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If I worked for Geffen or A&M, I guess I’d be pretty mad.
Those labels, although they still exist in theory, were chewed up and spit out last year when Seagram—yes, a Canadian liquor company—swallowed their corporate parent, Polygram, and merged its imprints into Universal Music Group, which it had bought in 1995. Lots of bands and employees were dumped so that this merged conglomerate could enjoy economies of scale. The scale still wasn’t quite right, however, as Seagram revealed last week when it made a $34 billion deal to merge itself into Vivendi, a French company that seems even more a patchwork creation than Seagram.
Vivendi started in the water-purification business but has since diversified into pay TV and films (through Canal Plus), mobile telephones, and the Internet. On the Seagram side, the deal includes the money-losing Universal Studios, some American cable channels, and a music catalog that includes Nirvana, Sonic Youth, and UMG’s recent top-seller, Shania Twain. As part of the deal, the new Vivendi Universal will dump its beverage subsidiaries.
Why should anyone who doesn’t own stock in one of these conglomerates care? Well, this deal should forestall (at least for a while) another major record-label merger, leaving the Big Four (the other three are Sony, Warner-EMI, and BMG) intact. The biz will endure!
Just kidding. The Universal-Vivendi marriage sounds like another instance of the world’s major music purveyors merging into oblivion. Sure, here and there these labels are trying to be interesting, but the action these days is overwhelmingly at the indies (and semi-indies). Indeed, major-label defector Danny Goldberg (who worked at Geffen and Atlantic during the ’90s alt-rock boom and now runs Artemis) last month contributed an essay to Inside.com that essentially told cult artists not to bother with major-label deals.
“Artists who have a relatively small audience—say, under 50,000 albums—clearly make no money for themselves or their record companies in the major-label game, so it really doesn’t matter how their royalties are calculated or what their rate is,” he wrote. Even an act that sells 200,000 copies—making a $250,000 profit for its label, if not necessarily anything for itself—is a waste of time. “Big record companies weren’t established to enable artists to sell 200,000 copies,” Goldberg allowed.
Goldberg went on to say that bands are unlikely to make any more money recording for anti-corporate labels like Dischord and Touch and Go, which split net profits 50-50 with their acts, than with a lousy major-label contract. That’s because these labels don’t have the promotion and distribution clout to reach as large a potential audience as the majors do.
The issue isn’t getting rich, although some musicians are clearly interested in that. In this IPO- and merger-happy age, it would have made more sense to buy shares in Seagram (but not Vivendi, whose stock has lost value since the deal was announced) than to sign to one of its labels.
The question is, Can anything serendipitous happen when the companies that sell most of the music in America are run from Paris, Tokyo, and that little town in Germany where BMG is headquartered? Will there be a permanent divide between assembly-line pop designed for 12-year-olds and chancy, questing music made for a relatively small circle (or relatively small circles) of cognoscenti? Will there ever be another Beatles or Nirvana, or will pop music’s future be all Orlando, all the time?
Yeah, the Internet will change everything, but no one has yet explained how unknown musicians will build an audience through the Web. Fledgling bands encourage netizens to download their music for free, but for some reason most of them are parking Metallica, Moby, and Sisqo on their hard drives instead. Let’s hear for it for do-it-yourself CD marketer Aimee Mann, but you would have probably never heard of her if she hadn’t already recorded for subsidiaries of Sony, BMG, and UMG.
Universal-Vivendi’s new French boss says that Americans will continue to run Universal Studios and that Seagram boss Edgar Bronfman Jr. (a Canadian) will run the megacorporation’s music division. Given what passes for music in France, this is surely a wise choice. But it doesn’t change the fact that the new company will be farther from the pulse of pop music than ever. Assuming, of course, that pop music will even have a pulse after the Big Four have finished perfecting their economies of scale.—Mark Jenkins
In The CD Player
Joseph Arthur, Come to Where I’m From (Realworld/Virgin). This techno-folkie has good songs and great textures, although the latter are more striking when he goes it alone on stage with guitar, beatbox, and sampler.
Belle and Sebastian, Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Matador/DNA). The opening “I Fought in a War” tries to broaden the band’s scope, but the outlook remains miniature. So are too many of the melodies—which is the principal reason this album is for believers only.
Billy Bragg & Wilco, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (Elektra). Some fine contributions from principal melodist Bragg (“My Flying Saucer,” “Aginst Th’ Law,” “All You Fascists”), secondary melodists Jay Bennett and Jeff Tweedy (“Secret of the Sea”), and, of course, lyricist Woody Guthrie. Overall, though, the material does sound like “Vol. II” stuff.
Broadcast, The Noise Made by People (Warp/Tommy Boy). Brit crits are transported by this allegedly unprecedented combo, which merges lounge music with spooky electronic noises. Sounds fine, but I vaguely remember a group called Portishead….
Meg Lee Chin, Piece and Love (Invisible). The former Pigfacer takes the ’80s club-rock sound to the street, with playful, observant lyrics that give her goth-industrial sound a welcome bit of wit.
Velvet Lounge compilation, Lights On, Let’s Go! (Velvet Lounge). Rock is dead? Don’t tell the 23 mostly local acts on this comp, who (a little ska aside) are all rockers. Highlights: the Phobes, Banana Fish Zero, Kitty in the Tree, Helicopter Helicopter, the Patsies, and Clare Quilty.
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan & Party, Dust to Gold (Realworld). The first new material to be released since the Pakistani qawwali master’s 1997 death is neither crossover tinkering nor an afterthought. It’s urgent and ecstatic, with a resonant tabla beat that drum ‘n’ bassers can only envy.
Kirsty MacColl, Tropical Brainstorm (V2 import). Maybe it’s because I’m not a Latin-music lover, but I just don’t think MacColl’s folkie voice suits these south-of-the-border romps. Her wit and tunesmithery are intact, though.
Mike Randle, My Music Loves You (Even If I Don’t) (Eggbert). L.A. power-pop goes synthpop goes lounge. Better than the Leonard Cohen album it’s designed to resemble.
Whirligig, Spin (Prime CD). This Celtic-worldbeat-jazz-rock septet is sometimes a little too New Agey to sound exactly like Fairport Convention. But only sometimes.