Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 in music

by Emmanuel Legrand

2010 was a good year for music. No major trend dominated, leaving more space to diversity and variety. Here’s a personal A-Z review of the year in music. Feel free to disagree!

A for Alternative
Arcade Fire's 'Suburbs' (Merge)
If mainstream pop music was the toast of the year (and not always for the better), the most interesting music came from the fringes, especially “indie rock”. Arcade Fire (Merge), The Black Keys (V2/Co-Operative), Local Natives (Infectious), Tame Impala (Modular), Deerhunter (4AD), Harlem (Matador), The National (4AD), Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), Midlake (Bella Union), Vampire Weekend (XL), Two Door Cinema Club (Kitsuné) to name but a few, provided the soundtrack for the year with energetic, intriguing and sometimes amazing new music.

B for Bella Union
In the last decade, the label set up by Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie and Simon Raymonde (now sole master on board) has established itself as one of the most creative new labels in the UK. This year’s must-have albums from Bella Union are John Grant’s ‘Queen Of Denmark’, Midlake’s ‘The Courage of Others’ and Beach House’s ‘Teen Dream’.

C for Canada
What a year for Canadian acts, with stunning albums from Arcade Fire ('Suburbs' is both a creative and a sales success), Black Mountain (Jagjaguwar), The New Pornographers (Matador), The Besnard Lakes (Jagjaguwar), Broken Social Scene (Arts & Craft), Owen Pallett (Domino) and Holy Fuck (Young Turks/XL), among others. What makes them so creative?

D for Dylan
Not Bob, but LeBlanc, who has shown with ‘Paupers Field’ (Rough Trade) that there is in him a brilliant singer/songwriter. And speaking of Dylan (Bob), The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964’ (Legacy) documents the fascinating evolution of Dylan, the folk bard doing covers of Jesse Fuller, Bukka White and Woody Guthrie, into Dylan, the songwriting genius.

E for Electronica
Thanks to Daft Punk and their soundtrack to ‘Tron’, there was a reminder that not too long ago, electronic music could be cool and mainstream. Unfortunately, few of today’s act in the genre manage to cross-over, despite good offerings this year from Bonobo (Ninja Tune), Darkstar (Hyperdub), Underworld (Cooking Vinyl), LCD Soundsystem (DFA), Lindstrom and Christabelle (Feedelity), Villeneuve (see below) and the very challenging, but brilliant Zola Jesus (Sacred Bones). And on top of that, Brian Eno offered in 2010 one of his best recordings in a long time (‘Small Craft on a Milk Sea’ on Warp).

F for Failure
Christina ‘Bionic’ Aguilera – Kings of Leon – Michael Jackson – Miley Cyrus – Jonas Brothers – Santana – Rod Stewart – Love (Courtney)… They all tried, and did not convince.

G for GaGa
The Lady, of course. And this year’s sole global megastar. Some predict that her lifespan will be as long as that of the outfit she wore at the VMAs… I beg to differ. As irritating as she can be, she provides the goods in the form of perfectly packaged dance-pop tracks and she does the hard selling quite well. On top, she has a clear vision of where she wants to go, a very good management and a label working with her to stay at the top (Interscope). So hats off to her, and let’s wait for the next album before writing her off.

I for Idols
SuBo may now be “as popular as the Beatles” (according to British media), but it seems that the lifespan of these so-called Idols is shorter than ever, and the selection process more odious than ever. No wonder Simon Cowell moved on. Now there’s ‘Glee’, another karaoke show, but at least, there’s life in it. And what could we say about this “genius” (according to his manager) named Justin Bieber?

Robert Plant's 'Band Of Joy' (Decca)
J for Joy
Robert Plant’s ‘Band of Joy’ (Decca) did exactly what it said it would. Who needs Led Zep, eh?

K for Katrine
Largely unknown outside French borders, Gallic iconoclast Philippe Katrine (Barclay) deserves a wider audience. With his unconventional style (check the video for ‘La Banane’…) and his melodic sense, he comes across as one of heirs to the great Gainsbourg.

L for Live
Bon Jovi have scored the most successful tour of the year. At 67, Roger Waters is taking ‘The Wall’ to sold-out venues. Muse are now one of the world’s biggest draw. And seven out of the top 10 best-selling tours of the year were by artists in their late 40s to late 60s (according to Pollstar…). Depressing.

M for Monae
Janelle Monáe's debut ‘The Archandroid’ (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy) is probably the most exciting R&B release of the year. It is diverse and inspired, with that little ounce of controlled madness that makes you want for more. The future is hers!

N for Ninja Tune
At 20, British label Ninja Tune created by DJs Matt Black and Jonathan More, better known as Coldcut, has lost none of its edge, as this year’s output proved: the aforementioned Bonobo with ‘Black Sand’, R&B rising star Andreya Triana with her debut ‘Lost Where I Belong’, and Los Angeles-based producer Teebs with ‘Ardour’. Check them out.

O for Outstanding track
Has to be Cee-Lo Green’s ‘F*** You’ and the way it crawled organically into public’s consciousness.

P for Pop
What is pop today? If judged by what is “popular” then hip hop (Kanye West), R&B (Usher, Rihana, Kesha) and dance (David Guetta, Lady GaGa) are today’s pop. Overall, it is usually upbeat and bland, with an embryonic melody and top production values.

Q for Quote of the Year
Has to go to good ol’ ‘Keef’ for spilling it out in ‘Life’, one of the most openly honest autobiography ever written by a rock star. The whole book could be quoted. We’ll stick to this one: “I've never had a problem with drugs. I've had problems with the police.” Errr, really?

R for Re-issues
Re-cycling old stuff has been a growing business in recent years, with “Deluxe” editions, re-mastered albums, final cuts, and so on. The Beatles’ Apple and EMI are experts at that… But how many times can you buy a Beatles album? And we have probably seen already five if not six incarnations of The Who’s ‘Live At Leeds’: single vinyl album, then its transfer on CD, then a CD with of all the tracks minus ‘Tommy’, then all the tracks including ‘Tommy’, and in 2010, the whole package above mentioned plus the concert in Hull… Luckily, sometimes the material is worth the purchase. This year’s outstanding re-releases include David Bowie’s ‘Station To Station’ (EMI), Bruce Springsteen’ ‘The Promise – Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ (Columbia), The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ (Rolling Stones Records), and Miles Davis’ ‘Bitches Brew’ (Legacy), as groundbreaking now as it was when initially released in 1970.

