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Since 1972, he's worked with artists such as Kraftwerk, Paul McCartney, Queen, The Cure, Van Morrison, Kate Bush, Bon Jovi, Gorillaz and Pet Shop Boys. Like other industry giants, EMI is trying to figure out how to thrive in the digital world while battling piracy and courting new generations of so-called tastemakers.
Munns, who is also CEO of EMI Music North America, recently sat down with CNET News.com to discuss how record companies are changing, the future of the concept album and how to make a hit.
Q: In the music industry, a lot of people started out very much against digital technology, but now embrace it. What was your own personal moment when you saw that it was going to be a pretty valuable distribution channel?
Munns: We were never afraid of it. EMI had been quite adventurous anyway, and we were very bullish about it. We could see the problem, the problem being piracy. But how on earth are you going to push back that tide? We've been with piracy for 30 years, from cassettes and through CDs. Piracy has been a fact of life since the '50s, really. But this produced a new dynamic, and that part of it was quite worrying. But you could see, I think we saw it very early on, that there were going to be legitimate business models in that place.
We are very aggressive, and we want to see our music in every one of these platforms so the consumer can get to it in as many ways as they want. We just want to get paid. If someone comes at us now with a new business proposition, and we can see a business opportunity, and we think we're going get paid--you know, we check their credit and a couple of things--done, let's go.
What was the reaction of the artists back then? I'm sure some liked it because they had extensive back catalogs.
Munns: It depended on the artist. Really young artists saw much more of an opportunity. Some of the older artists didn't like things like unbundling their album.
We actually kept our albums out of iTunes for the first six months of their life for the first year because, listening to our artists, we saw that some didn't want (their albums) to be in track form. And some still don't.
Interesting, so there is an issue about an individual single versus the whole album?
Munns: Yeah...they created this work, and they wanted it to be heard as a work. And it took a little time for them to get over that. In the end we abandoned that--we stopped it after about a year, I think...It's funny you should ask that question because a lot of people never ask about what the artists think.
Well, there's a pace to an album. When it goes from one track to another, there's a certain logic to it and a certain emotion that comes out of that.
Munns: Yeah, there is. And to the artists who create that work, sequencing is very important. On vinyl, when you had to turn it over, it was very important. What came first, what came last, and then what came first on the second side and how you finished it off--those things were very important to the artist community.
And we are a company that has no other business. We're not in the film business or the video business or the consumer (business). We're in the artist business, and we are very artist friendly. We listen to the artists' concerns. And it's hard to get used to stuff, that's all.
Looking at the new business models coming out--subscriptions, buying singles--which ones do you think work the best? Which ones do you think might represent the future?
Munns: Well, the straight downloading business seems have to settled down on fixed lines. It's dominated by iTunes (in the U.S.), but it's not in other parts of the world. They're not, certainly not, the biggest player in a lot of markets. And the subscription has its problems with portability, but I think that'll get fixed.