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


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.

“Actually, that’s an understatement.” The objective he was charged with, he remembers, was to turn the company around, “either that or to close it down”.

Kavanagh arrived at EMI’s Glasnevin offices expecting some shape of 1980s record company pizzazz, but this was not the case. “If you were to guess what did they do here I’d have said, ‘maybe they make drill bits’, because there’s no way there was any glamour.”

Business sense, too, was lacking. “I wasn’t happy with the business practices that were there, nor with the professionalism. I wasn’t afraid to get rid of people – very often in order to turn something around you get rid of attitude more than anything else.”

Also dropped were the distribution and warehouse elements. “For me, there was no halfway house. I operated on the basis of where would I like this company to be and how would I like it to be perceived.

“I went about spending money, changing the offices and getting a good core team around me. I decided it was a better idea to invest in music than warehouse staff, and so I invested in artists and getting people around me who understood, and believed, that we all had the same philosophy on how things could work. Once we knew we could make things work, it did.”

Moving on up
Within a few years, EMI Ireland moved from Dublin’s northside to more fitting music industry offices at Ailesbury Road. Clearly, a focused stewardship was breaking (as well as selling) records. At a time when EMI across Europe and the UK wasn’t performing as well as they had been in the 1980s, EMI Ireland, Kavanagh points out, broke crossover country-music phenomenon Garth Brooks.

“We sold over one million units in Ireland during the latter half of the ’90s – at the time when CDs were, roughly speaking, €20 per unit – €20! So EMI Ireland had no drought at all. Around the same time, EMI had The Beatles 1 album – it sold around 20 million copies in a period of four months. That was when massive volumes of records could be sold in relatively short periods of time, and this was when the internet wasn’t really there. Even if you could download something, it would take forever.”

As Kavanagh says this, there is a look on his face that tells you where the conversation is going. He is, one could easily argue, out of a job because of the industry’s lack of engagement with the swiftly changing business model brought about by the rise of file-sharing and illegal downloading of music.

“The criticisms were valid – from the outside looking in,” he says. The perception was that the record industry was “a bunch of idiots in pinstripe suits smoking cigars, and that when they wake up their business will be over.”

Battling the pirates
Deficiencies in copyright laws needed to be addressed, says Kavanagh. “The problem is we didn’t have the copyright laws to allow us to deal with the issue. And some people in the industry weren’t dealing with the fact that copyright laws needed to change, but it took us a long time.”

Kavanagh, who is still chairman of Irma (the Irish Recorded Music Association), has been at the forefront of lobbying against illegal downloading for many years. “Through my work with Irma, Ireland to a large degree is now the poster boy for Europe for the amount of litigation we’ve done with ISPs [internet service providers].”

In 2011, he says, Irish copyright laws were changed by statutory instrument, allowing Irma to attack piracy via a three- pronged strategy: the legal snagging of peer-to-peer file-sharing, website blocking, and a URL delisting programme currently being developed with the assistance of Google (which Kavanagh estimates will be “fully operational by early September”).

Critics may point out that such endeavours have arrived too late, but Kavanagh is cautiously optimistic. “When the copyright laws moved favourably in New Zealand, it turned the music industry around. Ditto in France. So yes, the horse has bolted, but there are very long reins and they’re going to be pulled back in. You have to get it into the mindset of people that music isn’t free, and if you have to pay for it then someone or some company is going to reinvest in music.”

Kavanagh’s future employment plans are open-ended and open-minded.

“Technically, I’m now on the social slag heap, but realistically I’ve had a number of approaches to do a number of things, it may or may not have anything to do with the music business. Doing nothing isn’t an option, but not doing very much might be.”

What of the demise of EMI Ireland? He had been its head honcho for almost 25 years. “It might be the end of an era for people in a building, but not for people who love music. That doesn’t go away, it lives on.”

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