All Hands to the pump as Williams strikes

EMI has suffered its latest setback – Robbie Williams is going on strike. But will anybody notice?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Since Guy Hands’ private equity firm Terra Firma won the battle to take over the record company back in November, things seem to have gone from bad to worse. Its attempts to curb some of EMI’s legendary spending – £5.6m on a million Mayfair mansion; £200,000 a year on fruit and flowers; £20,000 on scented candles for a single apartment – have gone down like a lead balloon, and Radiohead and Sir Paul McCartney have already jumped ship in disgust. On Tuesday he's expected to unveil plans to cut about 1,500 jobs at the label.

Earlier this month UK music head Tony Wadsworth was ushered out of the door, much to the chagrin of top-sellers Coldplay. ‘Tony was the reason a lot of bands signed to EMI,’ the sour-faced foursome’s manager moaned to the Times. ‘Artists want to work with music people, not finance guys.’

Now Williams may be next. His manager Tim Clark told the Times that his artist would refuse to deliver his latest album, because they had no idea how EMI were planning to promote and market it. ‘All we know is they are going to decimate their staff,’ he said. Clark said Hands was acting like a ‘plantation owner’ who had stumbled into the record industry as a ‘vanity purchase’ (given Hands’ well-chronicled obsession with karaoke, that’s not totally implausible).

Some might say Williams’ behaviour smacks of ingratitude, given that EMI awarded him a record £80m deal back in 2002. But we’re guessing that he’s taken a detailed look at Terra Firma’s previous investments in the likes of Infinis, Odeon and William Hill and asked himself the question that keeps many rock stars up at night: to what extent is their success due to value creation rather than financial engineering? Williams obviously thinks it's mostly the latter. And he’s clearly an astute observer of the business world – he appears to have decided to stage a pre-emptive strike several months ago, refusing to put out any decent records ever since. That would certainly explain Rudebox.

Still, it’s another headache the private equity firm doesn’t need. Hands prides himself as a turnaround expert, but if he makes a success of this one it will surely go down as his finest hour. At the moment, there seems no conceivable way he can make any money out of a business that’s leaking artists, leaking staff and leaking credibility – and all this in a world where major record labels could seemingly go the way of the dinosaurs in the next decade. Rumour has it that he’s got virtually his entire firm seconded to EMI in an attempt to dream up some bright ideas (sack the rest of the artists and flog the back catalogue on eBay, perhaps?).

Whereas Williams has no such worries – if all else fails he can always bite the bullet and beg Gary Barlow to let him back into Take That...

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