Interview: Tony Wadsworth
By Glen Keogh on June 20, 2012 in Music
If the former head of EMI is chairing a debate on whether record labels deserve to die, it’s safe to assume he’s already saddled with a touch of bias.
That’s the situation Tony Wadsworth, chairman and CEO of the international label’s UK and Ireland division from 1998 to 2008 was in when he listened to arguments from two teams in Newcastle University’s Students Union as part of their Business School’s Convocation Weekend.
Wadsworth, currently chairman of the UK record industry trade body BPI and the Brit Awards ruled that record labels do not deserve to die, citing arguments from the panel in his defence.
The team of three defending record labels included RPM boss Marek Norvid and Newcastle’s dean of cultural affairs Professor Eric Cross, but it was a point from Claire Schofield of the university debating society which struck a chord with Wadsworth.
He said: “One interesting strand that Claire was talking about in the debate is this portfolio aspect of record labels where the very successful artists subsidise the brand new ones coming through.
“It’s absolutely true. At a record label if you have a few dozen artists on your books you can afford to lose money on a certain number of artists who you genuinely believe in, because you’ve got other acts making a lot of money.
“If you’re an individual artist on your own, you can’t afford to lose money so you can’t take chances in the same way that a label could take chances on your behalf.”
Wadsworth’s 26 years at EMI have moulded the musician into the erudite businessman. Upon graduating from an Economics degree from Newcastle University in 1977, the Bolton-born lad played full-time in a band for two years, experiencing all the trials and tribulations that come with trying to make it in the business.
“The worst thing that could have happened to us was getting a record deal,” he says, half-laughing.
He seems genial and down to earth, but speaks at length on what he makes of the future of the industry and why he already believed that record labels still have a place in the industry.
“The way that record labels have adapted since the turn of the century when the internet was really starting to become a key factor both as an opportunity for a new way for people to consume music but also get your product for nothing means it’s a hard business to run.
“They obviously needed to change and needed to adapt and organisms that adapt are the organisms that live longest and I think that the record label is a resilient organism.”
A strong argument from the opposition team and in particular Kerry Harvey-Piper of Red Grape Records and Management was that labels are “dinosaurs”, out of touch with music fans and unable to compete with the immediacy and reach of the internet.
Do they “systematically take power away from musicians”, was another strand Harvey-Piper and her team explored, to which Wadsworth simply countered as this only happening at “bad labels”.
Wadsworth argues that to realise the continued importance of record labels you need to firstly understand the essence of what it is they actually do and why there will always be a need for that.
“First and foremost they are a filter, which is their A&R function. They’ve got to find the best music possible because there is so much music around.
“Everyone makes music. Everyone puts it up on Soundcloud or it used to be MySpace or whatever, so that’s one thing. The other thing is their skill in marketing. Because there is so much music out there, it’s even more necessary than it ever was to actually clear through the clutter and highlight what’s the good stuff and record labels through their marketing are able to do that.
“They’ve developed marketing expertise with social networks and they’re able to cut through to give the artist some profile. They’ve filtered the artist so they’re good artists receiving profile. So I think it’s taken a decade or so but they’ve adapted. The fruits of that are starting to come through.”
Wadsworth’s credentials as a man able to filter talent are inarguably impressive. During his tenure as boss of EMI he oversaw Coldplay become the biggest band in the world and worked with the likes of Blur, Amy Winehouse and Robbie Williams at his peak.
Whilst he and many at the debate acknowledged one of the main functions of a record label as a filter, it was also widely held that many artists need the money which is often only available from a label to fund releases and tours.
“I think that bands and artists generally are now able to develop themselves further than they could do but many of them at some point have got to make that decision – do I now go with a record label or do I continue doing it myself?
“Most people that are ambitious and want to sell a lot of music and make music their living choose to sign through record labels.
“In four of the last five years the number one album in America has been by a British artist. So British record labels aren’t just surviving, they’re actually thriving.
The statistics don’t seem too bad for a business which is supposed to have been rendered redundant.
Wadsworth adds: “The performance of UK artists around the world is as good as it’s ever been.
“The UK music industry has 13% of the world market. Compare that with the manufactured goods industries which have 2% of the world market, and the services industries have 5%. They’re doing well.”Just when you thought record labels were one more thing the internet had ploughed through in its quest to bring the world closer together while managing to damage countless once profitable businesses, perhaps the debate was never in doubt.
“There isn’t an arena act out there that hasn’t had a hit through a record label,” he says, in his broad Lancashire twang. And it’s hard to argue with that too.
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