By Hans Ebert
It appears that the last post about all the shenanigans played out using the mantra that “China is potentially the largest music market in the world” to feather the nests of especially Chinese music executives in Hong Kong- and let me quickly add, Korea, Taiwan, and Indonesia- has registered with many, because- quelle surpris- these scams to use money from the many dimwits in “Head Office” to fund self-serving agendas is still allowed- ALLOWED- to take place around the world. It’s one of the loudest secrets in an industry very much on its last legs in its current incarnation and desperately seeking Susan and a new business model. Or maybe no one really cares? Perhaps it’s about milking and bilking it for what it’s worth while there’s still the chance?
Video killed the radio star and streaming is not going to save the business of music. If streaming music is the only bullet music companies have they might as well use it to shoot themselves and start all over again.
Those at “Head Office” don’t really care about any of the above, because most are old guys waiting for that golden parachute to open so they can leave with the golden goose of pensions laying them a few extra eggs.
Some will say that they’ve been smart. After all, these people have spent years perfecting the art of keeping their heads down, doing bugger all other than clocking up air miles, and are now going to be paid millions to go away. This is like The Donaldo saying that he’s been smart not to pay taxes and grow what is an illegal business empire.
Wake up, Lucian Grange, Doug Morris, LA Reid and the Russian bloke who bought Warner Music. You are in many ways running illegal businesses and the way the world is going, this will catch up with you. And Lucian, having a doofus in Australia oversee the Asia Pacific and Greater China regions for Universal Music? Not smart for a sharp operator. It just creates a feeding frenzy, because there’s no one policing the business- if, of course, there is still a business.
Damn, this business misses a music executive like Max Hole, who, by the way, was recently named non-Executive Chairman of Metropolis Studios. Max Hole, below, the former Chairman and CEO of UMG International, was real. When working with him, he chose who to listen to, and intuitively knew who not to trust. “We like him/her, don’t we, Hansy?” and, “We don’t trust him, do we, Hansy?” are words still ringing in my ears, because Max Hole could cut through the crap. He could see the bullshit.
He didn’t buy into hype and he was smart- very smart. One had to be to manage the Japanese market. Could he have done better in managing the China market? He did alright for being as faraway from it as the UK, but was always honest when he would take the time to meet up whenever in Hong Kong to simply have a chat even though I felt I had let him down by leaving Universal for EMI. Still, we would have frank discussions about the business and our personal lives, and how, for UMG in Mainland China, the situation was improving.
It will still be some time before the company in that complicated motherland will be in the black, but it isn’t the Black Hole Of Calcutta that it once was. And that Black Hole had nothing to do with Max Hole. It had everything to do with a flawed management and organisational structure.
To read the Chinese tea leaves and understand the Chinese Whispers, any industry needs a trustworthy team in place in Mainland China- and the naughty little brother that is Hong Kong. But finding this team is an impossibility as there’s always a number of weak links in the chain. Either that or the entire chain is rusty and Krusty as the Clown. I would go with the latter. The wheels came off the China music market before it even got started.
What’s difficult to understand is how the enormous back catalogues of, especially the majors, are either completely ignored, or extremely poorly marketed. Perhaps there’s no one with the knowledge to change this situation? Perhaps this area of business has disappeared because of music companies being blinded by the light of technology? Whatever the reason, this wouldn’t have and wasn’t allowed to happen when Max Hole headed Universal Music International. Again, it’s back catalogue to the future, Marty…
Max created ERA- forget what it stood for- a separate division comprising executives from around the world who came from A&R and marketing backgrounds to explore and exploit the company’s back catalogue and resurrect the careers of some of its older artists. The thinking was, If Tom Jones could make a comeback with “Kiss” and Cher could come screaming back with “Believe”, why not someone like Sheena Easton?
Well, that idea to bring Miss Easton into the world of Dance and mainstream consciousness was DOA. One of ERA’s biggest success stories, however, was bringing Michael McDonald in from the cold to record “Michael McDonald Sings Motown”, an idea originally given to Boyz 11 Men along with a huge advance. But the Boyz wanted to record their own material and walked to join Sony. They were to eventually return to Motown, part of UMG, and record the same album presented to them years earlier. Too late, kidz.
