Saturday, December 6, 2008

May the weight of the desert sands lay lightly upon him

This week’s been a bit of a strange one and for many, many disparate reasons; we’re entering the final-furlong countdown to Christmas, there is a funeral on the near horizon and no direction home.

People everywhere are starting to get festive in the streets, trying to out-drink one another at office parties in pubs and clubs, indulging the time-honoured game of grope-the-big-busted-blonde-from-accounts before she passes out on Advocat before, themselves, vomiting into gutters and over freshly-pee’d upon office steps.

Yet retailers all over the planet are in trouble – heap big trouble – with the wonder of Wollies no longer looking so very breathtaking (when did it ever?) and DSG, the holding group for Dixons appearing equally flimsy and who knows what’s going to happen to WH Smiths, one of the stalwarts of the High Street – will they be the next to fall at the Beacher’s Brook of retail? Place your bets here, please. And General Motors – will they survive much beyond Valentine’s Day or will they become part of the massacre? And will VAT go beyond the 20% mark..? I’d not bet against that one either.

A week also in which people have also been saying some truly wonderful things about Rob.

Working out of Coalition where his larger-than-life presence is already sorely missed; installed at a desk free-basing Project X and funeral-attendees spreadsheets with tributes that pile up on a daily basis nestling alongside e-mail inboxes overflowing with messages from people near and far, from long-past and current, all offering their own thoughts on his passing.

I look up from my borrowed desk and there, above the door that separates the Management and PR divisions, hangs a newly framed magazine back page.

From the earliest of Island days, we always used to frame front-pages but this back page is a bit special. And it more than deserves its place among the pantheon of magazine-art that surrounds it. It has been taken from this week’s edition of Music Week, that most august of British organs and the trade bible to the industry in the UK.

It’s a picture taken by Adrian Boot during the years when Rob and I sat across from one another in the War Room at Island. Boot had been in that afternoon, a brief photo-shoot for one of our artists or bands, I forget whom and, come the end of the day, was hanging out in our part of the building.

This was long before the days of digital photography; he had four or five frames left and, so as not to waste film, positioned himself right behind where I was sitting and focused on Rob who was on the ‘phone, chattering away to some journalist or other, smoking one of my full-strength Marlboro’s – an ashtray awash with nicotine detrius in front of him, leaning on his diary, with pens and scraps of paper covered in Rob’s collegiate hand spread around.

He initially caught Rob unawares – and one of those initial shots was used this week by The Guardian to illustrate Robin Denselow’s marvellous tribute. But, by the time Boot lined up to take his final frame, Rob had caught on and he was nabbed, snarling back at the camera.

And that is the one that’s been framed; the one that HMV – a long time client of ours – chose with which to pay tribute to him, the caption simply saying Rob Partridge – 1948 / 2008.

Looking to the dark-cold night sky I’ve also been thinking about what Tom Waits said: Here on earth a very bright and warm light has gone out but there is a strange new bird in heaven – the Rob Partridge.

One of the other things that Tom also said about Rob was that he was a pioneering navigator. Its an adjectival phrase that’s meaning has been utilised by more than one person – Paul McGuinness, for example, spoke on Radio 4 of Rob yesterday in like terms, saying that he went way beyond the parameters of his specified job.

All of which somewhat flies in the face of something pretty scary that I read earlier – an interview given by the recently installed EMI Music chief executive, a certain Elio Leoni-Sceti – a Roman by birth with an (apparently) idiosyncratic speech delivery that the Music Week journalist described as being like a gattling gun on fast forward.

The last year or so have been pretty lousy for EMI – the new owner (a bloke called Guy Hands) announced job-cuts for over 2,000 employees last January and fairly recently the company turned in a year-end loss of a staggering 750+ million pounds.

Maybe my use of the word lousy as an adjective wasn’t that wise a choice… Because it also appears that they’re going to slash into their roster of 14,000 artists signed to the label (and its subsidiaries, I assume). According to the Italian stallion, having a roster that top-heavy isn’t sustainable. I should think not.

Not least because – according to Maltby Capital (the vehicle that Hands used to acquire EMI in August last year) recently revealed that 88% of artists on the company’s roster made a loss. Hmmm… is this bloke going to be hands-on… or hands-off?

