EMI-Bertelsmann playing on the juke again

Takeover rumors fly

NEW YORK — EMI, the last independent music company and perpetual target of takeover speculation, may well be on the block again, with Bertelsmann AG a likely buyer.

The German conglom isn’t about to buy Sony Music, contrary to what reports earlier this week suggested, or giant Universal, created just over a year ago in a $10.4 billion merger.

Sony Corp. of America chairman Howard Stringer denied reports based on an article in German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that said Bertelsmann topper Thomas Middelhoff is talking with Sony (and others) about a possible acquisition. “With respect to Sony, the report is absolutely not true.” Stringer said in a prepared statement. “Our entertainment assets are not for sale.”

U.S. spokeswomen for Bertelsmann and U.K.-based EMI had no comment, and EMI insiders said they’re not aware that the on-again / off-again discussions between Bertelsmann’s BMG and EMI have been revived with any particular vigor recently. But Middelhoff did tell the magazine that he wants the German conglom to be the world’s largest music group. Acquiring another big player is one quick way to do that. Stock of EMI, the only company available, jumped Monday and Tuesday on the London stock exchange in anticipation of possible deal.

However, EMI has been unofficially on the block for years. Bertelsmann, which ranks fourth or fifth among the five music majors in terms of worldwide market share, has always been interested but never willing to pay the multibillion-dollar price tag.

BMG apparently walked away from a deal several years ago when EMI shares were worth half of what they’re worth today. And News Corp., which doesn’t own a music company, has also been a suitor but also balked at the expense.

EMI ranks third worldwide after Universal and Sony. But in the U.S., EMI ended last year in fifth place after Universal, Sony, BMG and Warner Music.

Some in the industry think last week’s proposed blockbuster merger of AOL and Time Warner may speed up the pace of deals in the media and entertainment sphere, including music.

“It’s certainly highlighted the value of all content businesses,” one said. “I’d expect and EMI deal sooner rather than later.”

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