Meanwhile, the person who came up with the Motown idea, remembered Michael McDonald recording a bombastic and brassy version of “White Christmas” for, I think, MCA Nashville, and suggested to Max that he not hand over the project to…Ric Astley. Max agreed, especially as Astley at that time, apparently, had some problems with flying which would have grounded any plans to promote the new record.
“Michael McDonald Sings Motown” went on to sell over 15 million units and resurrected the fabulous singer’s career. Max would always tease me when we’d meet that I should have asked for points on sales of the record. I should have. The second release of Motown covers sold a respectable 8-10 million copies. And though that’s the past, there’s so much to learn from it, especially when it comes to music. Music, after all, is timeless and ageless and does not discriminate.
Sure, promote whoever is selling, or at least causing some ripples today, and gone tomorrow- isn’t that how social media marketing works?- but let’s not forget that two, maybe even three generations, have lost out on the music- the timeless music- of Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Small Faces, Terence Trent Darby, the Kinks, the early recordings by the Stones such as the hugely underrated “Aftermath” album, Cream, the Allman Brothers, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Eurythmics, though not my favourite band, Duran Duran, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller and so many others.
Let’s not even go back in time and back to the vaults for recordings by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella, Miles, Return To Forever, Coltrane, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan etc etc. Imagine what could be done with this catalogue if adopting a Tony Bennett-Lady Gaga or Natalie Cole-Nat King Cole A&R strategy?
An artist doesn’t have to die to create an interest in their music. Imagine how many records Prince and David Bowie have sold since their deaths. Millions. Was this out of morbid curiosity, or through younger generations of music fans actually discovering this music for the first time and saying, I MUST own that recording and everything else by that artist because he’s amazing? Of course it is. How many music executives have bothered to revisit their company’s back catalogue?
There are millions of bona fide music fans out there who are saying, Feed me music I don’t hear on constant repeat because it’s on the back of Perez Hilton- and what a parasite that dolt is- rumour-mongering to do with Taylor Swift or Drake and Rihanna and Beyoncé and her dramas with “Betty with the good hair”. All that stuff is fluff. All that does is feed heads with everything that has nothing to do with music, or music appreciation and respect for the art form. It’s allowing someone like Kim Kardashian into where they should be barred. It’s giving way too much oxygen to the inane rants of Kanye West. It’s diluting the former power of music and replacing it with forgettable pulp. And music companies allow this to happen. They are terrible at guarding the gates from the barbarians.
In Asia, there are pockets of creativity and change when it comes to the sales of local repertoire. Asians singing Western music? Has any artist ever made a dent in this area? Has an artist from Asia ever managed to make the charts outside of this region with a recording in their mother tongue? Probably the novelty appeal of Psy and that K-Pop. But there’s been nothing as big as Kyu Sakamoto somehow topping the Billboard charts with his Japanese recording of “Sukiyaki”. And that was in the early Sixties.
Around ten years ago, numbers from this region including Greater China but, of course, minus Japan, constituted 2.7 percent of worldwide sales for EMI. Listening to that number being announced at one of those global tribal gatherings of executives was, personally, tough to take knowing all the scams and “creative accounting” that had taken place to inflate the numbers. It was always about the numbers.
That was the day I realised just how little the music from anywhere matters to “head office” except for what is released in the US, Japan, Korea and the UK- and from the UK only if it could crossover to the US. How much money was spent trying to break Robbie Williams in the States? Millions. Nothing worked- not even having him ride a horse in the video for “Feel” and featuring actress Darryl Hannah as his love interest.
This indifference to say one is a GLOBAL music company, but ignore the product from most other countries is what has allowed and continues to allow those with all the pieces and players in place to rape and pillage and use and abuse power like the generation before them.
The baton has been passed, but it’s a crooked baton, where new music executives have inherited every bad habit of their mentors, who might have retired, but are still there pulling the strings. And with the current wave of Mainland China’s nouveau riche either wishing to “wash money”, or invest in what they see as a glamorous world of money for nothing and chicks for free, there will always be someone ready to come out of retirement and help them make their garden grow.
None of the seeds planted, however, will have anything to do with music. It will always be about creating the illusion of a company hobbled together being bigger than what it is and then selling it off to the next highest bidder- probably someone new from the West who still believes that China is “potentially the biggest music market in the world”. And the beat and the cheats go on…