White Collar Criminals

Op-Ed: On the Century Media / Major Label Acquisition Rumors

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century media logoEarlier this week Blabbermouth published a report that independent metal label Century Media is looking to sell to one of the three majors, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group or Universal, and since then the industry has been all a-chatter with rumors and speculation. Let’s attempt to cut through it all.

1. Robert Kampf is over it.

He founded Century Media in 1988 and he’s been running the label for almost 30 years. Perhaps he’s just grown tired of the same old song and dance; 30 years is a long time for any career, let alone one as tumultuous as the metal business. The untimely passing of co-founder Oliver Withöft last year couldn’t have helped matters.

2. Sell high.

The Blabbermouth report quotes Kampf as saying 2014 was Century’s strongest year yet, although no numbers are provided, and “strongest” could mean any number of things. But, if 2014 was in fact Century’s strongest FINANCIAL year yet, may as well get out while the going’s good.

3. The label’s biggest bands have mostly moved on.

In connection with the Blabbermouth report, Lambgoat ran a list of the label’s top selling releases of all time “in rough order” (why the qualifier? not sure):

01. Lacuna Coil – Comalies
02. Shadows Fall – War Within
03. Lacuna Coil – Karmacode
04. In This Moment – Blood
05. Shadows Fall – The Art Of Balance
06. Lacuna Coil – Shallow Life
07. Arch Enemy – Doomsday Machine
08. Suicide Silence – Cleansing
09. In This Moment – Beautiful Tragedy
10. Iced Earth – Something Wicked This Way Comes

Shadows Fall are broken up (and past their prime anyway), In This Moment moved over to Atlantic and Suicide Silence are now on Nuclear Blast. Lacuna Coil reportedly have only one record left on their deal with Century. I’m not sure about the status of Arch Enemy’s contract, but they’re not the big sellers they used to be. As for Iced Earth… I love ’em, but c’mon.

4. Century has failed to develop a new crop of young, talented metal bands.

Century’s been so busy the past five or so years chasing the hard rock dragon — first with Hollywood Waste Records, now with Another Century — that they’ve failed to develop a meaningful crop of young metal bands that will carry them through the next generation. In a word, they’ve traded away their farm system for the stars of the moment, a Yankees-like approach to a business that’s traditionally way more Mets-like in feel. Sure, Century’s signed plenty of new bands over the past few years, but when was the last time the label really went all-in on signing a bunch of talented young bands to see who catches? Whenever they signed Nachtmystium and Intronaut… 2008 or so.

5. Century has become a legacy label.

Century is now a brand that’s known for working with well-established artists with a decent following — Napalm Death, Voivod, Gorguts, Paradise Lost, Marduk, Sanctuary, Queensryche, etc — which is a fine business model for the present but isn’t necessarily sustainable long-term on its own. Even many the “new” bands they’ve signed rely in some way on a past legacy: Adrenaline Mob, At the Gates, Barren Earth, Vallenfyre, etc. You’ve got to pay attention to the big league roster and the farm system so the next generation is primed for the big time when the current one withers away from old age and/or fatigue. With all due to respect to these very fine bands, Vildhjarta, Monuments and Tribulation are not going to be the great white saviors of Century Media.

A sale makes sense right now. Instead of waiting until the label’s current sellers have graduated, and with no meaningful young crop of bands lying in wait, the time is right: Century’s present value is high from within, and the value is there to any potential suitor too (in the short term. more on the long-term in a moment).

6. Century is already incredible lean.

The label has been slowly laying off their U.S. staff over the past year-and-a-half and they’re now down to a very lean 25 employees, plus or minus, possibly less. In Europe, they’re somewhere around 55. This is a label that’s primed for takeover — grab the creative nucleus to keep the brand intact, then axe the rest of the additional back-office staff and plug into the major’s operations.

7. There is already a blueprint for this: Roadrunner Records.

The order of events might be slightly different, but we’ve already seen what happens when a key executive leaves a metal label and that label is acquired by a major.

First, the label will issue some completely meaningless statement such as “We promise to keep our core values intact, and this acquisition will not weaken the brand at all! Century Media will still be Century Media! This will just make us stronger by providing services we need!” The acquiring label will make a similarly hollow statement about how they intend to take a “hands off” approach as far as the music goes. This is all complete bullshit: the acquiring label is simply interested in Century’s catalogue, and will indulge Century’s existing staff in continuing to sign and promote new acts only as a means of keeping the brand alive to sell old albums, or utilizing their “expertise” as a hard rock imprint that fits better into the major label / radio world.

Once the terms of the acquisition have been completed, Century will lay off their “back office” staff — the lawyers, accountants, admins, production assistants, etc. whose jobs will be redundant at a major label — and will retain their core creative staff to run the daily operations of the label.

Things will seem to run as usual for a year or two, until one of two things happens: 1) The major label brass repurposes Century as its “hard rock” unit, ala Roadrunner (an area in which Century is already investing), or 2) The major label brass retains a small core of marketing staff to handle Century’s existing recording obligations until those bands’ contracts expire and they let the label wither away and die.

8. There is another existing blueprint for this: Ferret Records.

Remember Ferret? Seems like a distant memory, but they were a metal powerhouse in the ’00s. So what happened? Scenario #2 above, to a tee.

9. This is definitely happening. Century Media’s office building in Hawthorne, CA (near Los Angeles) is for sale.

Got $2.15 million? Here’s the real estate listing. I’m not sure whether Century Media as a company or any of its executives as individuals own this building, but the fact that it’s up for sale probably does not bode well for the label.

Century Media for Sale10. Heavy metal will be just fine.

It’s always sad when an independent label gets acquired by a major, especially one as long-running and important to the scene as Century. But maybe it’s time. Is there really a need for Century to keep developing young talent when newer labels like Profound Lore, Blood Music and Brutal Panda are doing such a good job of it and other, more well-established labels like Prosthetic, Relapse and Metal Blade continue to do the same? It’ll be interesting to watch and see how this process plays out, but as far as “the sky is falling” cries connecting this sale to some larger industry trend… nah, I don’t buy it.

 

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