In a cut-throat music industry, where even the biggest stars nervously await their weekly chart position, Andria Vidler expounds a heretical philosophy.
“Being No 1 isn’t necessarily always the right thing,” suggests the chief executive of EMI, the famous record company behind chart-toppers from The Beatles to Coldplay that is now facing a tearful break-up.
“Yes, we observe what our competitors are doing but we don’t do things just to beat them. We focus on the best route for the artist,” said Vidler, 46, who joined EMI in 2009 after a career as a senior executive working at the BBC and commercial radio.
“About three years ago as a team we said we’re not going to chase market share. We’re going to take on and prioritise a few artists. We’re actually offering a service to our artists. I know some of our competitors might have a different approach. But it’s worked for EMI.”
It’s a laissez-faire approach to chart success which might prompt raised eyebrows in the rival record giants, which are visible from the penthouse suite at EMI’s Kensington offices, where Vidler is speaking.
She cites a recent example. “Artists have careers that have light and shade to them. Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee soundtrack album (to the Blur singer’s opera) was an amazing piece of work. But it was about ensuring as many people heard it as possible, not necessarily where it came in the album charts.”
At first glance, it might seem that the strategy has not worked very well. Universal, the world’s biggest music company, swallowed up the debt-laden EMI in a £1.2 bn deal last year. However, the EMI that Universal has acquired is a revived on which, under Vidler’s leadership and despite her professed coolness towards market share, has improved its performance on that measure from 10.9 to 15 per cent. Obvious successes include the Scottish singer-songwriter Emeli Sandé, a ubiquitous face during 2012 whose debut album was the UK’s only million-seller last year.
Universal will not be getting the whole EMI stable, however. In order to placate EU regulators, it has been forced to sell off one of EMI’s crown jewels, the lucrative Parlophone label, home to Blur, Coldplay, Lily Allen, Tempah, Kylie Minogue and Conor Maynard, the teen star tipped to become “Britain’s Bieber”.
The move has unnerved some of Parlophone’s artists with Dave Rowntree, the Blur drummer, expressing his reservations at becoming a pawn in a corporate industry takeover. But Vidler, who is over-seeing the sale, with Warners, Sony and the Spice Girls impresario Simon Fuller among the bidders, is keen to reassure him.
“I understand Dave Rowntree’s perspective,” says Vidler, who hopes to move with Parlophone to its new home.
“Artists aren’t pawns. They worry that they have built longstanding relationships with teams here and that can all be put at risk. But despite the disruption, we’ve had artists sign and re-sign with us because we’ve had phenomenal success. We must be doing something right.”
Vidler, a “media chick” who became managing director of the Capital and Magic FM radio stations before moving to EMI, is a lone female representative at the record company top table. “Shocking, isn’t it?” she says. “It’s puzzling when you have women in high-profile positions across other media companies.”
Yet she is firmly against any suggestion that women should be given a leg up simply to address the gender gap. “I personally don’t believe in an approach that says you need a certain percentage of women or that you need to dictate that women should be on certain boards,” she says.
“I don’t believe women should be given a job purely because they’re women. I think you need to prove you’re the right person for the job. I get a bit distracted by that gender agenda.”
So does Vidler, a rugby-loving, married mother, believe that women are less interested in the all-night parties and excessive lifestyles which traditionally allowed male music executives to demonstrate their commitment to the cause? “I don’t think people get promoted because they stay out late,” she says. But then she adds: “I go to lots of gigs and I’m happy to stay out late.”
But where are the female superstar DJs, or studio producers? “There are lots of superstar female artists and fantastic female managers,” counters Vidler, who says she believes that female mentoring is the best way of elevating more talented women to the boardroom.
She adds: “Women frequently have to spin more than one plate at one time. Some women have stronger EQs [emotional intelligence] than men. But that’s not to say no men have strong EQs.”
Meanwhile, one woman Vidler would like to see more of is Kate Bush, whose back catalogue forms part of the Parlophone sale. Vidler’s triumphs include negotiating an agreement with Bush to recommit to EMI. With seemingly every big name of previous eras making a comeback at present, could Bush be persuaded to return to live performance after more than 30 years? “She might. It would be lovely but Kate will do what she wants to do. The more people ask her to do something, the more she’ll tend to pull back.”
In the meantime, Vidler, who grew up worshipping the Bay City Rollers and Donny Osmond, is working with another comeback kid, David Bowie, and his team on a major rerelease programme of the star’s classic 70s albums, which may include a documentary film.
She is “very excited” about a new Damon Albarn solo album, which the Blur singer is currently working on, and doesn’t rule out new material from that band either. “You never know,” is all she will say.
On a more contemporary footing, a second Tinie Tempah album is set to capitalise on huge interest in the Plumstead rapper in the US. So despite the disruptive background of the Parlophone sale, it is business as usual, almost.
Yet behind Vidler, on the penthouse balcony, sits a giant rusting sculpture of Nipper the Dog and his gramophone, an appropriate symbol for HMV’s collapse and a reminder that the industry in which she works is going through turbulent times.
Digital sales of music, video and games exceeded the £1bn mark for the first time in 2012, an 11 per cent rise on 2011, while physical sales of CDs, DVDs and Blu-Ray dropped by 18 per cent.
She is simultaneously unsentimental about the iconic chain’s demise and upbeat about the future of high- street music retail in general. “I’m relatively confident that there will be a specialist entertainment and music store on the high street in some guise,” she says. “I enjoy browsing and trying out new things.”
The record industry’s future, she believes, is a combination of digital downloads, video and streaming services along with physical offerings for hardcore fans, such as Blur’s £130 career-spanning box set. But will those stores of the future carry the name, HMV? “Who knows.”
Another musical name beloved of previous generations is the Now! That’s What I Call Music brand, which has been going for 30 years but is now also up for sale from EMI and facing an uncertain future.
Vidler would love to see it continue, but does not guarantee it. “The 2012 Christmas Now! was the biggest-seller since the middle of the 80s. We’d love to see it remain with whoever purchases Parlophone because the brand still has huge potential.”
At this month’s Brit awards, Vidler will wave goodbye to her protégé Sandé, pictured left, who now joins Universal. Was Vidler responsible for Sandé’s presence at practically every major televised event last year, from the Olympic Opening Ceremony to the X Factor final?
“Of course there was a plot to raise her awareness to as many people as possible. But the fact that her album is still in the top 10 after a year shows that there are still people finding her,” she says. It’s one chart-topping feat which Vidler is keen to claim.
On The Spot: Six Questions
Where was the last place you went for dinner?
E&O in Notting Hill
What was the last album you bought/listened to?
Pines by A Fine Frenzy, the stage name for American singer-songwriter Alison Sudol.
What was the last book you read?
The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
What was the last gig/concert you attended?
Gabrielle Aplin & Conor Maynard at the Electric Ballroom, Camden
What was the last sporting event you attended?
England vs Scotland rugby international at Twickenham on Saturday
What was the last film you saw?
Les Misérables – “I bawled my eyes out”