The leaks emanating from the private equity firm Terra Firma about the excesses they claim to have found at record company EMI has no doubt ensured that large helpings of schadenfreude have been hungrily consumed within the rest of the musical economy in recent weeks. Terra Firma bought EMI in the summer of 2007 and has been poring over its books and accounts ever since as part of the standard private equity project to reorganise a company so that it be flipped back onto the market in three to five years time at a profit. Terra Firma has a track record of buying companies with ‘failed’ business models ; ironically, it has already given the private equity treatment to Thorn, previously part of the Thorn- EMI conglomerate before it was demerged in the 1990s. This in itself should have sent some kind of message to the outgoing executives of EMI that Terra Firma hardly had a positive view of their managerial abilities. The revelations of extravagance approaching the bacchanalian seem to have so shocked the sober-suited bean counters Terra Firma that they were simply unable to keep it to themselves. Admittedly, the disclosure reveals business practices that one might think a tad unusual and indulgent, such as the £20,000 spent on candles to decorate a Los Angeles apartment used to entertain clients, and a £200,000 annual budget for fruit and flowers.
Over the last couple of years, as part of research I’ve been conducting on the musical economy, I’ve talked to large numbers of people who work in recording studios and associated activities, and it is safe to say that they do not hold recording companies and their employees in high esteem. Indeed, one senior member of this community was so dismissive of their abilities that he insisted that should anyone care to undertake an comparative analysis of management ability across the British economy he was confident that it would record company executives would be found way to the left of the bell curve. So, while those working at the sharp end of the musical economy would certainly have found Terra Firma’s revelations of interest, they probably would not have been all that surprised. The recording studio sector in the UK and elsewhere is under going a crisis of significant proportions, which has meant that the institutional base of the sector has been receding at a rapid rate. Many studios have closed and those that remain open often struggle to get by. Redundancies have followed while those that remained in employment have found their conditions casualised or degraded.
But in addition to spinning against the old management, the head of Terra Firma, Guy Hands, has also discredited the established record company business model, and argued that executives in the company were slow to embrace the possibilities of transforming the demand for downloads into a viable business model. In this respect, Hands echoes findings from earlier research which has argued that one of the problems for record companies was an industry-wide corporate cultural crisis, and the inability to think beyond the business model that has sustained the recorded music industry for the past 100 years or so. The problem is finding a new business model that will enable to the industry to sustain itself – and allow Terra Firma to get their money back and more. Ironically, one band that left EMI to strike out on their own rather than work for Terra Firma was Radiohead, but which at least provided conclusive evidence of one model that they can safely discard: the pay what you think it’s worth model. Customers wishing to download the album were invited to set their own tariff, plus an obligatory 45 pence to cover administrative charges. As many as 60% of people chose to pay nothing at all. Radiohead are rich enough so that this level of freeloading doesn’t really matter, and can easily make this back in ticket sales from a stadium tour. But it is hardly a promising business model for new bands without Radiohead’s brand recognition. Terra Firma’s urgent need to find a coherent business model for the music industry will be worth watching.
* ‘EMI’, The Sex Pistols, Virgin Records, 1977.