What's in it for the rest of us?

Analysis: Aside from the tantalizing thoughts of easier online access to music, the best part of EMI-Time Warner merger may be the labels' back catalogs.

January 25, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

There's no denying that the proposed merger between global music giants Time Warner and EMI is big news.

According to industry analysts, combining Time Warner (which owns and distributes the Warner Bros., Reprise, Atlantic, Elektra and Maverick labels) with EMI (Capitol, Virgin, Blue Note and other labels) would drastically change the balance of power within the recording industry.

This new conglomerate would become America's second biggest record company, after the Universal Music Group (which handles Interscope, MCA, Island and other labels). Sony Music and BMG -- the other two major labels -- would have significantly less clout in the world market.

All of which is very interesting, but what does it mean to you and me?

"Nobody knows exactly what it is going to mean to the average Joe -- least of all the music industry," says David Adelson, executive editor of the trade magazine Hits. "Everyone knows things are changing. But what's disconcerting is that there's no clear picture of what they're changing into."

Obviously, there will be a certain amount of reshuffling on a corporate level. The Warner Music Group will oversee the combined operations in the United States, while EMI will be the dominant partner internationally.

Beyond that, however, the outlook is very hazy. As with the merger between Universal/MCA and the Polygram Label Group in 1998, it's likely that some jobs will be lost, and some artists will be dropped in the course of the changeover. But at this point, no one wants to speculate on how widespread such cuts might be, or even if they would be a bad thing for the bands in question.

"I think it's clear that we're not in a universe anymore where the best thing for a band is to be on a major label," says Alan Light, editor in chief at Spin magazine.

Where the merger is likely to have its greatest consumer impact is through the combination of these labels' back catalog -- particularly now that Time Warner is partnered with America Online.

As Light puts it, "When you have the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin all aligned within one company, and when that company is part of the world's biggest Internet server, it makes things that were at one point purely theoretical suddenly seem real."

In other words, instant online access to classic rock hits will be much easier through this merger.

While Adelson makes joking references to "AOL recording artists the Beatles," the fact remains that, as the music world enters an era of digital dissemination, the back catalog will become the most important asset for any record company. Even though current hits get most of the limelight, record companies make much more money on older recordings that continue to sell year after year.

In that respect, the Warner Bros./EMI merger has created a commercial behemoth. The combined holdings would include not only the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, but the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Garth Brooks, Metallica, Madonna, Bob Seger, Ray Charles, Fleetwood Mac and everything Frank Sinatra recorded after 1953. It also includes every Rolling Stones recording since 1970, but only through a licensing deal; the master tapes remain the property of the Rolling Stones themselves.

How the merger would impact new music is much harder to predict. Apart from Warners affiliate Atlantic Records, none of the Warner Bros. or EMI labels have had a particularly stellar track record on the U.S. charts in recent years. "These are both labels that need to get a better grip on their direction in signing new artists," observes Light. "They've still got a lot to figure out."

"What they definitely don't have is creative [talent]," agrees Dave Marsh, editor of the newsletter Rock and Rap Confidential. "These are all business people."

Marsh agrees that the value of the combined catalog would be great, but points out that "neither company has developed a meaningful act in the last three years -- and by `meaningful' I mean capable of sustaining a career beyond three albums."

Could it be that the new digital age the pundits have envisaged will turn out to be nothing more than the triumph of golden oldies?

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