Burghers, dim sum, and... Chapter 9
The EMI Years really were a monster mashup of the good, the bad and the very fugly. For at least one of the Chinese girls working for us in Shanghai, well, she became very rich because of the gift of a property given to her by a certain senior executive working for us at head office and always visiting the mainland. The value of this property quadrupled at least and the last time I met her, she owned a vineyard and chateau in Bordeaux and kept talking to me in French. Things like these business partnerships were long before #metoo. It always took two to tango. Good for her. There's no such thing as a free dim sum lunch.
I’ve never spoken to the other key players involved in this long drawn out almost Greek tragedy about everything that went up, down and sideways, especially during our final years at EMI.
Except for some reminiscing over drinks with longtime friend and colleague from our days in the music world and even before that- Norman Cheng- about the inner workings of the music company’s letters that often stood for Every Mistake Imaginable (EMI), nothing much was said. There were no need for words. Norman had either read the tea leaves much earlier on or was simply focused on a career path set all those years ago when going from leader of a local pop group to session guitarist and producer before being handed over the reins to run the Hong Kong office of PolyGram. Who knew where this might lead?
PolyGram became Universal Music when David- tiny MCA Records which belonged to Seagrams- took over Goliath- and bought PolyGram from Dutch parent company Philips. Things became a global and political ball of confusion for Norman at Universal when, for one reason or another, then-Chairman Jorgen Larson, below, never warmed to him and wanted him out.
Being Chinese might have had something to do with it though it probably had to do with his choice for the Chairmanship role- an Australian- being passed over as being too old. Unbeknownst to Larsen, there was, however, another plan being hatched that eventually had to do with EMI. Before Norman exited, however, there was a need for him to find the right replacement- a flunky- so he could take up the offer to run EMI Music in the region- and run all over Universal. All’s fair in love and war and a number one with a bullet for the chosen flunky. I had already found this stooge- an American Chinese MTV Asia executive who was all style and no substance. He was slick, had the right smile and insincere handshake, absolutely loved himself, loved making presentations that sold him, and, of course, had bigger plans than hanging around MTV. He desperately wanted to run a music company. He was also a serial Teflon man.
For Norman to leave, he had to say that he was retiring. Then, keeping a low profile for around a month, it was about ensuring that he could get out of any non-compete clauses that might come back to bite him on his arse. I gave the “keynote speech” at his “retirement party” where he was presented with a pair of cheap golf clubs at what was hardly a five star venue in Happy Valley. The party didn’t last long and everyone went their separate ways. Norman and I went to celebrate the EMI offer and work on the ways forward. Though having to put up with The Teflon Man for a few months before it came time for my contract with Universal Music to be renewed, there was great pride in finally telling him where to stick it- the new contract. It was an offer I could refuse.
After some weeks of back room work at a temporary office in the Sheraton Hotel, it was announced that Norman Cheng would be “coming out of retirement” to take over EMI Music in the region. This would see him back working with his former bosses at PolyGram Alain Levy and David Munns aka Munnsy, below.
After meeting with Munnsy, who flew into Hong Kong to confirm everything, we were and in Norman’s car heading home when The Stooge called. He nervously asked how Norman could have done that to him- retired but not retired. Well, he did. And The Teflon Man had been outplayed. He plodded along bringing in his Yes People until it all became too obvious, too embarrassing and with no home runs. It didn’t take long for him to move to China and successfully sell himself to another global company. Norman and I hit the ground running at EMI by getting rid of some of the rubbish we had inherited. We also quickly took our market share from four percent to a massive twenty four percent. From starting out with the boy band Blue, Atomic Kitten and Robbie Williams, who was still to break when we first joined, signed to us were Coldplay, Norah Jones, Gorillaz, whereas Robbie hit it big with “Angels”. We also worked on our local and regional repertoire and where I personally had some huge hits in Indonesia, Hong Kong and China with lesser known acts like Michael Learns To Rock and Croatian crossover artist Maksim.
We were told we had a few “million sellers” in India, but, well, let’s just say that the numbers from certain markets like Bollywood didn’t always add up. A Keith Urban record selling 50,000 units in Thailand? In a week? Let’s leave it at that.
Whereas I was extremely happy working on Asian flavoured Remixes for artists like Bowie, Robbie Williams and a Chinese New Year Remix for Gorillaz, Norman was making giant strides with his personal legal beagle by his side- Eric Kronfeld- an abrasive, tough-talking New Yorker.
Eric was an acquired taste who apparently had been “demoted” by Universal for making what could be construed as derogatory remarks against Black artists.
Eric Kronfeld was a nice enough guy though not many could take him for long. I enjoyed the stories about his days in Vegas working with acts like the Four Seasons and bodies being found in the trunks of cars. This happened if any in the groups hired to entertain audiences were caught entertaining the girlfriends of mobsters. Made sense. Also a racing man, he had sold a yearling for US$60,000 to Jerry and Ann Moss, the former being the co-founder of A&M Records. The yearling turned out to be the champion Zenyatta who was named after a record by Police and went onto win nineteen consecutive races. Apparently, Eric never went to watch Zenyatta race after his sixth consecutive win. Also made sense.
Eric was pretty much a Yesterday’s Man, but he was loyal to Norman and had negotiated some very good deals and contracts for him.
