The Rise and Fall of EMI Records - review

A bone-crackingly dry version of a fascinating tale.

The Beatles arrive at Abbey Road Studios in 1966
The Beatles arrive at Abbey Road Studios in 1966. Photograph: Getty Images

The Rise and Fall of EMI Records
Brian Southall
Omnibus Press, £9.95

Making my way to an EMI Christmas lunch in 2007, I was told: “There won’t be many more of these.” I’d picked a funny time to join the industry. The old days seemed like a fairy tale. Stories of vast bills for “fruits and flowers” (drugs), or journalists getting flown to New Zealand to hang around with Crowded House for two weeks, were from another age.

EMI was home to the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Queen and an awful lot more. By the time Guy Hands and his private-equity group Terra Firma took control of the company in 2007, however, it was the world’s least successful major recording business, lagging far behind Universal, Warner and Sony BMG and deep in debt. It had been slow on the uptake when the CD and MP3 came along, and it was the last of the “big four” to license songs to Myspace, acknowledging the typhoon of free digital music on the horizon.

This is the tale of an unfashionable and slightly sweaty “suit” failing to pull a venerated firm out of debt, alienating many of its major stars and retreating into tax exile amid jeers from Lily Allen, Mick Jagger, Damon Albarn and all the other sensitive artistes he didn’t understand. Was Hands a ruthless philistine, or just a businessman trying to save a company that couldn’t adapt?

Brian Southall was a corporate PR at EMI between 1976 and 1989. Despite its title, his book, first published in 2009 and now updated, focuses on recent years. This is disappointing; a brief timeline of EMI reads like a whistle-stop tour of British history, from the firm’s inception in 1897 as the Original Gramophone Company to its acquisition of HMV’s dog-with-atrumpet trademark (his name was Nipper).

During the Second World War, the firm’s factory was used to produce munitions. In 1921 Edward Elgar opened the first HMV store. From Abbey Road Studios to its invention of the Cat scan – yes! – EMI may be Britain’s most interesting company ever. But Southall seems determined to make it the opposite. He is a numbers man. “The two essential elements of this book,” he announces, “are market share figures and financial information . . .”

Southall doesn’t meet Hands face to face: the interviews here are strictly “off the record”. Paragraphs are constructed from long quotations, filleted out from past music press and strung together with unnecessary detail: Paul McCartney is always “the former Beatle”. And there is light irony in how, for this tale of “creatives v bankers”, Southall doesn’t talk to the rock stars, either. Rather, his bamboozling financial analysis comes across as a determined PR job on behalf of his former company, seeking to prove there’s life in the old dog yet.

The “streamlining” Hands proposed – thousands of jobs gone, the roster of 14,000 artists slashed – pushed Robbie Williams’s manager Tim Clark to suggest in 2008 that he had “swept through the place like a plantation owner”. “New broom” would do just as well (Terra Firma had investments in waste management), but a public company playing host to rock stars was always going to make a fuss. The Verve went on “strike”; Kate Bush deserted with half her back-catalogue; Radiohead snubbed the company they’d been with since 1991 and released In Rainbows on their own website as a paywhat- you-will download.

Great rock’n’roll tales remain untold here, such as the occasion Hands requested face time with Mick Jagger and proposed that he and Keef host a TV talent show. It suggests he had quite a good idea where future music revenue lay – but generally he was a gift to dissenters. Awkward and lumpen, he would turn up backstage at Spice Girls gigs looking horribly out of place. William Hague was best man at his wedding. He made John Birt, the former BBC director general whom Dennis Potter described as a Dalek, his head of strategy. He courted the press relentlessly and was howlingly uncouth; he once slagged off his own marketing teams for their profligacy, saying: “You could stick a £50 note on the cover of a CD and have the same effect, and we wouldn’t have to pay them.”

Hands lost EMI in 2011 after a failed lawsuit against Terra Firma’s backer and adviser Citigroup (he accused it of fabricating a false competitive landscape when he bought EMI, making him pay over the odds). Now, it seems likely the company will pass to Universal, home of the world-straddling Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Perhaps the EMI saga is the story of the devaluation of a product that, for some people, is unquantifiable, even priceless. It is hard to accept that a new generation will not pay for recorded music. The company’s tale remains fascinating, even in books as bone-crackingly dry as this one, because there will always be an impulse to find a meaner, monster reason for the apparent worthlessness of something that still means the world to many of us.

Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic. The Rise and Fall of EMI Records is published by Omnibus Press, £9.95