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“Companies are rewarded for numbers. Everyone wants to be creative and take risks, but they still have to hit their numbers.”
—-Billy Mann, BMG Rights
BILLY MANNS UP AT NARM
BMG N.A.’s Top Creative Exec Submits to Onstage Q&A Conducted by Tamara Conniff
Wednesday morning’s keynote address kicking off the opening session of the 2011 NARM Convention was delivered by BMG Rights North America President of Creative Billy Mann in the form of an onstage interview by TheComet.com’s Tamara Conniff, ex-Billboard editor. The selection of a publishing executive as a keynote speaker at a retail convention definitely got people buzzing.

In the half-hour conversation, Mann offered a very interesting take on the current music business, reminiscing about his first time at NARM as an artist, 15 years ago in Washington, DC. “There was no breakfast, but there was alcohol.”

He mentioned those who championed him at the time, such as then-PGD execs Jim Caparro, John Esposito and John Madison as well as Harmony House founder Bill Thom. He also talked at length about the evolution of his career from artist to executive and referred to it as one born of necessity. “This is a passion business,” he said.

Post-9/11, he took a gamble and crossed over into artist management, founding Stealth Entertainment with “a lot of young people. It was a youth culture; terrifying, but fun.” 

Conniff asked him about his decision to join EMI in 2007. “Stealth was working all around the center of the circle,” he said. “It was intoxicating to me to take a seat at the table. EMI was the greatest learning experience ever.” Though he decidedly didn’t like certain aspects of the executive world, saying about EMI that no matter what the issue was, “They have a deck for it,” referring to the endless power point presentations.

“We shouldn’t get away from the core of what we do, and it was sometimes maddening to have to turn off that romantic notion.”

One of the deciding factors in his decision to leave EMI was discovering a DJ by the name of David Guetta. “I can’t take credit for David. He’s a do-it-yourself story.” After Mann heard his song, “When Love Takes Over,” featuring Kelly Rowland, he suddenly realized: “This movement he was a part of was really an exciting commercial moment.” 

He insists he refuses to get lost in the "data."  “A lot of what we do is not in the spreadsheet. Someone like [Capitol Nashville's] Mike Dungan puts his finger up and feels which way the wind is blowing.”

When he went to EMI with a master plan for Guetta, he got resistance from management. “You want us to bet the farm on a DJ that neither sings nor dances?” Mann said that was the beginning of the end. Guetta, of course, went on to incredible worldwide success. “I can’t take credit,” Mann demurred. “The fans did it.”

About Guy Hands, he says: “A smart guy that bought a house he couldn’t afford, that wasn’t worth as much as he paid for it. You can always second guess.”

What was the hardest part of the job? “Cutting workforces. I feel everyone’s pain that has to do that.”

Conniff asked Mann about a memo from Roger Faxon reportedly asking him to reconsider his decision to leave.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “But international responsibilities mean a lot of airplanes. Faxon let me leave on my own terms. I love EMI as a company and the people [that work there], but I just had too many CEOs in too short a time."

On his new role at BMG: "There's a startup quality. It’s not just a publisher, but a brand-new platform.They have to define a new culture for themselves, and I’m a part of that.”

Talking about offering a variety of premium products as different ways to experience the same thing, Mann compared that experience to a plane flight that takes off and lands at the same time, but with different options along the way at various price points to deliver that experience.

About the youthful demographic of consumers born after 1992: “More than 70% of kids have three screens going at once on their computer, digesting music in different ways. Kids are born with a mouse in their hands. We have to listen to them. They can smell a rat so fast.”

On the future of indie retailers: “I don’t think the record companies are going away, and I don’t believe that the indie retailer will, either. The challenge is how to provide a culture that adds value.”

On the life span of the CD: "Some cars don't even come with a CD player as standard equipment. Just like they’re not making them with cassette players.”

On American Idol, The Voice and The X Factor as A&R sources. “Singing competitions are a little like fast food: it tastes good but then you feel a little queasy.”

In the end, Mann says the cure to the industry's ills is still the bottom line.  “Companies are rewarded for numbers. Everyone wants to be creative and take risks, but they still have to hit their numbers.”

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