S for Second Album
Several bands succeeded to by-pass the traditional “Second Album Syndrome” and delivered masterful albums: MGMT (Columbia), Vampire Weekend (XL), Yeasayer (Secretly Canadian), These New Puritans (see below), to name but a few.

T for These New Puritans
These New Puritans's 'Hidden'
‘Hidden’ (Angular/Domino) was voted best album of the year by the NME, and it is easy to see why – it fulfils all the “indie rock” credentials advocated by the British weekly magazine. And the end result matches the hype. Just listen to ‘We Want War’ and you’ll be converted.

U for Urban
It could have been a poor year for Urban music but a few tracks/projects/personalities saved the year: Big Boi, K’naan, Kanye West, Tinie Tempah, Plan B, Drake, Janelle Monáe, Gonjasufi, Ben L’Oncle Soul, Eminem, Cee-Lo Green, Aloe Blacc…

V for Villeneuve
Not the Canadian F1 car driver but the French producer/songwriter, who worked with the likes of Agoria and M83. He delivered in 2010 his sophomore album ‘Dry Marks Of Memory’ (PIAS)  and his wide range of influences set him somewhere between krautrock and Mazzy Star, with a touch of Air. Strongly recommended.

W for World
Asmara All Stars's 'Eritrea Got Soul'
(Out Here)
Outside Anglo-American music, there’s a world of music. And some of this year’s best albums come from odd places such as Eritrea, with Asmara All Stars’s ‘Eritrea's Got Soul’ (Out Here) and its infectious blend of trad music from the African highlands with reggae and dub. Equally arresting is Tamikrest’s ‘Adagh’ (Glitterhouse), from a group of young Touareg musicians from North Mali/South Algeria, voted best World Music album of the year by French magazine Les Inrockuptibles. If you liked Tinariwen, you’ll like them. And it is hard not to mention ‘Ali & Toumani’ (World Circuit), the final installment of the collaboration between the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré and kora player Toumani Diabaté. 

X for The XX
Yes, their eponymous debut was released in 2009, but it was equally as good in 2010, and probably better than most releases of this year. And they also managed to win the Mercury Prize. Looking forward to their second album.

Y for Yes
OK, I have to confess: I downloaded (from Amazon at £3.49) Yes’s magnum opus ‘Tales From Topographic Ocean’ (Atlantic). Initially a double LP when released in 1973, with four tracks ranging from 18 to 22 minutes, it now comes with two additional 20 minutes-plus tracks. ‘Tales…’ is often the source of sarcastic (if not hostile) comments and reviews, but I have to say I quite enjoyed the journey. It is not as pompous as I expected, and it almost has a pop feel to it, even if 22 minutes is not the average length of pop songs. A guilty pleasure, which will certainly destroy any musical cred I may have garnered over the years… E la nave va!

Z for Gorillaz
Had problem finding an entry for Z, in the absence of new material from ZZ Top and Zappa (whose works need to be re-appraised). So GorillaZ will do. In the competition Oasis v. Blur, the winner is without contest Damon Albarn. Whereas the old Mancunians are content with rehashing ancient recipes, Albarn manages to constantly surprise and remain fresh, getting his cue from African music to Chinese opera. Give Damon Albarn an OBE, he deserves it.

A for Album of the Year
Angus & Julia Stone's 'Down The Way'
(EMI Music Australia)
If there has to be one, if only based on the amount of times it was played on my iTunes, it has to be Angus & Julia Stone’s “Down The Way” (EMI Music Australia). It is hard not to fall for the subtle tunes composed by Angus, who has found in his sister Julia the right voice for his sometimes traumatic visions. The album went to No.1 in their native Australia, and they are huge in France, but virtually unknown elsewhere. As one BBC reviewer pointed out, “roll with them” and you won’t be disappointed.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Billboard shrinks

By Emmanuel Legrand

There was a time when Billboard represented the ultimate reference in the music business.
It wasn’t a hit until it was in Billboard’s charts. It wasn’t a worthy story until it got the Billboard treatment.
If there was one trade publication that did merit to be called ‘the Bible’ it was Billboard. You read the magazine religiously. You needed you weekly doses of gospel. You became part of a cult. You were devoted to the colours in the logo.
And you weren’t part of the business if you weren’t in Billboard.
If you wrote for Billboard, you had made it. You were at the uppermost end of the trade. People in the biz at the highest level would take your calls at any time of the day and the night. PRs would stalk you for a story about the acts or the executives they were representing. You got invited to the best gigs and after-parties. You were part of the music biz establishment.
Some happy ones in our journalistic profession did have a stint – yours truly included – at Billboard and for many of us it remains the best gig in the world.
Of course, it sometimes meant you had to work under crazy deadlines for people based in New York who would call you to check facts in the middle of the night.
Of course it meant to sometimes work for some not-so benevolent tyrants who wanted things their way or the highway.
But the rewards were high, and the gratification to work for such a biblical institution meant the world to those in the cathedral. You knew you were read by the most influential people in the biz – and you had influence.
But that was then.
That was when there weren’t many other sources of information to figure out what was going on in the music biz.
That was when a weekly printed magazine, even reaching the other side of the world two weeks after print, was still relevant to read.
That was when the business had some form of coherence, pre-digital disruption.
In today’s world, Billboard’s reach and influence has suffered the same fate as the industry it covers. The brand is still strong, but its reach (in print, at least) has shrunk, by the effects of the simple mathematical formula that each time companies merge or close down, subscriptions go through the window.
Even online, despite the creation of two platforms, .com (consumer) and .biz (B2B), its impact is fading in the loud white noise of the internet. There are so many more sources to get your information from, especially when it comes to music.
And its charts, that for years ruled the world, have lost some significance and are challenged by new entrants, such as BigChampagne’s ‘Ultimate Charts’.
For the past few years, Billboard has been very much A&R driven (at least in its print version), in some sort of a obsessive drive to compete and catch up with all the glossy music magazines by putting artists on the cover, preferably good looking. Let’s call it the Rolling Stone syndrome (its current editor comes from there, and its new publisher has a background in consumer, not trade press).
As a result, the business side seems to almost be an afterthought and is getting less and less thoroughly covered, and since many of the magazine’s “veteran” writers have left, the publication has lost a sense of history and is capable of putting news in its context.
It has to be noted that in the 1990s, when the magazine was edited by the late Timothy White, who himself came from RS and who had had serious issues with the magazine’s founder and publisher Jann Wenner, Billboard held on to its mission to be the business paper of reference for the industry. Of course, we all remember some of Tim White’s over-long and over-written “White Papers” often focusing on irritating artists (Don Henley, Alanis Morrissette, to name but a few).
But he was a man of passion who understood the business and he would challenge his troupes to provide the best stories before anyone did. (Yes, he did also edict a memo instructing his journalists NOT to attend press conferences and report from them or face the sack on the grounds that Billboard reporters had to get the stories first… As a result Billboard ended up missing out on a few important stories. Another Tim White rule was that you could only publish in the magazine pics of people that had been interviewed directly by a Billboard reporter. Needles to say these rules were dropped after his untimely death.)
During White’s tenure, Billboard status as a global publication grew, not only in its reach but in its coverage, with a network of about 40 correspondents around the world, coordinated out of London, the magazine’s biggest outpost. Under the guidance of Adam White in the 1990s, and with the support of Tim White and then-publisher Howard Lander, Billboard had a mission to really reflect the world of music in its global diversity.
I had the privilege to follow Adam in the job, and it very soon became evident, in the wake of multiple changes in editorial leadership at the magazine, that “global” was more and more and more of an afterthought (even though the head of the London office was bestowed with the pompous title of ‘Global editor’ for Global probably meant the world outside of the US…), almost a nuisance, taking widely treasured real estate in the magazine away from US-driven stories. It created a lot of frustration among non-US writers and editors.
Last week, Billboard has gone one step further in its global = USA vision by simply scrapping altogether its London operations, letting go by January 1 all its UK staff.
It is sad, firstly because some good people will lose their jobs in the process. But also because it says so much about the state of the business, as labels who used to provide Billboard with the bulk of its ad dollars have almost completely stopped advertising in the mag. As I had to close down not one but two magazines in the past decade (Billboard’s sister publication in Europe Music & Media, and music publishing quarterly Impact) due to the rarefaction of ad revenues, I know how difficult the business is.
The idea that Billboard will no longer be represented in the world’s second largest music market (not in size but in creative terms) and will significantly reduce its international coverage is painful to those who think the music business deserves a global publication.
But is it surprising? Not really.
There is only one reason for that – cutting costs. Since it was acquired a year ago from Nielsen by a private equity group, the magazine, and other publications like The Hollywood Reporter, have been re-tooled (editorially for the best in the case of THR). But mostly the job of the new owners has been to get rid of fat wherever they could, outsourcing many of the admin operations, but also cutting into editorial resources, where little fat was left.
How far will the trimming go? Billboard’s editorial team in Los Angeles has been reduced to a minimum, and more people in New York are said to be under threat (unrelated to the fact that editor Craig Marks is leaving to join a start-up company after just a year in the job).
How long will it take before the print edition will be confined to the history of trade press? At this stage of the evolution of the music market, it is an option that cannot be ruled out. And if this happens, it will definitely mark the end of an era. But let's hope we won't get there.
As Woody Allen once said, "More than any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
That could quite nicely sum up Billboard's future...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is the content industry's future going to be mobile?

by Emmanuel Legrand

It’s the Internet, stupid!
Guess what? Consumers want to access the internet and web-based services through their mobile devices. Nothing really new here. That was on everybody’s minds – especially people in the phone biz and those in the content industry – since the beginning of the century. But it took roughly a whole decade to get there.
In fact, the tipping point was the advent of smartphones, with Apple’s iPhone as primus inter pares, and the new generation of 3G networks, capable – at last – to carry the volume of data required to offer these services.
So what we are seeing now is really the start of a new era, that of the web-based mobile business.
M. Newman
“It’s all about the internet and consumers want services from the internet,” said Mark Newman, chief research officer at Informa Telecoms & Media, at the conference Industry Outlook 2011, organised November 25 by British media and events group Informa Telecoms & Media.
This quite low-key event was a great eye opener for those trying to figure out where the next big thing is going to come from. According to Newman, the demand for services, content and applications on mobile phone – ‘stuff’ that will make these handsets really smart – will be the drivers of the mobile business for the years to come.
His views were backed by the results of a survey across the telecoms galaxy in which 67% of the people polled believed that in 2011 “content companies will successfully start to develop new business models to monetise their services”.
Newman pointed out that since 1996, mobile operators and internet companies were looking at each other without really knowing how one could benefit from the other. The mass-market adoption of smartphones makes this relationship possible now.
He also noted that the same survey listed among the key topics, companies or people in the telecoms world that will be important in 2011 the following: ‘smartphones’, ‘cloud services’, ‘Google’, ‘Apple’, ‘network sharing’ and ‘Android’.
When it comes to mobile phones, the overall figures are staggering. Informa forecasts that by 2015, close to 650 million (yes, over half a billion) smartphones will be sold in the world, about 41% of all handsets sold on that year, with Europe and Asia/Pacific leading the way. So with these phones comes content traffic.
At the moment, revenues extracted by operators from internet-related services are in the region of $95 billion a year, to be compared with global revenues of $713 billion on voice traffic. Yes, phones are still primarily used to…make phone calls!
But that’s going to change and Informa forecasts a major growth in revenues from web-based services. In a way, owning a smartphone encourages data consumption. And to provide what consumers want, operators will have to make partnerships with content providers such as Facebook (200 of Facebook’s 500 million users use the service on their mobiles), Yahoo!, Skype, or Spotify.
K. Hart
Ken Hart, senior director, business development, at Yahoo! forecatsted one billion mobile internet users by 2013, up from 600 million nowadays. “We see very big opportunities [in mobile internet services],” said Hart. “What we see in the US is that people do not drop their PC but there are gaps in the day, and there are now usages patterns combining mobile and PC.”
For Hart, the trend in mobile phones is towards simplicity. People want easy to access services, but he warned about having over-expectations. Consumers, he stated, do not need hundreds of services – they will turn to a small number of service sthat fit their needs. “The average smartphone in US has a few dozen apps,” he explained. “A third are utilities, one third are brands like Google then there’s a small number of Specific applications. There is only a limited number of things people are using on their phones. You’ve got to have something to differentiate you in the market.”
F. Galaria
Music and video were among the examples attractive content mentioned during the conference as good playgrounds for partnerships. French streaming audio service Deezer has a partnership in France with Orange. Spotify, the music streaming service, has partnered with operator Talia in Sweden and 3 in the UK. According to Spotify global head of business development Faisal Galaria, these partnerships can be beneficial to both parties. Operators can provide a much useful service to their customers without having to set up their own infrastructure and making deals with rights owners. In return, Spotify can leverage its brand and access new users. Sometimes, added Galaria, the partership can extend to operators taking charge of billings on behalf of Spotify.
“Telcos and mobile operators say that Spotify is an acquisition driver for them,” revealed Galaria, who added that Spotify aims “to be ubiquitous because we are a cloud-based service.”
Galaria quoted some Informa research forecasting that 5% of the $365bn of non-voice revenues in 2015 will come from music. “This is quite significant,” he quipped. How these revenues are going to be shared and how much will be back to rights holders is obviously the $18 billion question!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Diane Warren To Keynote Midem’s Publishing Summit

