whither EMI in the 1960s
Time to hammer the record companies, decides our fearless investigator John Morrish, who finds himself at the headquarters of EMI. The letters still stand for Electrical & Musical Industries, he discovers, but no longer, it seems, for Easy Money Industry.
These days, when you come to talk about British-owned major record labels with their own pressing plants, you don't have to look far. There's only the one: EMI.
EMI Music's Manchester Square offices, a nasty Legoland excrescence amidst otherwise charming surroundings, still suggest confidence and success. That self-image extends to the reading matter in the reception area. Copies of Property & Investment, Boardroom and London Portrait magazines are all prominently displayed. Oh, there was a single copy of Smash Hits too.
While I was there I witnessed a scene, no doubt typical, which I should like to share with you.
EMI THEATRE presents "MAN WITH A TAPE"
MAN: I've brought my tape, can I see somebody?
RECEPTIONIST: Leave the tape and somebody will listen to it. That takes six to eight weeks.
MAN: There must be some way...
SECURITY: Two of our men are on holiday, and the other one definitely won't see you.
VOICE OFF-STAGE: Has the charlady gone?
RECEPTIONIST: We have a strict rotation order.
MAN: Is there any way of making an appointment?
RECEPTIONIST: There is no exception to the rule.
MAN: I have come from Manchester.
RECEPTIONIST: We have had people come from abroad.
SECURITY: You have got to remember we have lots of cranks coming in here as well. People say, 'Can we bring our wheelbarrow in and collect our £200,000 once you have listened to our tape?' We had three guys from Greece earlier on. They had no chance because unless you live in this country you don't get seen anyway. You're persistent, though, I'll say that for you...
Leaving this pantomime in motion I ascended to the seventh floor, there to meet the bluff, portly figure of EMI publicity executive and company historian Brian Southall. It is in his hands, by and large, that I shall leave you.
I opened the discussion with a reference to press comment on the poor performance of Thorn/EMI's record and music division in the interim figures recently released. I found Mr Southall a trifle touchy on this point. He readily agreed that EMI Music's recent profits had slumped (£16.3m in 1984 to £10.2m in 1985) but pointed out that those were international figures and no reflection on the performance of the company in Britain (separate UK figures are not made public).
We talked about EMI's long history and great associated names like Sir Edward Elgar, Nipper, Max Miller and Grade Fields. Then there were the imports that EMI, through various complicated tie-ups, introduced to the UK: people like Elvis Presley and Paul Anka.
We talked about EMI before the Beatles, and the old house producers: Norrie Paramor, Norman Newell, Wally Ridley, and, of course, George Martin.
"In those days there were no independent producers. Everybody worked for a record company. You were the A&R man, you were the producer, you ran the label, you didn't have marketing like you do now, you didn't have promotion like you do now. It was a very simple business, you know.
"As times progressed you had a marketing department and a press department and a promotion department, and the producers became one part of the operation that grew because of Radio One and the pirate stations and HMV record shops and the whole enormous record business that grew up out of the Beatles thing."
After the merger between Thorn and EMI in 1978 to form the imaginatively named Thorn/EMI, the far-flung elements of EMI's musical activities were brought together under the EMI Music title. EMI Music had a strong voice in the whole military-hardware-to-brain-scanners-to-food-mixers conglomerate, and now runs 34 world wide companies.
EMI aren't selling anywhere near as many LPs now as they were ten years ago, but then neither is anybody else. What they are selling is a lot more pre-recorded cassettes, and nobody minds that at all. "We take a view that we are basically purveyors of music programmes. The public will buy them on whatever they want to buy them on."
The famous Compact Disc has been welcomed too, but here the record industry moguls hope it will achieve something extra. Because of its cost and 'hi-tech' status, they want people to buy the CDs instead of buying computer programs, videos, photographic hardware and other expensive products.
"It gets people back to buying music. But there's a problem of capacity in the world. We can't meet the demand for CDs. We announced plans in late July for a factory in Swindon that will make 10m CDs a year."
That should help EMI in particular and Anglo-American music in general to keep their dominance over world record sales. "UK hits and US hits sell in every country round the world, even though they can't understand them. That's something that over the years we have grown to achieve."
Meanwhile, there's the massive Spanish-speaking market to explore and, no doubt, eventually, the even larger Canton Chinese market. And then there are the various minority markets, for instance country, and gospel.
