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Panegyric’s Declan Colgan on Universal’s EMI bid

By | Published on Thursday 26 July 2012

In one of two open letters distributed by the Association Of Independent Music today expressing continued opposition to Universal’s EMI bid, Declan Colgan of King Crimson label Panegyric Recordings outlines his view…

Unlimited Supply?

“You cannot expect a company the size of UMG to read or apply the details of every contract of every catalogue it acquires”.

This is a quote from a UMG lawyer to me in December 2008 when I complained about the ongoing availability of King Crimson material on iTunes, as supplied by Sanctuary/UMG, without any digital rights having been granted to the company. This was just one of about forty occasions, in the years 2006-2011, when it proved necessary for me to issue UMG with takedown notices relating to unauthorised digital sales through a variety of outlets – said notices often copied to personnel at the highest level of the company.

Grooveshark was often more prompt withdrawing material.

Even without the specific context relating to the catalogue I license & manage on behalf of copyright owner Robert Fripp, the corporate mindset that produces a quote such as the above is fully indicative of the attitude & the true dangers of the proposed UMG takeover of EMI.

Far from looking for scraps from the UMG table to allow the takeover to proceed, the independent label community should be demanding that UMG is broken up into some of its constituent elements to re-balance the market. There has been much talk of the dominance of UMG/EMI in terms of jazz & classical music. With the not entirely surprising news that catalogue sales have outstripped those of new releases in the US for the first time ever, the importance of a broad distribution of music catalogue representation is fundamental to the future of the music industry.

Focusing just on the period in which King Crimson initially came to prominence and the many British bands who emerged in that era as an example, a combined UMG/EMI would control the historic catalogues of Pye, Transatlantic, Island, Virgin, Charisma, Vertigo, Harvest, Decca, Deram & that’s just a partial list of UK labels. There’s also Parlophone & Apple. Any bits of EMI can be sold off so long as those two are preserved for UMG. Beatles boxed sets for the Christmas market while the rest of the catalogue is hacked out in poor sound quality on Spotify or via Omnifone or any of the other digital/streaming “services” in which UMG holds shares & for which the company shows boundless enthusiasm.

Should Lucian Grainge genuinely believe in reviving labels, his company already owns/controls enough of them without the need for further market distorting takeovers, especially as UMG’s lawyers, according to their own statements, have neither the time nor intent of reading or applying the contractual obligations of its acquisitions.

I would go further & suggest that the return of classic & modern catalogues to the artists responsible for creating the music – whether licensed to indie or major labels subsequently – would go a long way towards re-energising the marketplace & combating piracy. It’s far easier to argue that piracy is wrong as a representative of a musician’s work than as the owner of the same work. It’s time the industry moved on from the plantation mentality that has so compromised much of its history.

Barclays, the other major banks, News Corp, G4S, the list goes on & on. There has never been a time when the public has found monopolies or near-monopolies so distasteful. A healthy marketplace for music requires diversity, strong competition among A&R departments, choices for musicians, vibrant committed catalogue departments & a variety of distribution methods to pitch music to the widest possible audience. One gargantuan major with the inevitable distorting effect such a position brings to marketplace access via physical & digital distribution platforms is the antithesis to such a healthy environment & can, ultimately, be nothing but detrimental to all who try to operate in the same arena.

The digital marketplace is renowned for its secrecy, non-disclosure agreements & the unrevealed levels of ownership of digital platforms by UMG and the remaining majors.

“As you are probably aware, Qriocity is a US service. It seems that in October last year Universal requested Omnifone, who act as the aggregator for Qriocity, to take down the King Crimson tracks but apparently they did not comply with this instruction.” This is a much more recent quote from another senior UMG lawyer in July 2011 on the same subject of digital availability company without rights to do so. What the lawyer failed to mention is that UMG supplied Omnifone in the first instance. He also failed to mention that UMG’s digital supremo Rob Wells was, at the time of the availability, listed as a director of Omnifone as Companies House.

Where a company’s senior legal representatives find it necessary to be so circumspect about such matters as to risk misrepresenting the basic facts by omission, how can anyone be expected to take on trust statements about the company’s broader ambitions in the market?

UMG has shown itself utterly incapable – despite repeated assurances to the contrary – of handling the removal of two dozen King Crimson tracks from sale over a period approaching seven years. Their UK lawyers assure me that the material is no longer offered for sale. The statements produced by their US company show continued sales in about twenty different countries.

Who could trust such a company to handle the rights of the vast, by comparison, EMI catalogue?

It is time for a new approach to matters of ownership & representation of the work of artists in the music industry. UMG’s proposed takeover of EMI offers nothing new to EMI staff or artists, merely a perpetuation of the same approach on a grander scale, doubtless complete with the usual “synergies” resulting in fewer staff & artists in the long term.

The labels, staff & artists associated with both companies deserve better than this.

This is not an attempt to create healthy competition. It’s an attempt to restrict such competition & it should continue to be opposed on that basis by all who care about the future of recorded music.

Declan Colgan, Panegyric Recordings, July 2012