Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Of course, there's something formulaic about each new interview with a major label head, as they say the same old wasp toss and we point out that they're, you know, wrong, that we could almost do it in our sleep. And it probably gets a bit boring to read the same thing over as we do writing it. So, in order to spice up our coverage of the Guardian's interview with Eric Nicoli, chairman of EMI, we're going to offer extracts of Jenny Fabian & Johnny Byrne's 1969 novel Groupie.

First of all, Nicoli was rubbing his hands with glee at the Grokster ruling:

The reason we are delighted with the Grokster decision is that it shows that in the world's biggest music market, the courts take a dim view of people who encourage or facilitate and turn a blind eye to online theft as a mechanism for promoting their own business."

It was good when people down at the boutique recognized him with me, though both of us stayed quietly with our backs to a wall, slightly stoned, while it all happened around us. Then I felt his arm around my waist and I thought no mental blocks around this one. We split. After a somewhat self-conscious meal we went back to my place and slowly felt our way into each other's mind

Up to a point, Lord Nicoli - the crucial point, though, is that the Grokster ruling took the dim view against people who encourage AND facilitate. The 'and' is a cruicial part of the ruling, and it's disingenuous to try and pretend that the judgement extended to, say, people who produce 'how to' file share guides; or people who produce peer to peer networks without saying "get free stuff" at the same time.

He then turns his eyes to what the major labels still believe is a PR war that they're winning (in much the same way that the US believes its winning the Iraq war, of course: it must be, all those resources poured in couldn't mean anything else, could it?):

Just as importantly, he believes the industry is beginning to win the PR war to convince consumers that downloading tracks for nothing is "theft"

This manage guy is calledJason Wylie. He's a young, charming hustler who's got himself into a good position. He's what you'd call a groovy guy, with long hair and a Procul Harum moustache.

Again, broadly Nicoli has taken a fact and hammered it flat to fit what he needs his shareholders to believe - the PR blitz and ugly lawsuits has, inarguably, convinced growing numbers of people that it's against the law to download without paying, it's far from clear that people treat this as being the same thing as theft - indeed, it's possible for people to do things that are wrong according to the letter of the law quite happily, because they believe that they're not hurting anyone. Mr. Nicoli will see that in the posh area he lives in when people tell their gardeners to carry on watering the lawns in the coming weeks.

"We're certainly making good progress. We're encouraged that more and more people understand why stealing is a bad thing. Our job is to make it more difficult as well as more dangerous to steal it. But more importantly, to make it easier and more convenient to buy."

Then suddenly Grant makes a very dramatic entrance and sits on a stool expectantly in the middle of the room. Everyone looks at him expectantly, and he says, very loudly 'I've got VD.'

We're not quite sure he's being straight faced here - surely he's not suggesting that before the BPI put up a couple of posters, there was a general ambivilance about stealing - we certainly were thankfull when EMI pointed out stealing was wrong; we returned the stolen jewels we'd been living on and resolved to go straight there and then.

"We want to allow people to access music however they want, whenever they want - as long as they pay for it. And if they don't want to pay for it, we'll be on to them. I think that's fair."

He'd watch silently while I went through my hustles, and when I'd got what I'd come for he would nod gravely at me, pleased at my ability to handle these tough experienced guys.

Except, of course, there has been a long, honourable tradition of ways of accessing music "wherever you want" without paying - through radio, for example. At least Nicoli does admit that the music industry was late to get to grips with the problem - but, wouldn't you believe it, that was everyone else's fault:

"It's really only in the last couple of years that everyone came on board. Some of the majors were owned by international conglomerates who aspired to be the gatekeeper.

"Early on there was a reluctance on the part of those companies to cooperate with everyone else. Because of some personnel changes and because of the crisis that the industry faced a couple of years ago, everyone has come on board. Now we're starting to see dramatic growth of digital distribution - and not just downloads but subscriptions, legalised peer-to-peer and all the mobile applications."

All the same, I wasn't too pleased at the thought if competition from a chick like this, and if this was really Grant's scene, what was I doing around? Or was London beginning to change his standards and did I fit in with his new scene?

