By Hans Ebert
A friend in horse racing recently asked who I thought was the best music executive in Asia. The answer was easy: No one. If there was a “best”, or even an “effective” music executive, this region wouldn’t be seen as existing only as a token gesture. Making up only a minuscule percentage to annual worldwide profits, when looking at this region, every international head office can still only dangle that carrot known as Mainland China, and sing the same old song sung now for almost two decades- that here is “potentially the world’s largest music market”. Potentially. Stop it, you’re killing me.
All’s fair in love and war- and in the music business. And as there was the opportunity staring us in the face, and having seen others in the UK and the U.S, especially, feather their nests, some of us set out to make use of our location in Hong Kong, where we headed up the Regional Office of EMI Music, to push forward the pipe dream of selling music to the land of a billion bicycles. It all started to sound like that Katie Melua song with its brilliant accompanying music video- an artist should have had considerable more success. But Katie Melua is another story for another day.
As for Mainland China’s bicycles- that’s right- bicycles- these were shown as some sorta weird magnet to represent the new land of milk and honey for a stagnant music industry even then along with, of course, the obligatory slides with those eye-popping numbers showing the country’s population, the GDP rate, and the number of new mobile phone users. The latter was a key slide to many music executives looking at carriers for music. It gave them a huge horn to think of how much music could be sold to a brand like Nokia. Remember Nokia and how they were going to save music?
Everything was pushed way over the top at presentations during worldwide marketing conference in cities like Munich, Barcelona, Dublin and Toronto replete with visuals of more bicycles, and the new young Mainland China market with more numbers- this time, the number of Nikes and Reeboks sold, the burgeoning number of Chinese basketball fans, and, of course, the connection between the sport and Hip Hop music. Us, based in Hong Kong and running the Regional Office, were seen as holding the keys to the Middle Kingdom. And we did. The motherland was just across the border. We had access to “potentially the biggest music market in the world”.
People are strange, sang the Doors. They’re also gullible. Show them big numbers, and they lose all sense of reasoning as the greed factor takes over. And during those days of needing head office to make an investment to setup an office, or even offices, in Mainland China for self-serving agendas, and nothing much to do with company loyalty, the plan was always to sell the Big Poohbahs on the dream- the dream that if the country had over a billion people riding bicycles and using mobile phones, there can be, at least, half a billion people paying to consume music.
The dream was sold, companies and “affiliates” and acquisitions took place, and some out here, along with a few over there who helped push things through, became extremely rich in the process. They turned acquiring, largely, small, insignificant music companies in Taiwan and Mainland China, and then selling these through smoke and mirrors as one giant mutha of a portfolio into a fine art. The buyers were blinded by all those dazzling big numbers. They were blindsided by those billions of bicycles coming at them from all sides.
Once, there is a big piggy bank to play with, everything else becomes easy as you’re not putting your hand into your own pocket. You become the master of your domain, and acquire other domains to beef up that portfolio. Soon, the portfolio looked attractive on the outside, and, at that time, there was always some investor with shit for brains who wanted to be part of the music industry, because they thought it was “sexy”.
Why else did private equity fat boy Guy Hands and his Terra Firma Group purchase EMI Music when all they knew were to fix toilets on the Autobahn and refurbish nursing homes in Germany? Part-time karaoke singer Guy Hands and his nincompoop “Terrarists” desperately wanted to be seen as “sexy” and game changers in the music industry.
Then Chairman of EMI Music- Eric Nicoli aka “The Biscuit Bungler”- played to Guy Hands’ ego, and quietly sold him the great music company, immediately fired his two joint CEOs in the process, who were completely in the dark about what was going down, received a massive golden handshake, and dealt the death blow to the one-time home of the Beatles. Guy Hands was quickly shown the door to the Autobahn as artists like Radiohead and Sir Paul McCartney walked out.
