Big music labels push independents off the stage

 

POP will eat itself, predicted one rock 'n' roll band back in the 1980s; a decade later, the public's appetite for pop music is at its most voracious, and the record industry is now being swallowed up by giant multinational sharks, attracted by the sweet smell of lolly.

The most recent shake-up in the record industry is the takeover of PolyGram by the Canadian drinks conglomerate, Seagram. The decision to expand into the entertainment business is costing Seagram £10.4 billion (€13.21 billion), but it is likely to earn it a huge share of the worldwide recorded music market. The move has also seen the ritual sacrifice of a number of executives, and also the closure of A & M, one of the labels owned by PolyGram.

The Hollywood offices of A & M, which gave the world such million-selling stars as Joe Cocker, Carole King, The Police and Janet Jackson, were closed in January, and 170 employees were given the sack. Sheryl Crow, one of the label's latest stars, came round to commiserate, but there was very little else the singer could do beyond offering a few words of comfort. Founded in 1962 by producer Jerry Moss and jazz trumpeter Herb Alpert, A & M is now being absorbed by one of PolyGram's other labels, Interscope, and only the famous trumpet symbol will survive the shake-up.

PolyGram is now being merged with Seagram's other acquisition, Universal Music, and Universal is now the collective name under which labels such as Geffen, Motown, Mercury, Island and MCA will operate. Around 20 per cent of PolyGram's 15,000 employees are expected to lose their jobs worldwide, but in PolyGram's Irish offices, a shaky status quo is still being maintained. In Britain, around 80 people have been made redundant following the restrucuring.

"Some executives went by the by," admits Mr Dave Pennefather, deputy managing director of Universal Ireland. "But there have been no firings in Ireland - not yet anyway. Universal was the dominant player in the US, but in Ireland and Europe, PolyGram is the bigger entity, so we'll be backing our operations into PolyGram."

Mr Pennefather and his Universal/MCA staff are moving from their offices in Sir John Rogerson's Quay to PolyGram's premises in Aungier Street. When the merger is completed, claims Mr Pennefather, Universal will own the biggest share of the Irish record market - anywhere between 23 per cent and 25 per cent. Dubliner Tim Delaney, currently vice-president of Marketing at PolyGram International in London, will take the reins as managing director of Universal's Irish arm.

There are now just five major players in the Irish record industry: Universal, Sony, BMG, EMI and Warners. Virgin Records Ireland, home of The Spice Girls, is owned by EMI, but operates independently of its parent company. Sony runs the largest major label-owned distribution company in Ireland, handling its own product and that of Warners. EMI, BMG and Universal ship directly from Britain to retail.

The recent upheaval in the industry has increased fears for the future of independent labels which are struggling to survive in an increasingly corporate-driven market. Independents are the spawning-grounds of tomorrow's pop stars, but are finding it tough to stay afloat among the multinational leviathans. Many so-called "indie" labels are merely subsidiaries of majors, with little power to make their own decisions or control their artists' destinies. However, Mr Pennefather insists that the time is ripe for new labels to emerge from the detritus of high-profile takeovers and consolidations.

"I think it could very well rejuvenate the industry," he says. "I believe we'll see a lot of new indie labels being started up by executives who have lost their jobs in the majors. They're not just going to sit around doing nothing. They have the knowledge, the experience and the contacts, and they know how to spot a marketable act. What would have happened if people like Clive Davis had stayed in executive jobs? We wouldn't have had great labels like Arista."

Mr Freddie Middleton, managing director of BMG Ireland, which owns Arista, believes that, far from being sunk by the majors, independent labels have the opportunity to thrive on the back of multinationals. "Within the majors, there are lots of highly-respected labels, and they don't lose respect by being part of a conglomerate," says Mr Middleton. "Labels have their own individual identity which can attract certain artists to sign with them. Morrissey, for instance, signed with RCA because he likes the label and its history. The fact that RCA is owned by BMG doesn't diminish that label's reputation. I don't think you should close a label down. Labels are our trademarks, and a good trademark is valuable.

"There's great potential for indie labels to sell or licence to a major," adds Mr Middleton, citing Mushroom Records as a case in point. "They do the nuts and bolts, and get back the money we pay to license the label. I'm a great believer in the label's integrity. Let the indie be the creative side and let the majors do the service, such as marketing and distribution. Major labels are seen as monoliths, but they can actually help the indies to sell their product." The success of rock band, Garbage, who are on the Mushroom label, would seem to back up Middleton's contention. However, the traditional role of Irish major record labels in signing and developing new talent has changed; most of them are there to provide international product for the Irish market, and thus are not scouting for new home-grown acts with the same enthusiasm as before. "The mechanisms are different between the UK and Ireland," says Mr Pennefather. "But the costs are the same. Why spend a fortune to market a new act to a population of five million, when our UK counterparts can market the same product at the same cost and reach a potential 50 million?"

Mr Pennefather believes the Irish record industry has suffered as a result of hype and over-marketing, and he believes that a major record label deal can do more harm than good to an up-and-coming Irish band.

"You can't buy fan loyalty with a big record deal," says Mr Pennefather. "You have to allow artists to develop slowly, and not suddenly put their faces on phonecards and on poster sites all over town."

Most successful Irish artists have signed their deals with international companies, allowing them to penetrate the music market on a grander scale. The Corrs actively sought and secured a deal with Warners in the US, after literally knocking on the door of Warners boss David Foster; B*Witched signed to Sony in Britain, putting them in a prime position to launch straight in at the Number One spot with their debut single, C'est La Vie. In some instances, the Irish label will take on an artist with a view to passing them on to the parent company abroad. Irish boy band Mytown cut their deal in the US, with help from Universal Ireland, and when Boyzone manager Louis Walsh took his new protegees, Westlife, to BMG Ireland, Mr Middleton somewhat reluctantly brought them to the attention of his British counterparts. "We just didn't have the manpower here to develop the group to its full potential," says Mr Middleton. "In the UK, they can get the same people who worked with Take That, and they can perfect the group's image and sound on a scale that we could never do. It's not just passing the buck - we stand to lose the international publishing, but at least we might just see Westlife follow Boyzone to international stardom. We've had some successes which were signed here, like Brian Kennedy, but we've had a few failures too."

"I see us primarily as a facility for sales and marketing. We get the music from the UK and America and we sell it here. We have to be here to support our artists who are coming into Ireland to play concerts, and we have to ensure that their product is available in record shops around the country. We're providing a service to the record-buying public."

However, Mr Middleton refutes suggestions that the Irish majors are merely clearing-houses for international product. "BMG Ireland is completely autonomous, and we're free to sign local artists with a view to selling records abroad. There is a growing demand for Irish music internationally, and I think the infrastructure is finally there to develop talent at home. When bands like The Corrs and B*Witched do well around the world, it increases demand for Irish artists, and the Irish record industry is finally in a position to meet that demand."