 By Emmanuel Legrand

Diane Warren
Diane Warren is a hit factory. She’s some sort of modern version of the Brill Building, except that she is the sole songwriter in the building.

Since her first hit – ‘Solitaire’ performed by Laura Branigan in 1983 – she has penned over 1,000 songs and scored more hits in the Billboard charts than any other living songwriter.

She is not always the subtlest songwriter, but she sure has an ability to come with efficient choruses and melodies. ‘I Don't Want to Miss a Thing’, which she wrote for Aerosmith, or Toni Braxton’s ‘Un-break My Heart’, sum up her style pretty well, even though she is hard to pigeonhole.

The usually media-shy Warren will be part of Midem 2011’s International Music Publishing Summit, where she will be interviewed in Cannes by former Billboard editor Tamara Conniff, founder of the Comet web site.

Warren is in an interesting place: she is a very much demand songwriter in a world where, thanks to (or because of…) TV-reality shows, there is a need for good, solid songs to be performed by the aspiring ‘stars’ but also to established artists, searching for hit material. And that’s what she can deliver.

The other characteristic is that she is not interested in the least in the limelight. She is content with her role in the background, and does not aspire to be a performer of her own songs. 

She is also an astute businesswoman. She owns her copyrights through her company Realsongs, but it has not always been so. When she started, she made a deal with a publisher on terms that were not very favourable to her. When success started to kick in, she asked for the deal to be revised, but it was not to happen. So she decided to sue and fly on her own, and ever since, she’s owned her songs.

As editor of music publishing magazine Impact, which unfortunately stopped in 2009, I had the pleasure to interview her in her offices in Los Angeles in 2008. She appeared as extremely relaxed, witty and totally unfazed by celebrity. And like many of her peers, she is absolutely unable to explain what makes someone talented, and how songs come to fruition. So that remains one of the great mysteries of creativity...

Below you will find the interview in its full version.

(This Q&A was originally published in Impact’s issue 2, Spring 2008)

Diane Warren’s magical world

Diane Warren has had more hits in the past 20 years than any other living songwriter – 90 ‘Billboard’ top ten hits, 38 of which went to No.1, out of a catalogue of over 1,000 songs. Yet, if the American songwriter is a reference in the business, she is hardly known by the general public. She relishes this lack of celebrity attention, which allows her to concentrate on what she does best – writing hit songs for artists ranging from Whitney Houston to Aerosmith and Britney Spears.

Diane Warren
At the end of 2007, after years with EMI Music Publishing, her company Realsongs switched allegiances and signed with Sony/ATV Music Publishing in an administration deal for the world outside North America.

These days, she mostly works from Realsongs’ Hollywood offices located in the same building as the Los Angeles School of Film, where the notoriously media-shy Warren met with Emmanuel Legrand for an earnest interview.

Q: In 1998, EMI Music Publishing in the UK put out a six-CD box-set of your works. If you were to do that today, how many CDs would be needed? Twelve?

Diane Warren: Probably more!

Q: How can you be so prolific?

A: Because I don’t have a life. This is what I do. I’m starting to get a life though…I am trying anyway. I am a workaholic and I’ve been obsessed with writing songs since I was 14 years old.

Q: How did you get into publishing? Was it because you wanted to own your copyright?

A: It was kind of an accident. I was signed to a man named Jack White, a German producer and publisher who was working with Laura Branigan and David Hasselhoff (smiles). I guess I made some money on that…kind of funny. I was signed to Jack, he was producing Laura Branigan and she was the first artist to perform my songs [‘Solitaire’ in 1983]. Later, we had a dispute and we were in a lawsuit together. At that time I had a couple of hits, nothing really huge, but good hits like ‘Rhythm of the Night’ [for DeBarge in 1986]. After that a lot of people wanted to sign me and my deal with Jack was really not a good deal. I wanted to sign with other publishers but because of the deal, I couldn’t. My lawyer at the time said to me, “You have to keep your publishing.” And I was like, ‘why?’ (smiles). I wouldn’t say ‘why?’ now. My lawsuit settled, and I wrote a couple of songs that were big hits and that I owned, and I never looked back.
“I have been offered staggering amounts of money for my company but I would not sell it.”
Q: And now you have probably one of the most important and valuable self-owned catalogues.

