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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 June, 2005, 23:33 GMT 00:33 UK
Biting the hand that feeds you
Stephen Evans
By Stephen Evans
BBC North America business correspondent

Chris Martin
Chris Martin had the clout to defy EMI
Are recording artists now bigger than the studios and companies that produce them?

The contrast between the very different treatment that Coldplay and the Sex Pistols received from recording giant EMI suggests that they may be.

Biting the hand that feeds you is always dangerous - unless you're a very big dog indeed.

When Coldplay's Chris Martin bemoaned "slavery" to shareholders who were the "greatest evil of this modern world", EMI barely blinked.

If the company that "owned" the talent felt any pain, it wasn't going to let on. At the time, EMI was blaming the delay in the completion of Coldplay's album for a dent in its profits and a dive in its share price.

The company's chairman, Eric Nicoli, seemed charmed by the mauling he was getting: "Chris will have had a smile on his face when he said that. Chris is an artist, not a stockbroker".

Sex Pistols

It does, though, seem very different from the last time EMI's boardroom fell foul of the views of its artists.

The Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols cashed in on their notoriety despite EMI
In 1977, it terminated the two-year contract of the Sex Pistols after only three months.

Of course, the politics was different. The Sex Pistols echoed Coldplay's anti-capitalism - but in a much less cogent way.

The Sex Pistols were anarchistic ("Anarchy in the UK" was the single whose profits had pleased EMI so much).

They were also nihilistic - Sid Vicious spat, swore and wrecked (his own life with drugs).

In a sense, though, the Sex Pistols had the last commercial laugh.

They went on to sign up with Virgin records and sold 150,000 copies of "God Save the Queen" (not obviously a tribute to Her Majesty) in just one day.

The record was a huge money-spinner despite (because of?) being banned by Radio 1.

Corporate calculations

So what was EMI thinking then?

Firstly, its profits weren't utterly dependent on the Sex Pistols.

The band was big (and became important in the history of music) - but it wasn't the only talent the company had.

On top of that, they were such bad boys that the image stuck.

Chris Martin of Coldplay has a point of view with which you can agree or disagree; Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten had attitude.

Martin's earnestness might irritate those around but Vicious and Rotten were fully capable of vomiting on anyone within range.

It is a different order of offence.

EMI may have bowed to political pressure in a very clubby world.

A Conservative MP had written to EMI's chairman of the time, Sir John Read, saying: "Surely a group of your size and reputation could forgo the doubtful privilege of sponsoring trash like the Sex Pistols."

It could. Sir John responded: "This I think both realize that this would never be a successful contract. We will not tolerate bad behaviour of this type. Not good for them. Not good for us".

With Coldplay the calculation is different.

Its album, X&Y, has finally emerged from the tortured creative process to much critical acclaim plus - and, perhaps more importantly to EMI's despised shareholders - early signs of massive profitability.

The first single from the album has already done better in the American charts than any since the Beatles.

Music and accountants

Sir John Eliot Gardiner
British conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner set up his own label

In music, it is always possible for the artist to walk away from the accountants.

The British conductor, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, has just done exactly that.

He was at the start of an imaginative and ambitious (and expensive) pilgrimage around European churches to record all Bach's cantatas.

With only a handful of CDs releases, Deutsche Grammophon pulled the plug.

Sir John decided to set up his own record label to finish the job.

It does, though, depend on financial clout.

Sometimes artists are so big that the company loses money by defying them - as with Coldplay.

When Marvin Gaye badgered Motown's founder and owner, Berry Gordy, to let him record tough political songs rather than the ballads for which Gordy thought Gaye more suitable, it was the singer not the mogul who won.

Gaye was simply too big and could have walked to any record company. In the event, Gordy was wrong, even on his own criteria.

"What's Going On", Marvyn Gaye's song about America in the Vietnam years - an America that couldn't give Gaye's brother a job after returning from war - was a huge commercial success as well as an artistic one.

Sometimes, the money-bags can be told what's good for them.

Listen to an archive report on the Sex Pistols leaving EMI

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