Tony Wadsworth: He's got the X&Y factor: the Young Buck making a Bigger Bang for EMI

By investing in British talent, rather than just following the market, a muso has put the group back on track
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The Independent Online

When the music industry bible Billboard recently ranked its "2005 Power Players: Global Top 20", only one person from EMI was included. It wasn't chief executive Alain Levy, who has led a turnaround at the group since arriving from Polygram four years ago. Neither was it Eric Nicoli, chairman since 1999, nor even Coldplay's lead singer Chris Martin, who described EMI shareholders as "evil". No, it was an easygoing former musician from Bolton, Tony Wadsworth.

A veteran of the company after 23 years there, Wadsworth has since January 2002 been responsible for EMI's recorded music in the UK, including the output from the Abbey Road and Olympic studios. His bailiwick is seen as the creative powerhouse of the EMI empire - boasting such artists as Coldplay, Radiohead, Robbie Williams, Kate Bush and the virtual band Gorillaz (whose success led to the headline, "EMI needs more Gorillaz, fewer dinosaurs").

The modest Wadsworth refuses to take credit for this. "The UK is very, very good at producing innovative, top-quality artists and has been for four decades. I see no reason why it should not continue."

Music is more than an interest for Wadsworth, it's a way of life. "If this starts to feel like a job, I'll give it up," he says. There are no signs that his enthusiasm is diminishing, as he bounces around the colourful west London offices of the world's third-largest music company, past the signed Beatles album covers and framed song manuscripts.

The past 12 months have been a great period for EMI's UK artists on the international stage, with number-one records in 19 countries, and 26 weeks at No 1 on the Billboard European Top 100 Albums chart.

Robbie Williams' Intensive Care shot to the top in 17 countries; Coldplay's X&Y became the second-fastest-selling album ever; the Rolling Stones had a sell-out tour with A Bigger Bang; Norah Jones's Feels Like Home sold one million copies in the first week in the US; and Kate Bush released her first album in 12 years - to great acclaim. EMI artists have been nominated for 13 Brit Awards this year - with new acts The Magic Numbers and KT Tunstall joining Coldplay and Kate Bush on the shortlist for the music industry gongs.

Wadsworth puts this success down to EMI's culture of investing in quality and innovation, and to its long-term focus - an ethos to which he is fully committed. He looks for efficiencies within the business, but will not compromise artistic development. As an ex-musician, he understood why Chris Martin railed against the "corporate machine" after EMI announced a profit warning in February last year, partly due to the late release of X&Y. "If an artist thinks he is responsible for the share price going up and down, he'd have to be made of stone not to react in a slightly emotional way," says Wadsworth.

Within a group that is now returning to growth after a difficult time, EMI Music's global market share rose from 12.5 to 13.1 per cent, with success in digital music reversing some of the declines in CD sales. It has been tough: the industry as a whole is not growing and its technology is in transition. Two years ago there were no digital sales, but now they represent 5.8 per cent of the total global market for recorded music, with 50 per cent of EMI singles sold this way. "It's been a huge and rapid take-up," says Wadsworth. By 2010, he thinks digital sales could be 15 to 25 per cent. "We used to sell bits of plastic," he adds. "Now we run two businesses: plastic, and inventing and developing digital music as we go."

Then there is the emergent mobile phone technology. "Once people start consuming music through mobiles, there's a whole new market to be got."

Wadsworth was six when the first Beatles record was released in 1962, and nine when he learnt to play the guitar. He has been in the music industry since 1977 and worked with some of the world's greatest recording artists.

He grew up in a close family, his father a window cleaner and his mother running a wool shop. They invested everything in the education of their two sons.

As soon as Wadsworth got to university, he started a band. And on graduation, instead of a "proper job", he decided to take The Young Bucks to London. "The band's going to carry on," he told his parents on the telephone. A few months later, they bought him a new guitar for his 21st birthday. "It was typical of their encouragement."

He played professionally for two years and loved it. "You see all life in a band. You learn to deal with people, how to avoid confrontational situations. It was a formative influence on my career: my job here is to get the teams to work together."

When The Young Bucks split, Wadsworth decided he wasn't good enough to make it as a professional musician, but that he wanted to stay in the business. A trade magazine advert led to a job as a production controller. "I started pressing records and I've done everything else in the business since," he says. Three years later, in 1982, he joined EMI and began making his way up the company, with little formal management training.

In October 2002, nine months into his stewardship, Wadsworth secured his greatest achievement when Robbie Williams signed a new contract with EMI. "For its pure size, this deal was the boldest thing I've been involved in. All our rivals wanted it. When they didn't get it, they said Williams was finished."

Robbie Williams stayed with EMI, Wadsworth believes, because it had done "a brilliant job" and the relationship worked. "It was not because we offered the most money. "By the time the deal was finally negotiated, everyone was in the same place." EMI's price remains secret, though reports suggest the deal is worth up to £80m.

Wadsworth is keen to highlight EMI's role in Williams' success. "To become the biggest superstar outside the US, you have to accept that the record company has been a good part of that," he says. "It was a good deal."

Wadsworth is a natural front man himself. He likes to be visible to his staff and communicative. "If you're going to change - and the music industry has faced radical change - then the only way is to bring the organisation with you."

He tells employees there is no limit to what they can achieve. "I've got people around me who all started doing different things," he says. "I like to nurture our artists and people: that adds value." This sense of encouragement derives, he believes, from his own upbringing.

Wadsworth places great faith in his A&R teams and believes you cannot be led only by research. "The market moves on too quickly. We try to be aware of the market but to give priority to quality and creativity. If you judge by these factors, you won't go far wrong." He cites the huge success of "cartoon" band Gorillaz, co-founded by Blur's Damon Albarn. "Who could have predicted their success? On paper, it looked unlikely."

EMI is looking to increase its investment in its artists, says Wadsworth. "If we grow our UK business, it doesn't just stay here: it has a multiplier effect around the world. Quality and innovation mean long-term sales - that's good business. The depth of our catalogue is extraordinary."

BIOGRAPHY

BORN: 21 October 1956.

EDUCATION: Bolton School; University of Newcastle - BA in economics.

CAREER

1977-79: musician.

1979-80: production controller, Multiple Sound Distributors.

1980-81: production manager, Logo Records.

1981-82: manager, new release administration, RCA.

1982 to now: EMI - working his way up from production controller, via catalogue marketing manager and numerous other posts, to become head of recorded music for the UK and Ireland.

Other positions: chairman of the Brit Awards; trustee of the Sound Foundation, EMI's charity to fund music projects and specialist schools.

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