He accepts the historical argument that because so many tracks were unavailable online, the only way to get hold of them was to download them illegally, hastily adding that it is no longer valid.

Then he'd had all thjese hustles getting out of the ledger clerk scene and working for Hit Maker. I admired him for this, I just wished his mind had come along too.

No longer valid? We spent a fruitless evening trying to find some not-very-obscure things on iTunes a few weeks ago: Dinsoaur Jr's cover of Just Like Heaven; anything by the Pale Saints; the Kitchens of Distinction; Bradford. Not a jot. We would happily have paid the overpriced 79p for these things, but... there was nothing. All of this stuff we found on Napster in the old days, mind; we were looking to replace our long-ago-wiped ill gotten gains with legal versions, but it's just not possible. If you have very mainstream tastes, you might find everything you want on the legal services, but to be honest, if you can find everything you want on the legal services, you probably don't really like music that much.

But he rebuffs the long-held argument that fewer people would download pirated tracks if CDs and downloads were cheaper. "That's bollocks. Are they saying that if CDs were half the price they wouldn't steal it? You can't compete with free," he retorts.

It all got very desperate, with him promising to come back because he loved me and me pleading with him not to go. He said he didn't want to go, but had to becasue he couldn't let the group down, and there were all these contracts he had signed.

No, Nicoli - that is bollocks. You're starting to believe your own industry's ridiculous claim that downloading without paying is the same as stealing a CD - it isn't, of course, because you're not depriving the seller of the chance to sell their product to someone else; it's even more stupid to say you can't compete with free. Of course you can: most people would rather click, download, and wander off listening to a song than spend time fannying about on a search engine, waiting for a bittorrent download to complete, if it ever will, hoping the quality will be okay. Of course, that doesn't mean that people will pay anything to avoid the hassle, but if you get your price point right, and charge what's perceived as a fair price, people won't bother with free but fiddly services. If Nicoli really doesn't understand this - if he doesn't understand why people buy bottled water when they have taps in their house, and buy prepared food when they could buy the ingredients for a tenth of the price - then he really shouldn't be in charge of a company. Luckily, EMI shareholders, he's just blustering.

Piracy is just one issue that Mr Nicoli, who is also chairman of the UK Music Forum, believes could be raised by a new music council quango recently suggested by creative industries minister James Purnell. "The fact that music has been raised in the minds of government in recent months is a very good thing," he says.

Envisaged as a lobbying body along the lines of the Film Council, Mr Nicoli believes that the traditionally divergent aims of the industry need a powerful voice to lobby on issues such as piracy and its campaign to increase the length of copyright beyond 50 years.

"It's a good idea for the industry to have a single, credible, powerful voice. We lobby by making credible arguments and explaining ourselves well and better than we have in the past," says Mr Nicoli. He is also keen, he says, to make the case for tax rebates on A&R.

I wouldn't have got vert much out of him, except maybe the clap.

Hang about a moment... why on earth should there be a Quango representing the music industry when there's already the BPI? Is Nicoli really suggesting that - besides the cartel - there should also be a body, paid for out of the public purse, designed to lobby the govenment in order to forward the interests of a few private companies?

And, far more to the point: Tax rebates on A&R? But haven't we been told for years that the ridiculously overpriced rates charged for records are so high because the industry subsidises the discovery of new artists out of the money made off successful ones? And yet now, it seems, they're trying to get the Treasury to redirect cash from hospitals and debt relief to underwrite the costs of sending people out to bars to try and find out what the competition are trying to sign anyway. They've really got to be taking the piss with this one, surely?

You can groove to Groupie, if you wish:


Darren H said...

I read this in the online Guardian yesterday. According the the headline, EMI's big cheese is, apparently, a "music man"

My, I did chortle.

simon h b said...

Ah, but who would read an article headed "sales manager speaks"?

Anonymous said...

Emusic has "Capsule" by Kitchens of Distinction, the first Pale Saints album and Just Like Heaven is tacked onto the end of "You're Living All Over Me". No Bradford though...

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