An article on All Things Digital caught my eye this morning. At face value, it’s just another one of those reports about people coming and going at the top end of the major record labels. Douglas Merrill, formerly CIO of Google, then Head of Digital for EMI, has left the building.
And it’s not surprising that Merrill was unable to singlehandedly reverse the fortunes of the label. He could have had the greatest strategy in the world - but the end goal was the wrong one, so his efforts would have been to no avail regardless of what he did.
And it’s this line from the internal memo at EMI that gives the game away:
I am delighted to announce that Cory Ondrejka is appointed to the newly-created position of Executive Vice President, Digital Marketing.
Digital Marketing. That’s the top job at EMI for digital strategy. Marketing.
What exactly are you going to be marketing, Mr Ondrejka? There is not a marketing problem to be solved at EMI. It’s a problem of purpose.
Your organisation has still not realised that Digital is not a format shift like the one from records to CDs. It’s a complete paradigm shift like the one that occurred when sheet music as the dominant mode of consumption was 99.9% replaced by recorded music as the dominant mode of consumption.
EVP in charge of promoting nostalgia
It would make sense for EMI to have an EVP of Digital Marketing only if the vast majority of the other jobs at EMI were already digitally focused. If EMI declared: “the idea around which our entire empire is built is no longer valid, and we need to completely rethink our purpose and our business” - then there’d be some hope, and something to market.
I was briefly encouraged when Merrill joined EMI. I thought that perhaps this was the thin end of the wedge - the first foray into new categories of thinking at that kind of organisation, which may spearhead necessary and radical changes in that industry. But his hands were clearly tied - and the relentless corporate logic characteristic of major record labels plods on toward its own near-oblivion.
I say near-oblivion, because it’s true that some companies still make money selling sheet music. Likewise, ‘selling recordings of music’ is taking its place next to ‘selling dots on a page’ as a marginal and far more modest stream of music business activity.
CDs, as Lefsetz rightly points out, are not dead. Nor are sales of mp3s as if they were invisible CDs. I mean, let’s not get hysterical about the ‘death of the labels’. Not being important anymore is not death - it’s just lonely and disappointing.
And if EMI is marginalised in the new music ecology to the extent that their recording businesses marginalised sheet music publishing, they’re still going to need someone to do their marketing for them on the internet. Someone in charge of promoting and selling items of nostalgia.