Can new Levy turn back tide at EMI?

Vet brings impressive track record to new job

NEW YORK — Music biz insiders have believe that freshly appointed EMI Recorded Music chief Alain Levy has a good shot at turning the venerable but stagnated label group into an industry contender — if anyone can.

Levy, who spent most of the 1990s developing Polygram into a musical powerhouse, brings an impressive track record to his new job. But the job is daunting.

EMI, home to such artists as the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Pink Floyd, has languished of late, thanks to a dearth of fresh hits, a pair of failed merger deals, and plain-old bad luck.

“In a business that is shrinking to begin with, EMI has gone through so much,” says one exec close to the situation. It also doesn’t have any other divisions to cushion the blow of music-biz weakness. And rosters at EMI’s key labels, Capitol and Virgin, are nearly devoid of hitmakers.

Nevertheless, chairman Eric Nicoli is wagering that Levy, a tough, business-minded Frenchman with a reputation for success, can help EMI put the past behind it and compete against multifaceted juggernauts like Vivendi Universal.

Levy spent most of the 1990s building Polygram — the company that would become the core of Vivendi U’s Universal Music Group — into the strongest company in the business. During his tenure, Polygram boosted its world market share by 40%, and its market cap jumped more than four-fold.

While at Polygram, the exec orchestrated the purchases of Island Records, home of Irish rockers U2 and late reggae staple Bob Marley, and hip-hop label Def Jam. The latter label has since become a hit factory, churning out multi-platinum releases from acts like Jay-Z, DMX, Foxy Brown and Ja Rule.

Rap wasn’t the only genre where Levy made a prescient bet: The exec helped create an atmosphere that fostered the careers of classical megastar Andrea Boccelli and country diva Shania Twain. In both cases, he identified niche successes (Boccelli in his native Italy, Twain in the country charts) and exploited them in the mainstream pop world.

Levy, a shy, introverted man, is also renowned among Polygram alumni for his attention to even the most mundane details at his labels, and for calling employees to the mat if they overlook them.

“People were always shocked when they would stroll into a budget meeting and he would immediately say, ‘How come you didn’t ship X-number of units to this retailer?’ ” says one. “He’d been up late the night before, pouring over every number on the SoundScan charts.”

Attention to detail could go a long way for EMI, whose business, particularly in the crucial U.S. market, has been flagging. During the four-year tenure of Levy’s predecessor, Ken Berry, EMI’s U.S. market share dwindled to 10% — last among the five majors.

EMI’s financial troubles were spelled out earlier this month in a warning that profits would be 20% lower than anticipated. That sent its U.K.-listed shares down 35% in one day. The company also announced plans to lay off 100 employees.

Levy’s most pressing task is to bring back the hits. It will be harder for him to buy share as he did with his label acquisitions at Polygram, simply because there are far fewer big indies for the taking. But he could set to work attracting some big-name acts from the UMG roster — many of whom, including Sting and Elton John, he remains close to.

Levy’s already planning to review the strengths and weaknesses at each label, a process that will most likely mean personnel changes in the near future.

Almost immediately after he ascended the ranks at Polygram, Levy began pulling in personnel, including some of today’s biggest industry names. Among his first proteges were current Warner Music Group head Roger Ames, who moved quickly up the ranks under Levy’s watch, and Rick Dobbis, now head of international for Sony.

The top brass at Virgin, including vice chair (and former wife of Ken) Nancy Berry, could be potential targets. The label is still smarting over an $80 million deal to sign diva Mariah Carey, who promptly suffered an emotional breakdown that derailed promotional efforts on behalf of her first Virgin album. The disc has so far sold a scant 326,000 copies.Recently appointed Capitol Records topper Andy Slater is likely to keep his position. Ken Berry tapped Slater just last spring following his success managing hot acts like Macy Gray and The Wallflowers, and he’s only had a few months to prove his mettle at Capitol.

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