The decline and fall of EMI

It is faintly preposterous to feel sorry for a global corporate monolith, but anyone who has ever waved an imaginary baton to the strains of Elgar, tapped a foot to the Fab Four or the Shadows, or even frowned meaningfully while listening to Pink Floyd or Radiohead on headphones, will have paused to reflect on hearing the news that EMI is to be sold. It was the last major British record label and some of its associated images - the Beatles leaning over the balcony of its Manchester Square offices, Nipper the dog on the logo of its HMV brand - are unforgettable.

Amid turbulent times for the whole record business, EMI's troubles have been singular. It was bought by Guy Hands's private equity firm Terra Firma for £4.2bn in 2007 in what turned out to be a disastrous acquisition. Hands had no experience of the music business and was widely seen by the industry as a speculator whose interest in EMI was purely financial. On his watch, it lost acts such as the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Radiohead. It did, however, retain the likes of Pink Floyd, the Beatles and Katy Perry, all part of the recorded music division now sold to Universal Music Group. Universal, along with Warner Music and Sony, is one of the world's three surviving major record labels.

Limited supply

The New York Times called the sale "the biggest shift in music's corporate structure in almost a decade", and it is bound to attract criticism. The concentration of power means that there are fewer meaningful choices when it comes to negotiations for artists.

Universal's share of the world's music sales is now almost 40 per cent. It is owned by the French giant Vivendi. But its chairman, Lucian Grainge, is British and he has said he is committed to preserving EMI's unique cultural heritage. This includes the Abbey Road studios in St John's Wood, north London where the cream of EMI musical talent, from Elgar to Kate Bush, has recorded and where, in one studio in one week in the heady, fragrant summer of 1967, Pink Floyd recorded their psychedelic debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, while next door the Beatles worked on Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The sale of EMI seems yet more bleak news for the business, but Music Week's Paul Williams told my BBC 6 Music colleague Elizabeth Alker that it may be good news for the indie sector: "Suddenly independent labels will seem an a even better option for artists to sign to." Williams pointed to the success of Adele, who is signed to the indie label XL and has sold 12 million copies of her album 21 this year.

In 1977, the Sex Pistols wrote a song, bluntly called "EMI", railing against their treatment by the once-mighty Electric & Musical Industries. In it, Johnny Rotten sneered at the firm's greed: "There's unlimited supply/ And there is no reason why/I tell you it was all a frame/They only did it 'cos of fame/Who? EMI." Now Johnny Rotten sells butter, and EMI has found that nothing is ever unlimited.

“Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone" is on BBC 6 Music (Sundays, 6pm)

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

This article first appeared in the 21 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of the Fourth Reich

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis