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.

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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