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The Rise and Fall of EMI Records


Brian Southall


London: Omnibus, 2012

(Updated – 1st edition, 2009)

Paperback. 346 pages. ISBN 978-1780380759. £9.95


Reviewed by Claude Chastagner

Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3



Admittedly, this book is not going to be on the bestsellers’ lists: The Rise and Fall of EMI Records is the detailed, month by month, sometimes day by day chronicle of the final years of EMI, Electric and Musical Industries, or what used to be, in its own words, “the greatest record company in the world”. It is a tale full of sound and fury, of betrayals and reversals of fortune, but it is also, mostly, a tale full of complex figures, arcane economic algorithms, and unknown (by this reviewer) characters, most belonging to the world of high finance and international management. 

Nevertheless, for whoever is somewhat interested in the ups and downs (and these days, mostly downs) of the record industry, The Rise and Fall of EMI Records is indeed a fascinating book, as the publisher’s blurb puts it. First, because its author, Brian Southall, was for 15 years an executive at EMI Music, and was a first-hand witness of many dramatic moments. As such, he was able to not only recall numerous conversations, but interview key players, both in Britain and in the United States, from artists to managers, journalists to industry analysts, executives to financial experts. Another reason is the sheer amount of verified data the book contains, in terms of sales figures, turnover, profits, market shares, financial reports and various financial information. It makes it a very precious tool for any researcher in popular music wishing to found their theories on hard facts, facts that are incidentally extremely difficult to obtain, and only from many different (and sometimes conflicting) sources. A third reason: if the book is obviously not a literary masterpiece, it is extremely well written, with a sense of pace and rhythm (a must for a book on music!), cleverly blending narrative passages, quotes, and excerpts from the press, so that despite its occasional aridness, it never gets boring, and though I had decided to skim through certain periods I had determined beforehand as less interesting than others, I found myself compelled to read every line of it. One last argument: this edition is extremely up-to-date, and covers the most recent developments of a story full of twists and turns. It would indeed have been a shame to miss the latest episodes. Add a few dozen pictures of both stars and managers from different eras to put some flesh on these sometimes charismatic, sometimes lackluster, characters, and you get a book “that delivers the goods”.

Perhaps should I qualify this last sentence, for I was somehow misled by the book’s title: if it follows a strict chronological order, starting with the year 1897, and the addition around 1900 of the famous Dog and Trumpet logo (for the His Master’s Voice trademark), it only gives a brief overview of the first 80 years of the company, focusing mostly on the years 1990 to 2012. Now, what may prompt most pop and rock fans like me to open this book are indeed the memories we have of the company in the sixties and seventies (a period of extraordinary growth both for the company and the music business at large), when it was host to an amazing roster of artists, starting with The Beatles, of course, but also Cliff Richard, Pink Floyd, T Rex, Kate Bush, Queen, and the Sex Pistols, before it became home to Blur/Gorrillaz, The Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, Joss Stone, Norah Jones, and Coldplay. Not forgetting that EMI also was (is) the proud owner of the illustrious Abbey Road studios… (it was granted an English Heritage Grade II listed status in 2010 which prevents it from being sold to a real estate investor).

What interests Brian Southall is not to give us a complete historical survey of the company, but rather to chronicle its final days, and try and understand its fast and (not so sudden) demise. The reader should thus expect a bleak succession of less than glamorous, shortsighted managers and executives (despite a few luminaries such as Joseph Lockwood, Sir Colin Southgate, Jim Fifield and Eric Nicoli), of mergers and demergers, of buyouts and takeovers, of artists’ acquisitions and departures. From its foundation in 1931 (a combination of the original Gramophone Company and Columbia) until its acquisition by Thorn in 1979, and through the last three decades the author details the myriad of mistakes, poor decisions, plus a smattering of bad luck that plagued the company. Southall also reminds the reader of the days when EMI and Virgin Music combined their strengths, in order to break open an always reticent North American market, or when it bought the independent (and famous) company Mute. The last phases were indeed far from glamorous, as EMI was purchased by private equity company Terra Firma and ran by Guy Hands, before Citigroup bankers took control of it in 2010. The last development in this sorry tale took place a few days before this reviewer started to read the book: the sale of the music division on September 28, 2012 to Universal Music Group, and of the music publishing operations to a Sony-led consortium. Despite allegations that such a deal would result in higher prices and the shutting out of competitors, the sale was finally approved both in Europe and the United States by the European Commission and the Federal Trade Commission.

The book is also an opportunity to reflect on the latest developments of the music business (in which only three “majors” are left, Universal, Sony, and Warner, along numerous, struggling, independent companies), faced with changing times, and forced to cope reluctantly with new technologies (digital download), falling sales, fickle tastes, and various forms of piracy that include not only counterfeiting, but increasingly illegal downloading.


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