Had a visit a few weeks back to the EMI archive at Hayes, near heathrow airport. It's a fascinating place- not only do they hold the paperwork and the masters for almost a century of music recordings, but they've also a small museum. A museum of what? Well they have early TV cameras, Radars, magnetic resonance imaging kit, and of course many beautiful old gramophone. As we explored the place I noticed a picture on the wall of the site some seventy years ago or longer. Where we stood has once been a station, two schools, vast offices designing and managing the worldwide distribution of state of the art music replay devices, lumberyard supplying the raw materials, pressing plants. As the years rolled on the expertise in that place spawned countless innovations- and during the second world war the engineering expertise on this site was a huge part of the technological war effort; testament to this is a map on the wall that was found in a downed Luftwaffe bomber. The EMI plant is very clearly marked!
Today though, for all the fascinating museum exhibits, the archive has a melancholy air. The company that spawned so many revolutionary technologies, and had the nouce to exploit them all, now just makes music. In fact all it does is invest in recording music, and then licenses it's IP and markets it. The EMI that was a fully vertically integrated entertainment system, with diversification and innovation at every layer is now a far smaller and more specialized operation.
Look around and you'll see the other bits of what was EMI- Vodafone, Marconi and many others were once spawned under that umbrella. Perhaps some of them can still innovate and succeed. I think, perhaps not- they are tied into their core market, know their specialization, and do that pretty well. In the great capitalist scheme of things this evolution has probably brought a very great deal of profit for a very great deal of shareholders. But is it better as a company?
It's struck me since my visit that here are parallels today with the story of EMI (a story I have only the most cursory familiarity with). Entities like Sony are today stretching through the whole delivery stack, from content to the ear via products and services. They're not the only ones.
Are IBM and the BBC now slipping down the back side of this wave: shedding creativity and innovation? From inside the beeb it does feel a bit like it. I understand the pressures that lead to the drive to shed areas that technology has left behind- would it have made any sense for EMI to have kept the cabinet making part of the business into the early 21st century? Probably not, and similarly the loss of some area's of the BBC make sound sense.
But think what goes with that- IBM no longer have indigenous laptop designers and builders who can innovate with them- the BBC no longer has the indigenous IT expertise to innovate and run it's own digital asset management system.
Some people are still integrating, still growing, so I think the cycle still holds. I'd like to see it begin to loop back around here- just not sure how.