The Biscuit Bungler
If those running the majors today think this game of acquiring what is theirs and selling this to head office as something new for a massive profit is still not going on, and still believe that Mainland China is “potentially the world’s biggest music market”, they have either been playing with the fairies for too long, or haven’t bothered to get their Corporate Communications people to rewrite a script that was always based on a ponzie scheme.
There might be some hard working music executives today, but what’s there to work so hard on when, other than the rapidly dwindling hype over the new Adele record, nothing much else is selling? The big artists have their own management and separate businesses that have nothing to do with music, so what’s the role these days of a music company- and a music executive?
Where have things taken a U-turn and headed South and back to the old corral? There are fewer and fewer MUSIC executives running music companies. That baton has been passed into the hands of financial guys. And the first thing most financial guys do is cut costs. In today’s numbers-driven game, it looks good when music hasn’t sold, and the time has come, the Walrus said, to speak of many things- like having to show head office those dreaded Quarterly figures.
The more this happens, there is less and less money for marketing, for signing new artists, and for improving all areas of the creative product, especially the music. Working on streaming deals isn’t exactly improving and enhancing the creative product. It’s much to do with working in partnership with delivery platforms, and hoping one size- and one deal- fits all.
More and more, it turns artists into one big discardable McHappy Combo Meal. It’s fast food consumption of music for the masses. Gawd knows, this “business model” is hardly exclusive to Asia.
Asia takes its lead from whatever head office says, despite knowing how very wrong the Big foreign Poohbars can be. But if there are some side deals to be made along the way, why not just roll with it, use that roller deck, don’t create waves, and see how much one can get away with for that retirement plan?
Gone are the days when a music executive went to bat for a “second tier” band like Athlete or Starsailor, or some unknown act in Norway or Denmark, or fought bloody hard for an artist from this region to collaborate with Bowie, Damon Albarn, the Wu-Tang Clan or Dave A Stewart.
Those head office Big Poohbars and their sycophants broke our hearts, our spirit and love for the music industry by proving that it’s all about secret deals, self-serving agendas, and nothing to do with why many of us joined music companies: To work with music makers and create the best music possible and share it with the world while having fun and making money doing so. We wanted to be the Beatles running Apple more successfully than they did.
How naive we were. We were fighting the enemy within, and dealing with spies in our midst whom we trusted, and didn’t realise how we were being duped and used.
Though many bona fide music executives have either retired or taken different career paths, once in music, always in music- but, this time around, if and when they return, they’ll be back much smarter.
These days, from the outside looking in, and with much learnt from working in and with other industries, the Fat Lady hasn’t sung as yet for music companies in Asia. What’s needed, however, are for those trying to run this region from half way around the world to be sure they are not being given an extremely dodgy picture of what’s really going on.
Dear Big Poohbars, you are being constantly chumped, trumped and dumped by those with nowhere else to go. They’re glorified shoeshine people. Very few have anything to do with music. At the very most, they’re weak deal makers.There is no Mainland China music market to save the global music industry- not in its current incarnation. The flawed business model to meet that objective hasn’t changed one iota in over two decades. A Chinese face presenting a business strategy for the Mainland China market doesn’t mean it’s right. Or true. It could be someone talking from both sides of the mouth to a naive “gweilo”- “foreign devil” in Cantonese.
So you have some nebulous deals in place with Tencent, and through it, QQ and WeChat, plus a few things going with Baidu and Alibaba. And so what- and where is there money to be made other than regurgitating the same old deals? Where are the creative drivers as opposed to the plodding Yes People?
What’s being done to break an incredibly talented and multi-media artist like Yuna outside of her home market in Malaysia? It’s insane that this brilliant talent is not a worldwide success.
What’s being done to exploit various back-catalogues and EDM in markets like Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia? Some random compilation CDs don’t count. These usually have “wings”- meaning the numbers are false as many are shipped to Europe and sold for a pittance, an old trick that made a mockery of CD sales as these “winged” themselves from, where else, but Mainland China.
Mainland China, the counterfeit epicentre of the world, is “potentially the biggest music market in the world”?
Are you fucking bonkers?