EMI Exec Opens Up On The Sale Of EMI

24 May 2012 | 4:14 pm | Scott Fitzsimons

Bart Cools admits the sale of EMI was a shock at first, but "we've been in this position for years now."

Bart Cools

Bart Cools

Last year, EMI - one of the world's four major labels - was split and sold. After a 'disasterous' period of ownership under Guy Hand's private equity firm Terra Firma, the company ended in the hands of Citibank who spent a lot of last year trying to sell it.

In the end - and after mass speculation (a recently sold Warner were favourites right until the end) - the company's recorded music division was sold to the Universal Music Group in a deal worth $1.8 billion, while the publishing arm was sold to a Sony/ATV led-consortium for $2.2 billion. Since then, anti-trust regulators have examined the deals in what is becoming an increasingly complicated process. (Essentially, Sony/ATV have the all clear, Universal is still waiting.)

Throughout the process EMI have kept near-silent, with staff around the world only knowing what they've been told from company-wide memos, which inevitably show up in the media five minutes after they've been sent.

Sitting down with theMusic.com.au in Sydney recently, Amsterdam-based Bart Cools, EMI Music's Executive Vice President for Marketing in Europe and the Rest of the World, admitted that the impending acquisition was something that is hanging over the company.

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"It would be stupid to say that we never think of it," he said. "First of all, after the initial shock that it was going to happen, is the realisation that we've been in this position for years now - Terra Firma, Citibank, Warners, not Warners, maybe Warners, now it's Universal.

"I think there's also a realisation from everybody in this company that there's no point in thinking about it 24 hours a day, because there's really nothing we can do about it at the moment but try and do our job as good  as possible and be the best possible company we can be by the time that it actually happens, and make our point, if you like."

He believes that their point as a stable company is being made around the world as is confident that Universal's ownership wont spell the end of the end of the iconic label.

"I think this is a healthy company, in most territories making quite a bit of money. Universal didn't buy this to destroy it, obviously. There is a sort of worry, but not too much. We're doing well, we're developing nicely, we do what we have to do... I have a lot of artists that I work. All the artists that we've signed in good faith, they have only one career so we can't afford to just not do anything for six months and then tell everybody, 'Oh, sorry we were a bit busy with our own stuff'.

"I think a lot of people within this company - maybe not all of them - but most of them have those same feelings. I've got responsibilities here because I've signed an artist and that's their life, their career, I can't just play with that and put it on hold just because something might change within the next six months, nine months, whatever."

One example of moving forward despite the boardroom business matters is the recent implementation of an EMI Dance Network, which they hope will foster dance and electronic acts. Not so much a label as it is developing lines of communication amongst staff around the world, Cools said that one of the questions that prompted the Network's formation was, "What systems do we have for them [artists] if we want to pretend we can do a global deal with them? And that doesn't mean that we have to spend millions of dollars everywhere."

It also adresses, "The pipeline issue we're going to have. We've been signing so many artists and DJs around the world, we don't have the opportunity or the power to put them all through the big EMI machine."

The first official meeting for staff involved in the Network is in June in Ibiza where they'll nut out an "Incubation label structure. Imagine that we sign a young fresh DJ in Australia, they're not going to go out into the US immediately all guns blazing. We need a way to actually make it [their music] available in Australia, in the US - through Beatport, through iTunes - to make sure that when that person DJs in America they feel supported.

"So we have someone there who knows what's going on and we have [the music] available and people can find it and listen to it if they need to. And then we can immediately see what bubbles up and what is something that we need to look closely at for development. Dealing with the bottleneck issues that every company has, at least we've got everyone in a room and it's open on a table."

Sydney's Alison Wonderland, who recently released her first mix-tape album and is now working on an album of originals, is an example of this development process. She's submitted demos to the label, which feature her own vocals, and the aim is that this international 'round table' will decide on a strategy that will best serve her career long term.

"Alison - or Alex [Scholler, real name] - needs to find her own feet a little bit more before we can say, 'OK, this is where we go'," he said. "She's not ready to do that at the moment and I think the guys here, Scott [Horscroft] as well, understand. And she's comfortable with that - let's try this and let's try that and let's work with a few more people to see if we can crystalise what it is that she wants to say."

As far as the future of EMI is concerned, Cools spoke as if he was accepting of the fact that Universal's purchase will go through and admitted that he - or any staff - can hardly avoid the ongoing developments of reviews and regulators.

"I'm not into the detail of the whole thing, I don't even know if it's 50/50, 60/40 [percent chance to be approved], I'm just assuming," he said. "They've [Universal] bought the company, so I'm just assuming that that's it. There might be a few changes there, or they might have to do something, but I'm working from the assumption that it's going to happen."

While in Australia Cools was particularly interested in artists that he believes will have traction in Europe, particularly Empire Of The Sun who he confirmed were working in the studio - as a duo - again and "plan" to have a new album out next year.

"But then again it's up to them, "he said of the timing, "it needs to be right. It's not a race. But at the same time, it's been four years since the last album - that's dangerous. When you let that go to five years regardless of how good or exciting the album is, it's going to be a hard slog to get it back to people. Music moves on a bit, so before you know it you've missed your momentum."

Another Australian act he's tipping is Melbourne duo - now based in London - Nervo.

"I'm looking forward to having a few huge hits over the European summer with Nervo, [it's a] really amazing track that they've delivered."