What’s fun about reading Selling the Pig is the subtle ways in which it pushes against the dominant narrative of what caused the eventual early 00s music industry crash. For EMI, the downturn wasn’t triggered by file-sharing or Napster, but rather the 90s CD bubble, Forde writes:
Unwittingly, EMI’s board had planted a bomb under its future at a point where they thought the CD-powered good times would never end; this was to play a decisive role in making EMI increasingly vulnerable to a takeover during the digital famine years…“There was that moment where we gave a lot of money back to shareholders at the end of the 90s.” says a senior international executive. “It was something like half a billion pounds. After that, then we had issues with the debt.”
This is important context for the rest of the book, because the mood of the EMI staffers quoted about the possibility of distributing music via an online store or more experimental channels wasn’t one of dread or fear, but rather bubbling with possibilities. A reason cited was the release of David Bowie’s ‘hours…’, which was the first major label album to be available online on both Bowie and Virgin’s websites back in 1999! Even allowing Radiohead to experiment with peer-to-peer networks for Kid A’s promotion showed that EMI employed plenty of people with a sense of where music distribution was headed (though it didn’t prevent the band from leaving the label). The reactionary nature of the music industry towards online distribution of music wasn’t uniform. Here, Forde gives EMI quite a bit of credit for bucking against these trends, even if it wasn’t for altruistic reasons.
Pressplay and MusicNet’s early fumbled attempts at centralizing music streaming and downloads under the thumb of major labels were at least privately known to be bungled products. Though, I’ll note that the internal critiques didn’t stem from meager artists payouts
, but rather a poor user interface and lack of consumer interest. What takes up a lot of conversation in the book was the arrival of the iTunes Store and EMI’s attempt to alter how downloads worked within the store, as well as the label’s hypothetical plan to capture the market Apple helped establish.
EMI employees pre- and post-Terra Firma pushed for the record label to abandon digital rights management (DRM), a tool that limits how much control users were granted over music files they purchased from the iTunes Store. This was certainly a worthwhile pro-consumer fight, and one that would push the rest of the industry to adopt this as a standard (this was an early selling point of Amazon MP3 store
). The oddly small stakes fight points towards just how quickly the record industry shifted from swimming in CD bubble cash in the 90s to pushing less restrictive consumer technology in the 00s. Another pro-consumer push from the label was Hands’ own disinterest in following the Universal Music Group’s lead
in suing fans over illicit downloads. Unfortunately this pattern of being one step ahead too early would soon repeat in much grander fashion.
An entire chapter is devoted to the idea of EMI.com, which I’ll describe by just quoting Hands:
It would have been the first real streaming [platform]…It got huge resistance from the business. I wanted to go out and get agreements with other labels to do a streaming service, effectively unlimited and pure subscription, in 2007.
Forde describes the streaming idea, which sounds totally fine in retrospect, as divisive across the company, even before the rest of the industry got to wrap their heads around it. Holding a clear hindsight bias, I am skeptical of how successful the plan might’ve been considering iTunes’ monopoly over the digital download space at that moment. What’s clear is that over the last couple decades, plenty of attempts at digital music players have launched with strong record industry backing and failed, so getting off the ground without that support is hard to envision. This resonates with me simply because when companies like Spotify are credited for “saving” the music industry, it ignores the many, many attempts at the exact same idea that simply didn’t arrive at the right time to succeed. See, plenty of people knew how to create a broken business model, but not all were lucky enough to sustain a fragile business on top of it.
There is so much in Selling The Pig that is worth reading, even if only to get a nice blow-by-blow account of a record label’s demise or learn about the repeated failure of a private equity firm. I centered on the tech side because it relates to the central theme of this newsletter, and often the details of the recent past are so quickly forgotten within music business coverage that it was nice to retrace those steps. What feels new in music is often fairly old, and in some cases, what’s new in the record industry happened a decade ago (but no one wants to cite their sources).