And then there were 3… EMI split, where does it lead?

Universal Music Group and Sony Music continue to dominate the music biz storylines this year with the unpredictable conclusion of the EMI auction, which saw the two industry leaders beating out the long-expected winning bidders in Warner Music and BMG Rights Management.  It might be too soon to call it the era of the ‘big three,’ with the regulatory process expected to last well into 2012 after Citigroup‘s auction split EMI into two – the recorded music going to UMG while EMI Music Publishing is set to fall under the ownership of an investment consortium including Sony Music, the estate of Michael Jackson, music mogul David Geffen and others – but however you slice it, the trend of contraction continues. And for all the growth and ‘turning point’ talk, including from the CEO of UMG parent company Vivendi, in the wake of an increase in music sales over last year, the revenue from those sales is still in decline due to the lowering of prices, as pointed out in a Bloomberg article this week… So where do things go from here?

Independent music company coalition IMPALA began saber rattling prior to the announcement of the EMI auction winners, and were quick to make public their intentions to block the acquisitions by both groups following the announcements on Friday. Industry insiders however are questioning the association’s ability to ultimately triumph in stopping the completion of either deal. Universal Music is expected to dispose of a certain amount of assets, particularly in European territories where they would now hold a market share well over 50%, and their key argument for approval will be that the music industry is in a much different place even from just a few years ago, and that they like others are at the mercy of technology companies like Apple in this new digital age. How well that justification will fare remains to be seen, as there are seemingly plenty of holes. One could easily look to how long it took Spotify to launch in the U.S. due to the process of acquiring licenses from the four major label groups, and further, that they negotiated equity stakes in the service in order to allow a launch in America… It will also be interesting to see how well Google does with the launch of a new music store, expected to be this week, with only two major labels onboard, Universal and EMI (coincidence?)… And while iTunes Match is expected to succeed, it’s clear that Apple feels comfortable with their current position and power in the music space, as they continue to expand their sites in new areas of media and content domination… And as far as the EMI publishing spoils go, many see the creation of the investment entity, of which Sony only holds a minority stake, as making the approval process easier.

Some of the other big questions being asked by observers this week include, what is the fate of EMI Group CEO Roger Faxon? A role within Universal Music on the recording side seems unlikely, and while EMI’s pubco is expected to remain its own entity with Sony/ATV in a management and administration role, will there be room for Faxon to reunite with his former EMI publishing co-CEO Marty Bandier, and more importantly would he take a reduced-role? How does this play for current Sony Pub players Jody Gerson and Danny Strick? Will Warner Music be first in line to snatch up EMI recorded assets in European territories from Universal, particularly in light of their recognized weakness abroad and the shake-up among its international management structure announced by Lyor Cohen just last week? Will Edgar Bronfman Jr. now exit WMG completely as expected? Contrary to public comments from BMG Rights Management CEO Hartwig Masuch today that the EMI publishing purchase was not “necessary” for the company, those in the know believe that it was indeed a crucial acquisition for the KKR and Bertelsmann backed venture, and having failed to secure it, are wondering if KKR will now get out? Insiders share that the Germans are considering buying out KKR’s stake. And having purchased most of the mid-level music publishing business over the last couple years, including Bug Music during the EMI auction, will BMG now shift focus to unifying its management structure and operation?

Plenty more action to come…