CELEBS: EMI Gives Unwelcome Meaning to “Sustainable”

The Sex Pistols once wrote a sneering, musical indictment of their record label EMI, entitled simply enough, “EMI.” Perhaps John Lydon would like to update that song for today, because EMI is now falling under criticism from numerous musicians on the label for their plans to cut nearly half of their staff by midyear: up to 2,000 of their 5,500 employees. In the face of declining record sales due to the rise of digital downloads, the entire record industry is reeling. (EMI reported 233 million pounds of pre-tax losses last year.)

“The changes we are announcing today will ensure that this iconic company will be creating wonderful music in a way that is profitable and sustainable," said chairman Guy Hands. Hmm, that’s an interesting way to phrase it. Was that use of the hot green term “sustainable” intentional to garner sympathy?  When we say “reduce,” we’re not talking about people, EMI.

But although it has proven problematic from a business perspective as the music industry struggles to adjust, the increasing popularity of digital media can only be a boon from an environmental perspective. Less CDs being made means less waste in landfills. And EMI has been doing some creative recycling of their own: Robbie Williams’ most recent CD Rudebox tanked last year, and now the company has shipped off more than a million unsold units to China and elsewhere to be destroyed and used for road pavement and street lighting.

The label’s detractors include eco-cool-kids Radiohead, who defected from the label and released their latest album, In Rainbows, as a pay-what-you-wish digital download last year before releasing the physical album earlier this month. It may not have been a rip-roaring success, but the band may well have pioneered a new model that will reduce waste: Release digitally to gauge interest, then there’s no need to destroy and recycle a million unsold copies later on.

Noted vegetarian Sir Paul McCartney (who also used to be in some band called the Beatles), has also walked from the label. Others threatening to leave if EMI goes through with their job cuts are Robbie Williams (though that might not be seen as a huge loss), Coldplay, and newly reformed the Verve.