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 02:11 AM

didnt some Ruskie buy EMI??

Peter Eyley
November 24, 2011 at 03:11 PM

Excellent analysis,”When Will They Ever Learn”

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