EMI’s Yank topper preaches patience

Munns' priority is to promote creativity

David Munns takes a realistic approach when he talks about how to revive the long-troubled U.S. operations at British music major EMI.

“Of course you’d like to be driving around in a Porsche right now, but you can’t afford it, can you?” he says. “So what do you do — you go out and get yourself a nice Honda, and you do the best you can.”

Those aren’t empty words for the straight-talking exec, who last year was named vice chairman of EMI worldwide and CEO of the label’s North American operations.

He and worldwide boss Alain Levy have sold the Porsche: they cut EMI’s profligate cost structure to the bone and laid off 1,800 staff earlier this year. Now, the pair must turn what remains into a lean, mean hit machine.

Munns’ new territory will be the frontline in that battle. EMI has performed well in at home in the U.K. and around Europe, but has languished in last place for years in the world’s biggest market — the U.S.

A long succession of execs has labored with little success to change the company’s Stateside slump. Troubles in North America weighed on profits last year, and the stock hit a low of 172 pence ($2.66).

Now, EMI’s board is betting Munns is equal to the task.

An old marketing hand by trade, he teamed with Levy to revitalize PolyGram in the 1990s. As GM of PolyGram unit Polydor, Munns tripled profits in four years.

“He’s built an impressive track record when it comes to breaking artists on a worldwide basis,” says Warner Music Group topper former PolyGram colleague Roger Ames.

Jumping the PolyGram ship as it was sold to Seagram, Munns became Jon Bon Jovi’s manager. His marketing acumen and passion for music helped vault sales of the group Bon Jovi’s 2000 record “Crush” to more than seven million units.

Bon Jovi himself observes Munns has a keen eye for details, and knows how to sell a record successfully worldwide.

“A lot of people in this business are very nationalistic — they only understand their domestic markets,” he says. “Munnsy knows every market globally and the people running those markets. He went out to Singapore three times” to check up on the marketing for “Crush,” Bon Jovi says.

Munns’ priority is to promote creativity at the highest levels. He left vet producer Andy Slater at the head of Capitol Records, and installed another talented young knob-twiddler, Matt Serletic, as chief of Virgin Records.

Both men have formidable creative resumes — producing work for Matchbox Twenty, Fiona Apple, Macy Gray and Carlos Santana — but neither has a corporate track record to speak of.

That’s just how Munns wants it.

“A lot of the day-to-day business should happen without the creative people being too detailed in it,” he says. “Then they can concentrate on what they do best — A&R, marketing, promotion.”

That mentality is starting to pay dividends at Capitol: After a year and a half on the job, Slater is starting to score with hits from the Vines, Kylie Minogue and Dirty Vegas. EMI’s Blue Note division is also enjoying a sleeper smash with songstress Norah Jones.

Munns says the key to success with artists like Jones is patience — something many say is sorely lacking in business driven by throwaway pop hits.

“I’m not really a one-hit wonder guy,” he says. “Sure, I like them when they blow up but that’s not what we’re aiming for.”

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