which turned out to be a myth and there is lit­tle inter­est in explor­ing cost­ly ways of not mak­ing it so. Even if, with the best of inten­tions, Uni­ver­sal throw sub­stan­tial resources into mak­ing their his­to­ry avail­able there is almost no way a sin­gle com­pa­ny can retail and mar­ket that much music ade­quate­ly with­out it sim­ply over­whelm­ing the company.

The obvi­ous answer is to pass the cat­a­logue onto spe­cial­ist inde­pen­dents but major labels have long shown a reluc­tance to do so — they acquire cat­a­logue rather than dis­perse it — since the days of Rhi­no, who licensed all sorts of archival mate­r­i­al from Warn­ers and invent­ed the smart com­pi­la­tions and themed albums we took for grant­ed in the late 1990 and 2000s. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, they did it so well, Warn­ers decid­ed they would buy the com­pa­ny. This they did — and slow­ly suf­fo­cat­ed it before shut­ting it down.

Say good­bye to 80% of every­thing ever released on those labels I list­ed above.


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

Har­ry Rus­sell on Facebook
November 22, 2011 at 2:18 am

did­nt some Ruskie buy EMI??

Peter Eyley
November 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Excel­lent analysis,“When Will They Ever Learn”

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