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EMI Emerges as Smartest Label

NMC/Radio and Records eChart main column as published in the 11/23/01 issue of R&R Over the last few months, there have been many announcements about online music services, including the ones from the major labels and ones from all corners of the indie world. In between, there has been one label that has shown over and over again that they "get it." That label is EMI.

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EMI refuses to stand on ceremony, and is willing to play with everyone in the space, at least to a degree. They were the first label to say yes to their opponents: both MusicNet and pressplay will have EMI music, even though EMI is only an owner of one of them. That was a break: all the major labels had begun to line up on one side or the other between those two services, with a clear intention not to offer their wares to their competitors.

Cooperation had to happen. One label had to be the first to move towards offering their catalog (or parts of it) to everyone, just as they do to all traditional retailers. Otherwise, forget any move to the Holy Grail of online music services: all labels offering all their content, both current releases and full back catalog for money that makes sense. Users have said over and over that they would pay for the ability to get any song, any time.

Naysayers would say that EMI has nothing to lose: they are the smallest of the 5 majors, and being fifth in a five-horse race means they must take chances. But EMI has to be just as careful with their strategy as the market leaders, and part of that strategy means being open to all possibilities, including file formats, online distribution methods, electronic promotions, payment methods and subscription models and what online listeners are clamoring for: the music. EMI's approach even extends to their Christian catalog: they've recently made that part of their library available to the non-label owned online music services.

But all those moves be fruitless if their cooperative work with the other labels fails to kill off the pirating networks that have lost luster with the press all the while they've gained numbers of users. It will be hard for EMI or any other label to charge anything for a monthly fee or a per-cut fee when there are still options, legal or not, for a listener to get an MP3 file for free. Even the worst incarnations of low-bitrate MP3s that are free seem to be more of a draw than a for-pay high bitrate digital-rights managed Windows Media file.

New blood at the label has their work cut out for them as the path to success becomes alternatively murkier and clearer. Hopefully, their new head of recorded music, Alain Levy, will keep them smart as they press forward into the digital future.

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