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Friday, 11 October, 2002, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Is Robbie Williams worth it?
Robbie Williams
Williams' deal is one of the highest ever

It was one of the biggest deals in music history. On 2 October, EMI signed British singer Robbie Williams for around $150m (80m).

The five-album agreement, however, comes at a time when the record industry is facing a financial crisis because of the global economic downturn, a slump in sales and music piracy on the Internet.

So, given the current state of the industry, is Williams worth it?

Mark McCrum, who has written a biography about Robbie Williams, thinks he is.

"He's a brilliant performer, he's good-looking and he dances well, and he's got a nice voice; a terrific personality that comes across on stage.

Amusing

"But the performance - there's something about him, something animal about him when he gets up there. And you'd have to see it to really understand it."

Music journalist Paul Lester is not so sure.

"Some people seem to have the misguided impression that he's some kind of David Bowie or John Lennon or Bob Dylan figure who is able to write incredibly inventive and original songs.
Robbie and Nicole
Williams topped the charts last year with Nicole Kidman

"All he is really is that fat kid from Take That, who is quite amusing."

Whatever the personal opinions, the question arises: is it wise to splash out so much money on one deal?

CD sales worldwide fell five per cent last year and are expected to fall even further.

Piracy

EMI itself has cut back on staff and lost its coveted place in the index of the largest 100 companies on the London stock market. But EMI Chief Executive Tony Wadsworth, who made the deal, is quick to defend it.

"Signing an artist like Robbie Williams could be argued to be inherently a lot less risky than most of our business. In the last five years, he sold twenty million albums around the world.

With CDs costing as little to manufacture as they do, there's absolutely no excuse for them to be priced the way they are

Richard Harrington, Washington Post

"There are less than a handful of artists that can claim to have done that in such a short space of time.

"But it does come at a difficult time for the record industry."

One of the key reasons to which people are attributing the downturn in other markets around the world is piracy.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are thought to be lost annually because of it.

The record industry has fought the internet pirates in the courts. Its most notable victory was against Napster, which allowed computer users to download music without paying.

Over-pricing

But for every victory, tens of new and smaller, illegal sites have popped up.

Richard Harrington, a music critic for the Washington Post, says the record industry has only itself to blame.
Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey's Glitter album was a flop

"It's a way of thinking that has crept up very, very suddenly by over-pricing the product.

"With CDs costing as little to manufacture as they do, there's absolutely no excuse for them to be priced the way they are.

And, as long as the industry thinks that it can charge an unconscionably high price, people are going to resent that."

EMI has other concerns too. Mariah Carey was their last much-hyped, big-money deal. Her album, Glitter, flopped. It cost EMI 28 million dollars just to pull out of the contract.

Lucrative

However, media analyst Kingsley Wilson believes EMI have learnt their lesson from that episode.

"The big difference between that and the Robbie Williams case study this time round is that they paid Mariah Carey a huge amount of money upfront, and they didn't have access to her back catalogue of music.

"If, for example, Robbie Williams's next album is a failure, they can go about recouping part of that advance that they've paid him by quickly releasing a 'Best of Robbie Williams' from all the other albums that he's done which they own."

Now, Williams' eyes are certainly on the US - it remains by far the biggest and most lucrative market.
Robbie Williams
Williams' big band show sold out the Albert Hall

Trickle

In Europe his cheeky chappie image has gone down well but it's still to win over the American audience.

According to Richard Harrington, the United States is becoming an increasingly difficult nut to crack for any British artist.

"There is absolutely not one single act from England among the top fifty. What was once a very dominant influence has really slowed down to a trickle."

EMI is certainly keen for Robbie Williams to succeed in America. And a huge promotional push is expected there.

But for Richard Harrington, it's that very focus on big names and marketing hype that's starving the music industry of natural talent.

"The one thing that's missing is the notion of career development, letting a band grow. And it's difficult, because that investment has to come from labels that are in fact doing well. And none of the labels are doing particularly well."

See also:

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11 Oct 01 | Entertainment
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