EMI’s former man in Ireland sets the record straight
The label’s Irish arm has shut some 25 years after Willie Kavanagh rescued it. Despite the industry’s woes, he feels the war against piracy can still be won
Willie Kavanagh: ‘When the copyright laws moved favourably in New Zealand, it turned the music industry around. Ditto in France.’ Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
They’re calling it the end of an era in music, but Willie Kavanagh is fairly sure that the future holds possibilities.
Most people wouldn’t know Kavanagh (56) from any other moderately unassuming, healthy-looking man, but until recently he held what was arguably the most prestigious (and for some observers, the least likely to disappear) position in the Irish music industry – chief executive and managing director of EMI Ireland. He left the post this summer.
The label – an offshoot of the London-based corporation that gave the world the Beatles and many more multi- million selling music acts – opened its Irish doors in the mid-1930s. It closed shop about two months ago, having been subsumed as part of a global merger with Vivendi/Universal Music Group.
Kavanagh, like the remainder of EMI Ireland’s staff, is rescheduling his workload, yet he is a reminder of an industry that is looking change directly in the face and, perhaps, no longer flinching as much as it used to.
Kavanagh entered the music industry in the early 1980s, when, following Dublin-based jobs in marketing and advertising, he secured the post of sales and marketing manager in CBS Records Ireland.
His eight years there, he recalls, were the salad days of a global music industry in rude health. “CBS was like waiting at a bus stop – one big hit after another came along. It was the hottest label on the planet at that point, with the likes of Sade, Paul Young, Adam Ant, Shakin’ Stevens, Alison Moyet; on the US side, CBS had Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Julio Iglesias . . . Hugely exciting.”
The decadent era
Kavanagh was flying all over the world, going to meetings across Britain and Europe, in and out of conferences in the US.
“I was at one conference in Florida, and during it we were playing golf. Alongside of the golf course they were building an enormous structure. I was told it was a marquee for a party on the last night of the conference, and that the cost of it was $1 million. They were the heady days, I tell you. Ridiculously extravagant – beyond your wildest dreams; you couldn’t dream up how much more money you could waste. And in the marquee you had the likes of Barbra Streisand, Don Johnson and a host of American artists.”
By the end of the 1980s, then in his early 30s, Kavanagh was headhunted by a UK firm for the position of managing director of EMI Ireland, with a seat on the board of EMI UK. The Irish branch of the company – at this time located in an industrial estate close to Glasnevin Cemetery – was not in good financial shape, he says.