A: My catalogue is huge and just keeps earning, and I have new songs recorded all the time. Many songs in my catalogue are constantly recorded or licensed. There’s all this new activity for catalogue songs and it’s pretty exciting. It’s like real estate that keeps going up and up. And these are all songs that I have been writing by myself. I have been offered staggering amounts of money for my company but I would not sell it. These are my songs and obviously I don’t need the money.

Q: In the first issue of Impact, [Sony/ATV Music Publishing CEO] Marty Bandier said that you looked after your songs as if they were your babies. The two of you go back a long way, don’t you?

A: Yes, I was at EMI [Music Publishing] for years and when he left, there was no reason for me to really stay there.

Q: So, Sony/ATV will now administer Realsongs for the world outside North America. What do you expect from that deal?

A: I would hope to get more activities on the songs, although we do pretty well already around the world. You know, whatever they do, I just hope they pay me… (laughs) I trust Marty, we have history – history is a good thing. He’s cool.

Q: You wanted to be a songwriter from a very early age, but always stayed away from the limelight. Usually, you would expect people who want to be in the music business to relish it.

A: I never did. I never wanted to be in the limelight. I never wanted to be a performer. For me it was always about wanting to be that little name on the record sleeve. When I was buying 45rpm records, I was always looking at the centre of the record and looking at the names. That’s what I wanted to be, that’s what I aspired to.

Q: A lot of songwriters want to be the performers of their songs…

A: I don’t. (smiles)

Q: Have you tried?

A: No. I might do a record for the hell of it, just to do one, but I’ve never wanted to be a recording artist. I think you’ve got to do what you are good at.

Q: So what inspired you to be a songwriter?

A: I was inspired by a lot of different people like the Brill Building writers and The Beatles, but mostly I was inspired by the radio. I grew up in the 60s and to me that was the prime period for pop song writing. You had Motown, The Beatles, Burt Bacharach; all these people at their prime and there were so many great songs to have as an influence.

Q: You cover a huge variety of styles.

A: I love writing lots of different songs in many different genres. I guess growing up I heard so many different styles of music. When I first started to listen to music, I heard everything, and I’ve always been a sponge, taking on board all these different influences. I was lucky to grow up in such a fertile musical time. My parents had a lot of records at home so I had a well-rounded musical education as a listener.
“[Songwriting is] a mysterious process for me, so I don’t even like to think about it. I can’t really analyse it, because it’s magical.” 
Q: And how about your education as a musician?

A: I wasn’t educated at all, I’m self-taught. I don’t know how to notate music. I don’t do scores, I write songs. I had one theory class but I didn’t pay attention to it. But I know chords, I can find my way around. I kind of taught myself, really.

Q: So how does it work?

A: I don’t know. Sometimes I sit at the keyboard and play a chord progression or sometimes I start with a title or sometimes with the lyrics. It’s always different. It’s a mysterious process for me, so I don’t even like to think about it. I can’t really analyse it, because it’s magical.

Q: You said somewhere that you would advise aspiring songwriters to start with a publisher. Why?

A: Just look at what I did: I was a ‘nobody’ and I might have had a bad publishing deal but in all truth, I did not deserve a huge deal because I hadn’t proven myself, right? Part of the issue I had with my deal is that when I proved myself, my publisher was not ready to work that out. I probably paid back his investment a million times, but that’s not the point. The point is that in the beginning, you need someone, you need a champion, so if there’s a publisher who believes in you, just do it, because you cannot get through the doors that a publisher can get into. It does not hurt to have a publisher who is excited about you, who’s willing to break down walls for you. As time goes by and you earn money and you become successful, yes, you are in a position where you can own your copyright.

Q: Do you sign other writers to your company?

A: No, we don’t. This is all about me. (laughs)

Q: And why is that?

A: Because I have so many songs…that’s why I got into it. I want to own my own songs; I don’t want to own other people’s catalogue or songs. I’d feel bad. They can keep their own songs. It’s not where my heart is. It’s about my music.

Q: When it comes to licensing your music, are there any brands or products you would not like to see your songs associated with?

A: I don’t think I’d let my songs be used for cigarettes. I wouldn’t do anything for any products that harm animals, that’s where I would draw the line.

Q: Have you ever created songs for specific ads?

A: No, I’ve never done anything like that. But I’d be open for the right thing.

Q: The list of the people who have sung your songs is quite staggering. Do you pick them or do they pick you?

A: There’s a lot of different ways. If I have a song that I feel is right for somebody I will call them. Some will call me. It could come from a manager, a label. If I think a song is great for Daniel Powter, I call the manager, and if he comes over and he does the song, it’s great. Or Lenny Kravitz, or whoever. I’m not shy about calling someone if I think I have the right song for them.

Q: Have you written for artists who have specifically asked you to do so?

A: Yes, I have but mainly I do not write for somebody [in particular]. I wrote a song for Meat Loaf and I wrote a song for Whitney’s new record, her comeback album. A great song, I think, and I wrote it specifically for her. At times I do that, but most of the time I just try to write great songs. If I write a great song, it can be done in lots of different ways, as opposed to writing for one artist, or one style. That’s why my songs are so open – they can be country songs, rock songs or dance songs.

Q: You do have a lot of songs in movies, like recently in ‘American Gangster’. How does it happen?

A: I am usually contacted by someone from the studio. For ‘American Gangster’ it was [Universal Pictures president of film music] Kathy Nelson with whom I’ve done a lot of movies such as ‘Coyote Ugly’, the Aerosmith song for ‘Armageddon’, and ‘Pearl Harbor’. It’s always good to work with her because she knows what she wants. Movies are really hard because there are too many opinions. I call them commidiots, you know, a committee of idiots, because there’s just too many people. Nothing good is done by committee.

Q: Do you isolate yourself from the world of record labels?

