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Miscellaneous - February 2008

  by Benjamin Howarth

published: 11 / 1 / 2008

Miscellaneous - February 2008


In the latest in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth examines EMI's financial crisis and asks if record labels have been indulging bands' luxury lifestyles for too long

If you’ve taken any interest in this column in the past, you were probably expecting me to write about EMI this month. And you weren’t wrong. The music press regularly refer, rather snidely, to the fact that EMI had been taken over by a private equity firm, as if there is no greater sin. In fact, the new owners have treated EMI with the greatest possible respect - in that they have tried to stop it going out of business. What more could the proudest of all record labels ask for? Though the label’s financial woes have been a source of regular deliberation on the business pages, most media attention has focused on the fact Robbie Williams has gone on strike. His bosses have demanded that in return for the regular supply of hard cash they give him he should actually do some work. How rude of them ! It is hardly surprising that the major record label business model has had some problems. Over the years, they have progressively paid their artists more, but at the same time these artists have worked progressively less hard. Coldplay may be the biggest band in the world, or at least one of them, but they are gearing up to release only their fourth album. Even if we include the five years it took the Beatles to get signed, at the same point in their careers, they were releasing their eighth album - and it was a double. Frankly, it isn’t too much to ask that bands work a bit harder for their luxurious lifestyles. If EMI manage to get their reforms through, they’ll make more money, while we won’t have to wait three years for a new album from the bands we like. The more fundamental problem that EMI, however, have to deal with is what to do with stars they no longer need, who continue to clutter up their payroll. Some bands do the polite thing and split up, but others have this pesky habit of assuming that they have a right to carry on into middle age. Take REM, for instance (who managed to become multi-millionaires and get what amounted to a contract for life from EMI‘s main rivals). Two and a half decades old, their live show is, I’m sure, still worth watching (though it wouldn’t hurt them to let us watch it more often). Apparently, their new album is to be a "return to form". But so was the last one, I remember and the one before that. They never turn out to be. A better career model comes from Blur. Given the news that they have grown up and started speaking to each other again, many have assumed that a reunion is round the corner. With great dignity, the members have all turned this option down. And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’ve all learned that it doesn’t hurt anyone to acknowledge that there is no longer a place for them on the cover of magazines aimed at teenagers. With genius typical of one of the most talented men of his generation, Damon Albarn has invented a way to keep making pop records without needing to be a pop star, the Gorrillaz cartoon band. Meanwhile, Graham Coxen knocks out his art-rock nuggets, which is the music he always wanted to make, in a manner that ensures that he doesn’t have to put up with the pop star nonsense he always hated anyway. But of even greater interest are the careers of the "other two". What do drummers and bassists do when people stop liking the songs their friends write ? It seems that most go off and "teach" at contemporary music colleges. If a label like EMI has foolishly granted them a long term deal, they simply sit around and do nothing, living off the profits from the Radiohead box-set. But Dave Rowntree has turned himself into an expert on drugs policy, and is taking his first steps towards becoming an MP, while Alex James has established himself firmly as a journalist, (no-one bothers writing, "Alex James was a member of the band Blur" under his pieces anymore). His BBC documentary on Columbia went out on Monday 28th January, while his column in 'The Spectator' never fails to be interesting. At last year’s Labour Party conference, the pair unexpectedly bumped into each other, as both were speaking at fringe meetings - Rowntree on health policy, while James spoke about climate change and rural areas. Neither were there because they used to be in Blur. Of course, I doubt that their pop star status has done the pair any harm at all (and if you listen to ‘Parklife‘ or ‘13‘, you will find that both were more than worthy pop stars) - but they have gone and found even more prosperous activities. If there were more people with the ambition and imagination of the former members of Blur within the music industry, I very much doubt that EMI would be in such financial difficulty.

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