ColumnsPaul Stokes

Column - Major to minor? What Universal buying EMI means...

ColumnsPaul Stokes

Even as little as three years ago, the biggest record company in the world being allowed to buy the fourth biggest was unimaginable. Yet (21 September) today French-owned Universal has just been given European regulatory approval for its $1.9bn deal to swallow most, but crucially not all, of EMI.

When other iconic British companies were bought by foreign giants - like Rover and Cadbury's - there was public outcry and a sense that the country was throwing away important parts of its cultural DNA. The sale of EMI, however, seemed to be met by everyone outside of the music business with weary resignation.

It had been shivering in limbo since 2007 anyway, first being acquired by private equity company Terra Firma and then, when its debts got out of control, landing in the impatient lap of Citigroup who made no bones of the fact that it wanted shot of EMI - and quick. It has now gone to a better place, but not an ideal place.

Some will take comfort in the fact that, finally, the company is under the ownership of "music people" rather than city financiers; but equally others, namely the independent labels, will read this as the biggest disaster imaginable as Universal, bulked up on EMI steroids, will abuse its dominant position and make it hell for everyone else, from rival labels to new digital music services looking for licensing deals.

The EU even expressed its concern on this very point but still waved the deal through. Just as they waved through the merging of Sony and BMG back in 2004. Consolidation, for them, appears little more than a market inevitability.

Universal didn't, however, get it all its own way. It has to offload the Parlophone label (except The Beatles, that most symbolic of scalps), EMI France, EMI Classics and Mute as well as EMI's 50% stake in the Now That's What I Call Music compilations brand.

So while Virgin Records' current big acts including Emeli Sandé and Katy Perry are off to Team Universal, Coldplay (above), Tinie Tempah, Kylie Minogue and Pet Shop Boys are among those who are technically homeless until a new buyer comes along.

The regulator has stressed that only currently operational music companies can buy these divestments so there is some comfort here that they will not be bought by an other private equity firm just to be sold off piecemeal.

Even though EMI Publishing was sold to a consortium led by Sony/ATV in June, this does not spell the end of EMI as a music company; but it is the end of EMI as a powerful symbol of a particular and peculiar Britishness in a company squaring up to the world and, at times, winning.

Universal can pay all the lip service it wants to "keeping the EMI spirit alive", but is it has been wrenched apart carved up among different landlords and so it can never be exactly the same company again.

What happens next is more important than the mechanics of the sale and there are really only two ways it can go: being rebuilt in the shadow of its once-glorious self (like its own tribute act) or discretely pushed to the side to become a dusty museum piece. Eamonn Forde @Eamonn_Forde

Grab Q316, out in print on Tuesday (25 Sept) or on the iPad now for Eamonn's examination of the Universal/EMI means for music.

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