In any event, it’s an interesting statistic since it almost racks out against another I learned recently whereby any company business is often reckoned to be as follows: 80% income coming from 20% of their customers.

So what are the giant, EMI going to do? Are they going to bestride the world’s stage like a colossus or… Let’s have a little ponder, shall we?

Well, for a start they’ve employed a new Chief Executive to lead the slash and burn.

He, almost needless to say, speaks fluent corporate, fleshed out with meaningless buzz-words and jargon; a man who is evidently adroit with flow-charts, skilled with mission statements and dexterous at PowerPoint presentations.

This probably all makes perfect sense if one is fluent in waffle too – to me, though, its simply bollox.

Here’s what he says (judge for yourself): The one thing we have, that we didn’t have before is actually being able to inform our decisions on visibility of financial data about the roster.

He has also claims: This industry has been blessed by a revenue stream that was coming, and it was not forced to really scratch its head very hard to find the next one. We (EMI) are doing it now. What I have learned is to listen to consumers. I have been passionate about that.

He goes on to say: We want to bring the artists and the fans closer together. The word ‘closer’ builds on the concept of knowledge. That knowledge will help drive actions of both the artist and fans to create value. The actions (mean) basically giving the artist the knowledge of where the fans are and where to reach them… and to drive fans to action by bringing music to them so they can act upon it.

He then asserts: Wherever music meets people, that’s where we want to be. Our mission is to ensure action and value is created wherever music and people meet and wherever they experience music.

Apparently, he used to work for Proctor & Gamble. I rest my case.

But, actually – in my view – it gets worse. Far worse.

Because he wants to start: leveraging existing technologies and existing infrastructure since he thinks this is the key to the future and he believes it will be a way for EMI and the music industry to begin to reclaim control of the way music is experienced.

Oh… really?

Apparently, he and his team have been researching the company’s consumers. It seems they have done rather a lot of research – and have identified that there are six different types of music consumer and… they (the boffins in white coats and matching clip-boards) now know how they behave.

The newly-formed department within EMI responsible for this information is called Consumer Insight and Analytics.

Am I the only person absolutely terrified of people who behave like this?

Let’s listen to what the 21st Century Marcus Aurelius has to say on this 'ere subject: In our learning about the consumer there are different aspects. Some of them are about consumer behaviour, motivation and desires in the way they consume music at different touch points, whether that is live, digital or physical. One of the elements of the learning plot will be to enable us to interface with [consumers] on a constant basis as a learning lab.

So, instead of peace and understanding, we now have research and understanding.

But, apparently, this is going to be of great help to EMI because it’ll mean that the entire A&R process will be better informed and executed. Not just that – stop howling at the back – but, according to the man in the sharp suit, they will be better able to identify market gaps.

Because – and I quote again. You can be instructed by a market or consumer need. Is there a need for kid’s music? You can actually see market gaps and market needs in individual genres and try and address them by focusing one element of the creative process in that direction.

To me – and maybe I’m just being a bit old-fashioned here – this is treating the precious commodity of music as… product.

If this is the destiny for that most cherished of jewels as we lurch uncertainly into the 21st century, then I’m ever so glad that I’m long gone from this particular aspect of it.

Would Stax, Motown or Island have ever been founded on the guiding principles as outlined above? Not in a million years – thank the stars in all their heavens.

They were founded and staffed by people who worked on gut instinct and sheer enthusiasm; people who cared about artists and careers; honourable men and women who were in touch with the very heartbeat that will always pulse through the music world; soulful people who nurtured acts and helped them navigate their way forward; people who could inspire yet also understand that business and integrity are a hard marriage but who have hearts and minds big enough to encompass both; people who looked at the impossible and thought – why not?; people who were lucky enough to get paid for indulging a hobby.


People like… Rob.


Fifi Dessein said...

That EMI bloke? Those clipboarders?

All virgins talking about sex.

They've got the statistics and chat but they have no idea how to make love.

Drew said...

What a truly frightening vision of the future of music marketing.
Have these people ever had a passion?
Their crafting and conditioning of consumer needs reads like the MKULTRA programme, which perhaps makes the initials of Consumer Insight & Analysis a rather ironic coincidence.

It's just