Page last updated at 23:23 GMT, Monday, 14 December 2009

Beatles still saving EMI after 40 years

By Robert Plummer
Business reporter, BBC News

Troubled record company EMI is in the news again for all the wrong reasons, as its current owner Terra Firma turns on the bank that financed the £4bn ($6.5bn) takeover.

Beatles box set, USB edition
The relentless repackaging of the Beatles' music could be EMI's lifeline

Private equity dealmaker Guy Hands, fighting to salvage his reputation, thinks Citigroup set him up by not telling him other players had pulled out of the bidding war in 2007.

For its part, Citigroup says it will defend its role in the proceedings "vigorously".

But while the legal battle rages, EMI is still showing its peerless expertise in exploiting the crown jewels of its back catalogue.

In September, EMI gave its balance sheet a much-needed boost with remastered CD editions of all the Beatles' original albums.

There were also two expensive box sets, one in mono and one in stereo.

Now, just when long-suffering collectors thought their wallets were safe from further attack, EMI has returned to the fray with two more repackage jobs.

One is a "Christmas pack" containing four of the most acclaimed Beatles albums - Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road.

The other is an extremely limited apple-shaped USB drive containing the Beatles' works in MP3 and Flac formats - the only way to obtain the band's music legally as digital files, since none of their songs are available from download sites.

Last label standing

Not for the first time, EMI's continued survival is due in large part to the fact that it owns the recorded works of the most successful group in history.

In the Beatles' heyday, back in the 1960s, EMI was one of four music companies that dominated the British charts. The others were Decca, Philips and Pye.

Sign outside EMI offices in London
EMI's past still serves it well

One by one, the others fell by the wayside, all swallowed up by what is now Universal Music Group (UMG).

But while they stumbled, EMI coasted through the 1970s, sustained by the enormous worldwide profits that the Fab Four's albums and singles continued to amass.

That leaves it as the last big UK record company, competing with French-owned UMG, US-based Warner and Japan's Sony.

Although the Beatles have not recorded a new album for 40 years, and only two of the four members are still alive, the band has never been far from the Top 40.

Successive reissues and compilations, including the Red and Blue double albums and the 1 album containing all the Beatles' chart-toppers, have introduced the band to new generations and maintained their widespread appeal.

Time running out?

EMI is not the only record company turning past glories into a present-day revenue stream, although the near-£200 price tag on its Beatles box sets has angered many fans.

But the latest back-catalogue bonanza could be EMI's last big chance to make serious money from its most valuable tunes - in Europe, at least.

Guy Hands
New music had not been profitable ever since the digital age arrived
Guy Hands, Terra Firma

At present, record labels have exclusive rights to sell sound recordings in the EU for a period of 50 years. After that, other companies can put out their own editions.

Unless the law is changed, the first Beatles record, Love Me Do, will go out of copyright at the end of 2012.

In April, the European Parliament voted to extend the copyright protection to 70 years, but the move has still to be approved by the European Council.

In the US, the picture is very different. Thanks to a series of overlapping federal and state laws, virtually all sound recordings are subject to legal protection until 2067.

However, multinational record companies would be reluctant to invest the time and effort that went into the Beatles' remastering if they could not be sure of reaping a worldwide return.

No future?

So why is EMI still reliant on music that was recorded in the last century? Why has it not discovered new talents that can reduce its dependence on the archives?

Sir Paul McCartney in Paris, 10 December 2009
Everybody at EMI had become part of the furniture
Sir Paul McCartney

Well, the label does boast the likes of Robbie Williams, Lily Allen and Coldplay on its current roster.

But all those artists were signed before the company was taken over by Guy Hands' private equity firm, Terra Firma, in 2007.

In the two-and-a-half years since the deal was done, EMI has attracted attention in various ways, but musical creativity has not been one of them.

Artists who prided themselves on their originality did not warm to a new boss who was routinely described in profiles as "karaoke-loving".

For his part, Mr Hands took a look at EMI's bottom line and was appalled.

"We discovered that new music over the last 18 months had lost £130m," he told the BBC in January 2008.

"In fact, new music had not been profitable ever since the digital age arrived."

Furniture music

Mr Hands' cost-cutting methods were part of the standard turnaround tactics employed by private equity firms, in their quest to revamp underperforming companies and sell them on.

However, such an approach had never been tried at a record company before - and the results were counter-productive.

Radiohead, the Rolling Stones and even ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney decided they had had enough of EMI, all jumping ship to seek other deals.

"Everybody at EMI had become part of the furniture," Sir Paul said when he left in 2007.

"I'd be a couch, Coldplay are an armchair. Robbie Williams, I dread to think what he was."

Beatles USB stick with broken stalk
EMI's latest Beatles collectable is prone to damage

But the fundamental problem was that Terra Firma had paid too much for EMI at the height of the private equity boom, making the resulting debt - most of it owed to investment bank Citigroup - unsustainable.

After Citigroup refused to write off £1bn of that debt in exchange for a further cash injection from Mr Hands, relations soured.

That prompted Terra Firma's legal action against the bank - in essence, an attempt to blame Citigroup for the high cost of the EMI deal.

Back at the sharp end of the business, EMI is already running into problems with that Beatles USB stick.

A design fault means that quite a number of the drives have arrived with the apple's stalk snapped off, and disgruntled fans are clamouring for replacements.

The item is starting to look like a metaphor for Terra Firma's acquisition of EMI: something that seemed like a good idea at the time, but rapidly turned into an expensive liability.

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