He wasn’t a sycophant, but he desperately needed to be respected as the big man on campus he once was. Being Norman’s confidante gave his career, the boost it needed. He wanted to be seen as Norman’s hatchet man and we let him play. We had other things to do though what we were doing and looking at were never as ambitious as what Norman had planned. Norman only ever had one plan: create an entertainment company with an impressive looking portfolio on the surface, but actually hid a few holes. Next, package this piece of cheese whizz and sell it to any of the young billionaires from especially the Greater China region and Indonesia captivated by what they saw as the glamour of the music business. With considerable help from Eric Kronfeld, he succeeded in setting up Gold Typhoon as EMI’s partner in China and eventually sold it to financier in the superficial Louis Pong.
Louis Pong somehow parlayed this acquisition into a company that, apparently, Warner Music Asia wanted as it included the EMI back catalogue for the region. He made billions on the deal. Wonder who else did? Hmmmmm?
“Trending” at the time was buying music companies at a cheap price, mixing these together with some artists who had a few hits, use smart marketing through some smoke and mirrors, have a tenuous link with a technology company, package it all with a bow and sell it to the highest bidder. It was all about timing, and Asia, especially China, was ripe for young entrepreneurs to compete and want to overtake people like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. The music business was a good way in before taking bigger steps. The Age Of Aquarius had come and gone, we had enjoyed a five star lifestyle and these were now the days of networking and seeing where all those dinners and meetings around the world and karaoke sessions with attractive Chinese, Japanese and Korean ladies for company had led. It was a zigzag world where one dealt with trumping the other and ensuring that you weren’t the last man standing with nothing to sell except for some hits that might have happened decades earlier. Memories like these are maybe nice on Facebook, but those looking at businesses don’t see any value in these- and not being relevant. Why should they? After the very quick, ruthless and extremely well-executed sale of EMI Music orchestrated by Group CEO Eric Nicoli, everything was in free fall.
Known internally as The Biscuit Bungler because of his time with United Biscuits, Nicoli, who had created the popular Yorkie chocolate bar, sold EMI to Guy Hands.
Hands was the private equity fat boy and his Terra Firma terrarists, whose only link to music was that he enjoyed karaoke. It, didn’t take long to see the end hurtling forward and everyone heading for cover. Alain Levy and David Munns found themselves literally locked out of their offices and a guy who made his money refurbishing toilets on the autobahn was in charge of the musical home of the Beatles. Radiohead were the first major artists to leave EMI. There was a domino effect after that whereas it wasn’t long before Guy Hands’ own problems caught up with him. Though having an offer to run another major in the region, I was financially pretty comfortable, I was in a good space despite having to say goodbye to my parents, and was starting to look at options without the one time naivety. Had I become less trusting of people? Perhaps more choosy. The days of living la vida loca at escort clubs were winding down and it was becoming more about working out the art of the deal. I had forgiven myself for what I saw as past sins and was told by a blind fung shui man to whom I was taken that I was protected by a force field of colours and was once a leader and warrior with a third eye.
Maybe. My interest in Camelot and one day meeting Guinevere has always been with me whereas I can read people and what’s been said between the lines in a very different way than before.
Someone I had first met in Hong Kong almost in passing and then followed to Dubai where she was an urban planner and holidayed with in Sri Lanka moved to be with me. It made all the difference. She was a long and enjoyable Danish interlude of herrings and cheese and a steadying influence after a helter skelter decade of politics, insecurities and uncertainties. We moved out of Convention Plaza as she wanted something less ostentatious. We settled for a funky old walk up in a then very local part of Hong Kong on High Street. This is how she wanted it. We became friends with a very different group of people compared to those with whom I had once hung out. This girlfriend wasn’t impressed with any form of lavish lifestyle and enjoyed playing housewife and hosting dinners at home.
Some of these new acquaintances we got to know weren’t exactly who they pretended to be, but this was a time when pretty much everyone in Hong Kong had secrets and something to sell. One of these people had a father who was highly respected in Hong Kong and two very intelligent brothers, but each with their own problems. Knowing my interest in horse racing, but these days purely as a hobby and not some futile get-rich-quick scheme, and with the CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club being a friend, this person had me thinking again about how to attract younger people to the races. I use the word “again” as I had been writing and recording songs about jockeys and champion Hong Kong horses as a hobby when at EMI, and believed there was a bigger idea hidden there. This idea was on the back burner until the subject came up again. The idea was to create something like a more hip version of a young members racing club. This didn’t really appeal to me. It sounded old and predictable whereas I couldn’t see a new generation of hardcore racing fans. Each time there’s been one of these clubs, they’ve come across as a token gesture with not much meat to the bones, especially in an online world that offered more choices along with different business opportunities. Everything changed, however, when this friend and his wife did a runner out of Hong Kong owing some outstanding credit card bills. I was to learn more about this intriguing case involving gypsies, tramps and thieves. We’ll save this for another day. More importantly, a big career change happened when the head of the HKJC and the man known as E.B asked me to visit the Happy Valley Racecourse and see its fairly new Beer Garden.
Winfried aka E.B wanted to know what could be done to attract a younger demographic to at least the Wednesday night races at Happy Valley. What was called Sassy Wednesday with some pretty tacky advertising quickly became the entertainment-driven and Trip Advisor endorsed Happy Wednesday brand.
This was to change the face of horse racing and offered my career a completely new lifeline. I have E.B to thank for that. He also taught me much about many other aspects of the racing game by simply being around him. These included the Peter Principle, trust issues and the business of racing.