A: No, I’m not isolated. I deal with people from record companies. I deal with artists. I am very hands-on in my music but I don’t say I am just a songwriter and I can’t do business. I do both.

Q: What current projects are you involved in?

A: Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Daniel Powter, Lenny Kravitz, Faith Hill, Pussycat Dolls, and several new artists.

Q: Céline Dion?

A: I wasn’t really interested.

Q: Someone told me that she asked for a cut on publishing to those who supplied her with songs.

A: Yes, they did ask for a cut on publishing. I don’t think it’s right when people do that. I didn’t give them any but I know they got it from some other people. I think it is so wrong.

Q: Are there any artists you have never written for and you’d like to?

A: Probably people I haven’t met yet. I’ve been lucky enough, and I’m currently lucky enough to have worked with some great artists. I always wanted to work with some of the greats, but there’s always someone new to work with. I love great singers, great voices, so there’s probably a great voice out there that I don’t know yet that’s going to knock me out and for whom I will have to write a song for. That’s what’s so exciting – there’s always someone new to write for and maybe my song is the one that’s gonna give them the chance to have a huge hit and become a star, and I could say I was there right from the beginning, and then they’ll go, “Diane who?” (laughs)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You Can’t Always Get What You Want…

by Emmanuel Legrand

This may not be the best rendition of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ but it is certainly the most cheerful of all (check it out on YouTube).
It was shot in a rehab centre where patients with severe physical damages try to get on with their lives. Theirs is a world of broken bones and shattered lives, with lots of pain. And yet, through this version of the Rolling Stones classic, they manage to bring a smile to your face and lift your spirit.
The video is the brainchild of an old friend, Eric Dufaure, whose life was turned upside down in August when he was run over by a bus in Paris while cycling.
One of his legs is in pieces and he’s been in this rehab centre ever since, following multiple surgeries. He is now allowed to go back home for the weekends.
Eric’s life has always been about music. He was destined to be a banker after completing his Harvard MBA. But then, at the end of the 70s, Chris Blackwell (whom he was related to by his mother), tempted him to work in the music industry. “Come on,” he said, “you are not going to be a banker all your life.”
Eric jumped ship and never looked back. While in New York he ran Blackwell’s management company and started a music production company (Whale), an indie label, Cachalot Records (Comateens, Thomas Leer), wrote a few songs (‘Pigalle La Blanche’ with Bernard Lavilliers), and got married to Carol.
Eventually he went back to France, where he secured a job at France’s rights society Sacem, and went on working for EMI Music Publishing, before launching a new music company, Beluga.
A huge fan of the Beatles, Eric has music in his blood. He is a relentless optimistic, and that’s what transpires in this short movie. Thanks for the music. And bonne chance!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Hands v. Citi – It’s a gas!

by Emmanuel Legrand

“We’re all in it for the money” and obviously some are more in it than others. But the irony in Frank Zappa’s lyrics was certainly lost on Terra (not so) Firma boss Guy Hands when a New York jury decided that he was not duped by Citi when buying EMI, and that he made a conscious decision as an investor.

Guy Hands
Hands v. Citi was above all a case about who, in a pond where gangs of piranhas were circling around hordes of crocodiles, was the baddest. Hands is some kind of 2.0 version of Gordon Gekko. His whole life is about making money, more money (or else why would have he been dodging taxes by living in Guernsey, at the expense of only seeing his parents and family on rare occasions).

And here you have a jury of nobodies, not chosen among the masters of the universe, who tell the world that, after all, he is not so good at his business. That he should have thought about it twice before spending billions on EMI. That he knew what he was doing or else his due diligence process was faulty. That he should have been more careful when choosing a bank that was adviser as well as lender.

So Hands’ reputation is in the gutter. Citi’s does not come across as too pure either. And EMI is in deep shit. The best thing that could have happened to Hands was a verdict going his way. He would have had his exit strategy. Now, EMI’s future will be in the hands of Citi if Hands cannot meet its financial obligations. And that might not necessarily be a bad thing. As an owner and operator, Hands has not really done such good job there too (see previous posting).

Maybe it would be time for Hands (who also bears the title of 'chief investment officer' at Terra Firma) to consider retiring. But will he? As one EMI artist eloquently put it, “Money – It’s a gas!” It sure is…

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chrysalis for sale…again!

