"Who needs a record company?" That's what essentially what Thom Yorke and his fellow members of Radiohead said last year when they released their path-breaking new album "In Rainbows" on their own after bidding adieu to EMI, the band's longtime record company.
Now another revolt is brewing at EMI. The Times of London reports that EMI recording artist Robbie Williams is withholding his next album to protest cost-cutting by Terra Firma, the British private equity group that bought the London-based music company last year. The Times says Coldplay, another one of EMI's biggest acts, might do the same. In short, it looks like two more major pop acts are tired of being pushed around by their record labels and want their independence.
At least, that's how it looks at first glance, but maybe there's more than meets the eye here. "The big question is, is this something that's inevitably going to happen with bigger acts?" says Jon Cohen, co-president of Cornerstone Promotion, a New York-based company that has worked with Coldplay and Radiohead over the years. "Or is this just a situation where the new management isn't clicking with the artists? It could be a combination of both."
Cohen makes an interesting point. It could very well be that Coldplay and Williams are using the ownership change at EMI to get out of their contracts and release their new albums on their own just as Radiohead did. Think about what Radiohead did with "In Rainbows". There are plenty of artists attempting to sell their music without major label support. The Eagles have partnered with Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500). Madonna has signed with Live Nation (LYV), a touring company.
But the Eagles and Madonna still have to share their profits with their partners. Radiohead released In Rainbows, the most talked about album of 2007, on its website for free, asking fans to pay whatever they thought it was worth. According to ComScore, the average Radiohead fan voluntarily paid $6 for the album. That may not sound like a huge number. But remember: Radiohead kept all that money which is probably more than the Eagles made after Wal-Mart took its cut from each copy of "Long Out of Eden".
Moreover, the Eagles looked like sell-outs for teaming up with the world's biggest retailer. Yorke and his mates burnished their images as true rock stars whose primary concern is their music. They also wisely declined to reveal how many times "In Rainbows" was downloaded.
None of this can be lost on Williams or Coldplay. Surely, they are dreaming about how much more money and good press they'd generate if they went the Radiohead route. They're famous enough to attract hordes of buyers to their Web sites. Perhaps they're also kicking around the idea of getting out of their contracts with EMI and buying back the rights to their records so they can go it alone. Both Williams and Coldplay are certainly rich enough. And the owners of EMI would have to consider the benefits of getting their cash upfront as opposed to banking CD sales or Apple (AAPL, Fortune 500) iTunes downloads.
If that's the case, the complaints of these supposedly disgruntled rock stars are just the opening salvos in a typically nasty negotiation between some rock stars and their label. Not everything has changed about the music industry.
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