For those who keeps abreast on the comings, goings and inner workings of major music companies, the @Guardian ran a doozy of an interview yesterday with SONY UK CEO Nick Gatfield, who oversaw A&R for EMI; we learned he was leaving in September of 2010 when then-new CEO Roger Faxon sent a memo announcing the departure of several top execs, including Gatfield, Billy Mann and Ronn Werre. Gatfield was the top artist man during the brief “heyday” - to the extent that there was one - of the Guy Hands ownership and Elio Leoni Sceti CEO period. Gatfield got the top Sony UK gig in July.
Gatfield’s time at EMI were strange days at the major, as it was already clear that Hands had dramatically overpaid for the company, but no one was yet sure how it would end. As well, Hands had alienated some of his top artists; he never seemed to fully grasp that artists were, well, artists, and not widget-makers who could be held accountable to a production schedule and qualitative metrics. This upset managers and presumably played a role in the departure of at least a couple of top acts from the EMI roster. Appointing Leoni-Sceti as CEO only underscored these concerns, as Sceti had zero music experience and made his name overseeing a European division of Proctor & Gamble, bringing Brits products such as French’s mustard and Woolite.
At the time, I at least admired EMI for having the courage to try something different amidst a floundering music business; all of the other majors were (and really still are) on the “keep hiring the same old executives” carousel. In any event, this was the context in which Gatfield worked. And at the time, no one would say anything on the record other than the party line. Gatfield provides that all-too-rare happening in music business journalism: seemingly off-the-cuff, honest (and on the record!) appraisals of his former employer.
Some of the notable quotes:
"You had a private equity group and on top of that, people with ‘fast moving consumer goods’ type backgrounds trying to manage the business as if it was a production line of inanimate products," Gatfield says. "Taking someone out of Procter & Gamble and putting them in a music company – it’s just an uncomfortable fit."
"Your ‘product’ is human beings who have opinions," Gatfield says. "I remember someone at Terra Firma asking why the [release date for the] Gorillaz album had slipped. I said ‘well, you know, Damon [Albarn]’s not ready,’ and he said ‘But it’s on the release schedule’". The art of managing talent, Gatfield says, is to "reduce that slippage" as far as possible, but it’s impossible to treat artists as commodities and reduce the art of making music to a box-ticking exercise. "Terra Firma didn’t like the dark arts of A&R," he says. "A lot of it is done by gut instinct."
He adds: “I will give Guy a huge amount of credit because I think some of his instincts were fairly sound [but] the business to him was far more complex than he thought it would be. You’re dealing with the psychology of running a creative business.”
"There were plenty of ‘foot in mouth’ moments’," he recalls, adding that the attitude of many of the firm’s executives was that "everyone in the company [EMI] is an idiot". In fact, "the music industry is populated by very passionate and highly intelligent people. It’s not like everyone’s been asleep at the wheel."
I’ve seen this again and again: new owners to the music business always want the business to be simpler than it is. The music business exists at the intersection of artists, egos, lawyers and publishing rights, and will never, ever, ever be anything from complicated to run. Much more at the article, including some good perspective on macro-trends and piracy issues in the music biz.