By Emmanuel Legrand

Here we go again: the board of independent music company Chrysalis has decided in its great wisdom that it was the right time to sell or merge the company.
Déja vu? Sure, the company was up for sale only three years ago! The plans were shelved after the credit crunch crisis and because apparently no one was prepared to match the high price asked by shareholders.
History repeats itself, and with the same causes creating the same effects, Chrysalis’s day-to-day business will be deeply affected (would you sign to a company whose future is totally uncertain?) and the life of the songwriters who are signed to the company and its employees will be severely disrupted.
Chrysalis songwriter Ray LaMontagne
With a rich catalogue of over 100,000 works, and representing the publishing of such acts as Ray LaMontagne, Damon Albarn, Mastodon, Pendulum, and dozens of other songwriters and composers, Chrysalis can be a very attractive target.
According to some press reports, “shareholders expressed their frustration at the company’s low share rating”. It did not make enough money for them.
At the moment, the company has a market capitalisation of about £74m ($119m). Shares closed on Nov 1 at 130.5p, and some estimates suggest the company could be sold at 200p a share. But that was also the price that they were expecting in 2008 and no one was prepared to pay that amount. However, the financial climate has changed and music publishing has proven to be quite resilient in the current environment. Last year, Chrysalis reported a net publisher's share (NPS) of £13.4m ($21.45 million).
Suitors, according to press reports, could include Imagem, the company backed by the Dutch pension fund, which has been very active purchasing companies in the past couple of years, and BMG Rights Management, the joint venture between German media group Bertelsmann and the “global alternative asset manager” KKR, launched in 2009. Bug Music, which is backed by private equity investors, could also be a player.
A couple of majors will probably look into the deal: Universal, always interested in new acquisitions, and Sony/ATV, whose chairman/CEO Marty Bandier has indicated in the past that he was keen to grow his catalogue through acquisitions.
Chrysalis is the perfect example of why music companies should not be publicly quoted. Over the past decade, under pressure form shareholders, the company – chaired by co-founder Chris Wright, who owns 29% of Chrysalis, and now run by CEO Jeremy Lascelles – has been going through a process of divesting from one business after another. Off went the books division, the TV production arm, and the radio group.
In the end, all that was left was the music division, mostly the publishing catalogue and the label Echo. In 2007, institutional shareholders asked Lascelles and Wright to explore the selling of the company, with no apparent success. Meanwhile, during the time the company was on the blocks, business conditions deteriorated, all signings were frozen, and the company started to lose market share. This situation is quite likely to happen again, with serious consequences on the viability of the company and the well-being of its songwriters, should the process drag on.
In an interview with Impact Magazine in 2008, Wright described the selling process as “quite debilitating for everybody connected with the company”. Lascelles added that it was a situation that the management was reluctant to get into but had to because of its institutional shareholders.
The real issue in publishing is that there is a limit to the value one can extract from a catalogue. It is the new repertoire that pulls the company forward and Chrysalis has always been noted on the market for its aggressive A&R policy, which paid serious dividends, thanks to the quality of its team and its signings. Talent requires time to develop, and investors, at least this type of investors, want a quick return.
Therefore, is hard – but not unexpected – to see any industrial strategy here from the shareholders. Building a strong entertainment company was not their concern – maximizing their investment was certainly their priority. On the other hand, Chrysalis is the work of a lifetime for Wright, and he probably has a clearer vision of the business than his shareholders.
In 2008, Wright said in Impact that having institutional shareholders helped Chrysalis expand and develop, including in the music business. At the same time, he added that they did not always take the long-term view and did not factor in the cyclical aspect of the music industry. “Institutional investors who come to an industry for a short period of time, [if] they feel that the industry is not in a growth cycle, they don’t want to be part of that any more,” was his analysis.
“They look at everything like a commodity, but music publishing is not a bad commodity if it is a commodity,” he explained. “If you own the copyright to, say, ‘My Way’ in America, which is something that we own, you have something for which, at the end of the day, you will receive a cheque. You’ll never receive a bill; you’ll always receive a cheque. It has some value, it is like a bond. It is probably a safer place to have your money than in some of the banks.”
Obviously, Chrysalis investors would prefer to put their money in some “safer” place. 

Update (10 October 2011):
Chrysalis was eventually sold in November 2010 to BMG Rights Management, the joint venture between German media group Bertelsmann and VC fund KKR, for £107m. CEO Jeremy Lascelles left the group shortly after, while chairman Chris Wright joined the supervisory board of BMG Rights Management. 
BMG Chrysalis also bought in September 2011 Bug Music for an estimated $300m. And are bidding for some of EMI Group's assets. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

What’s wrong with Live Nation?

By Emmanuel Legrand

There’s been a boardroom coup at Live Nation Entertainment. Billionaire Barry Diller is out as chairman (but stays on the board). Irving Azoff appears to be winning this round. And it’s business as usual at the world’s biggest live music and talent company. Or is it?

With Diller leaving the ship it seems that Azoff’s has prevailed. But at what cost? The company is in a financial mess. A look at Live Nation’s financial situation for 2009 tells the whole story: revenues: flat at $4.18bn; net income: losses of $60.18m (against losses of $239.41m the year before); return on assets: negative; return on equity: negative; return on investment: negative.

Basically, if you have bought shares of Live Nation, you have not received much in return. The FT pointed out that on September 29, 2010, Live Nation Entertainment’s shares closed at $9.94, “down roughly 40 percent from their postmerger high of $16.90”. In other words, it’s tanking.

How can it be interpreted? If the market leader cannot make a profit during a period of growth for the market, it usually means that either the strategy is wrong, or its analysis of the market is flawed, or the management is faulty and/or incompetent. And quite often it’s all the above!

Live Nation CEO
Michael Rapino
Live Nation was born from the acquisition frenzy started by Clear Channel in the US in the 1990s, buying left right and centre concert venues and local promoters (remember, they did the same with radio stations and outdoors advertising). At some point, Clear Channel let Live Nation go its own way, and since then it has been the philosophy of CEO Michael Rapino to continue the company’s growth through acquisitions of venues, promotion companies and talent, both in the US and in the rest of the world.

This strategy had a cost, a huge cost. And debt burden is now crippling Live Nation’s accounts (although it has to be noted that its Debt to Total Capital ratio is now at 51.94%, against 135.55% a few years ago, according to the FT). Live Nation has often been accused of over-paying for assets. But it is its strategy with artists that is the most questionable. On paper it made sense to couple top acts with concert production, local and international promotion, merchandising and even recording. If major labels could not provide (and deliver) real 360 deals, then Live Nation would!

Except that touring is not an exact science. One hot act today can be cold tomorrow. And acts like Madonna and Jay-Z come at a huge cost. The irony is that in the past these costs would be mostly covered by major labels and record sales would act as collateral for these investments. But with record sales in free fall, live music became the bread and butter of many acts, and with consumers apparently still willing to pay big bucks for the live experience, acts became greedy, and promoters got greedy too, and prices went up and up, until it all crashed – especially in the US market.

What did they think? That live music was going to fly through recession? That milking consumers would last forever without backlash? Add to that a slight dearth of fresh talent to fill stadiums and arenas, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Live Nation ended up with a lot of inventory (i.e. seats in venues around the world) that needed to be filled. And did not get filled, or at bargain prices, pissing off in the process those consumers/fans who had paid premium dollars for tickets.

So what’s the way to the future? Live Nation has good assets with its venues and a great infrastructure. It needs now to be more effective in its cost management. The days of over-spending should be over. 

The amazing thing is that the man in charge of the situation, CEO Rapino, is still in charge. There are very few listed companies who would tolerate that a CEO remained in place after so many negative financial reports. A change at the top would certainly send a clear signal to investors and to the industry.