"The figures that have been issued in the last year obviously show a problem. What has already been done in terms of EMI worldwide to rectify the situation is a recognition that we need to broaden our repertoire base," he says.
That means the purchase of a second Spanish record company, the appointment of a country music boss in Nashville, Tennessee, itself, and a whole new set of classical recordings in America on the Angel label.
Then there's the endless repackaging game. Watch out for 1987. Why? It's the Beatles' 25th anniversary. "There's going to be a lot of activity around the Beatles' 25 years which is nothing to do with us," threatens Mr Southall. But you can be sure that EMI will be on hand with souvenirs of this historic occasion.
However, EMI acts should not worry. The money for all those new sleeves and re-cut discs does not come out of your budgets. There's a separate department called 'strategic marketing' which looks after everything from 'Now That's What I Call Music' to free record offers on Corn Flake packets.
"You can't do it very much with contemporary material. Artists are very sensitive. Barry Manilow was given away with washing powder last year," he confides.
Talking about artists, Mr Southall is not impressed with the old argument that EMI has never been interested in new bands because it could always do very well off the Beatles' back catalogue. "I can't answer that. I have been here 11 years and we have always had a serious A&R department. They have signed bands like Steve Harley, like Marc Bolan, like Queen, like the Sex Pistols (eh?), like Kate Bush.
"What we're trying to do now is strengthen the roster of British acts. If you look at the charts over the last year you will see that we were not as successful as we could have been. I wouldn't want to be an A&R man any more than you would. If it were left up to me I'd sign all the buggers in the world who don't sell any records.
"Being an A&R man and knowing what you like, with your own personal listening habits, and then having to go out and seeing a couple of bands and thinking, 'I hate them, but, are there going to be 50,000 kids out there who will love them?' I couldn't answer that. A very difficult job."
Then Mr Southall went on about Radio One and how unfair it is, but I'm sure you've heard that before.
EMI is now the only British major. Did it swallow up the others, I asked? "It's not our aim to swallow them up. What we are trying to do is help British music. We don't actually manufacture products for any overseas companies, which is not a policy, just the way it's turned out. We would rather do a deal with a British independent."
After that we discussed EMI's attitude to home taping. Didn't EMI make blank tape at one time? "We never went to the consumer. Well, very little. We never sold it direct to the shops, we sold it to the wholesalers for use in... well, before home taping became a problem EMI did have a thriving tape business, on blank cassettes.
"But that was before people actually perceived the idea of recording music on it. When people latched on to that idea, we didn't say, hey, this is illegal, we're going to pull out of it. It just became apparent that the Germans and the Japanese were bringing in tapes at three for 30 bob or something. There was no way we could compete with that," he said.
But don't people use tape to record music they are only slightly interested in while buying the records if they really want the music? Isn't it all part of the music-using culture that EMI depends on?
"Yes, but basically they're breaking the law. OK, change the law. The law is there and they're breaking it. It's not necessarily the record company that's going to get recompense, it's the guy who wrote the song and a lot of other people.
"The money will not go back into record companies. We have said that they should set up something like an arts council, and then they can go and record ethnic music, minority music, jazz, orchestras, whatever," he said.
But isn't it just like photocopying, I countered? "That's illegal as well," said Mr Southall, turning back to records once again. "I think it's a fair argument that there should be some recompense. I think the figures have been slightly exaggerated, but then figures often can be. But the idea of ten guys in a university buying one record between them and making nine copies — that does happen," he said.
The proposed tape levy is not aimed at the professional mass-producer of pirate tapes either. "This is aimed at the person who will buy a record and tape it for their own use, for the car, rather than buy a cassette," he said, pointing out that piracy is already a criminal offence.
As a closing gambit, I enquired what differences a band would find signing to EMI now rather than in 1962. "We would not do a deal with any band that is not legally represented and if they are not legally represented then we would find them legal representation. Because we've got Elton John in court... and we've had Gilbert O'Sullivan in court, both over contracts that they signed years ago. It's just not worth it."
And that was the end of the interview. "Do you want a copy of this thing here, the UK trade deliveries?" asked Mr Southall, heading for the photocopier.
Downstairs, the man with the tape seemed to have gone back to Manchester.
Feature by John Morrish
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