Considering the share price, it would not be totally unconceivable that Live Nation could become a prey for some deep-pocketed global entertainment company. Vivendi is obviously one name that pops to mind. If Vivendi could combine Universal Music Group with Live Nation/Ticketmaster it would create the biggest music company in the world, with the potential to truly deliver on 360 deals. Such deal would require approval from competition authorities, and that’s not a given. But it would have the great advantage for Live Nation to have its activities and accounts consolidated into a far greater entity, and escape from the quarterly scrutiny of the market. However, so far, the French company has not made any such moves (but now that Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge is based in L.A., anything could happen).

Live Nation, once the pride of the live music industry, now looks like its weakest link. Things have to change or it might end up to be the Enron of the music industry.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Politics and music – dangerous liaisons, or not?

By Emmanuel Legrand

UK Music CEO Feargal Sharkey
Feargal Sharkey is taking the UK Music brass band to what we hope will be a sold out tour of this season’s political party conferences. It started this week with the Lib Dem gig in Liverpool, and will continue at the Labour Party do next week and end with the Conservative Party hootenanny in October (apparently there’s no visit planned to the BNP or the Greens).

A party conference is hardly Glastonbury in terms of entertainment values – although some reports suggest that quite a few MPs know how to get the party started - no pun intended. So why would the former Undertones frontman spend time in such company? And why is something that 20 years ago would have been anathema now seems so perfectly normal?

Because it matters! And because that’s why he was appointed chief executive of UK Music. His brief is to be the advocate for the British music industry, first and foremost to the country’s policy-makers. That he had been a howler in a punk band they all remember (and probably grew up listening to) helps open doors (it’s easy to imagine Sharkey handing his business card to some MP, adding ‘You've Got My Number (Why Don't You Use It?)’…).

However, it hasn’t always been like that. Creators, by nature, are weary of getting too close to politicians. It can be a painful relationship. You can quickly fall into the “official art” category, and that’s not a good place to be. But it does not apply to the industry itself, to the point that it’s now impossible for the creative industries to not interact with policy-makers. The world has become increasingly complex with legislation and regulations at national and global level necessary on many issues, from piracy to copyright harmonisation to taxation to organising the free flow of creators to the remuneration of works…

If this is quite new to the UK, in France there has been a more symbiotic relationship between the political world and the creative community, thanks mostly to the socialist minister of culture Jack Lang. Appointed in 1981, Lang re-defined the role of government in the creative sphere, and set a new atmosphere where creators were given prime position. Of course it did not go without its concessions. Artists were asked to “participate” in various initiatives, with most of them doing so, because they trusted Lang.

The upside for the industry was that Lang, to a limit (for example, he never helped quash the 33.3% VAT rate applied on recorded music), was open-minded and sympathetic to industry issues, taking it upon himself to sponsor a groundbreaking copyright law in 1984.

Lang’s tenure created a benchmark by which all its successors have been judged, with some faring poorly. One of his lasting legacies has been to put creative issues into the political agenda. The aftermath could be seen last year when the French government passed the “graduated response” law known as Hadopi. This was strongly lobbied for by the music industry, and it certainly helped that the husband of singer/songwriter Carla Bruni was the host of the Elysées Palace…

No democratically elected government, whichever colour of the political spectrum it is, can abstain from paying attention to this important facet of society (OK, save maybe for Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and the US under Bush). Over the past 10-15 years within the UK, there has been a shift for the better in the way policy-makers perceive – and work with – creative industries. It’s hard to imagine a symbiotic relationship between the governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major and the creatives – quite the contrary: the image of Bob Geldof lecturing Thatcher about the VAT rate applied on ‘Do They Know…” springs to mind.

With Tony Blair, however, things got better. Beyond the photo of the Gallagher Bros. sipping champagne with the PM, there was also major groundwork made by the industry to connect with cabinet ministers – not simply at the DCMS, but across the government. Chris Smith and Andy Burnham, especially, were quite sympathetic to the creative sector, whilst Tessa Jowell focused on the Olympics and James Purnell did not last long enough to make a mark. If, earlier this year, the then-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills Peter Mandelson had not taken personal interest in the Digital Economy Act (with or without the influence of David Geffen), the legislation would most probably not have been passed.

Perhaps the biggest change over the years has been the mindset of policy-makers, with the recognition of the creative industries’ invaluable contribution to the overall economy of the country. It is hard to deny the cultural and social importance of music, cinema, visual arts, literature, photography, etc. The value of a Caravaggio painting, for example, may be huge, but its historical, social and cultural value is even greater. Dealing with the creative aspects, however, does not mean you have to limit the scope to heritage, particularly given that governments would like to confine it.

So with Labour’s patrons of the arts such as Gordon Brown and Mandelson gone, is it going to be any different under a Conservative government? Apparently not. A while ago, when he was leader of Her Majesty’s opposition, David Cameron visited the BPI’s AGM and delivered what many considered to be an impressive speech – remember, at that time, he wanted the music industry to help him “repair” Britain’s “broken society”.

Culture minister Jeremy Hunt has already signalled his interest in fostering good relations with creators and the industry. One thing is certain, given the impending budget cuts, there will inevitably be less money to spend on the creative industries, particularly given that there are a number of important agendas to deal with: the implementation of the Digital Economy Bill; the drought of credit for small and medium businesses (at the Lib Dem conference, Business Secretary Vince Cable – a Lib Dem, in case you forgot – said he was going to make sure the banks “lend again”); the role of ISPs and the remuneration of rights owners; and, the status of Britain as a source of creative works for the world (we know that on this topic, Sharkey has set the bar quite high).

Today, there are forces in motion around the world that aren’t necessarily sympathetic to the creative industries. They have far more powerful lobbying machines and lots of funds, whilst they too know how to connect with policy-makers. So yes, it is imperative for someone like Sharkey to mingle within that crowd, and make the industry’s voice heard. Whilst his punk credentials may be at peril, knowing him, it’s fair to say that he’s unlikely to give a monkey’s about them.

(This story was first published in the weekly edition of Record of the Day, dated September 23, 2010)