Merlin Appoints First Boardroom Wizards

The European independent music companies have taken a step closer to competing with the majors on a more level playing field by announcing the names of the temporary board that will run Merlin, the controversial new media licensing agency set up to ensure the sector gets a fair return when its music is downloaded.

Although most agree the platform is a necessary tool if the indie record companies are to maintain their market share, the controversy came because it’s part-funded by Warner in return for the major being given a clean run for another bid for EMI.

Along with some other "behavioural undertakings" from Edgar Bronfman Jr.’s U.S. major, Impala – the independent music companies’ Brussels-based trade organisation – has agreed not to snag up its next bid for EMI like it has with the Sony-BMG merger.

The controversy came when Ministry of Sound and Gut Records complained about the deal and implied that it was done for the main benefit of some of those who’d agreed to it.

Controversy is hardly likely to be calmed by the fact that Martin Mills (chairman of the U.K.’s Beggars Group), Michel Lambot (co-president of Belgium’s Play It Again Sam) and Horst Weidenmüller (chief exec of Germany’s !K7 Records) – all supporters of the Warner agreement – are named as European reps on the Merlin board.

Along with AIM chairman and chief exec Alison Wenham, who as head of the U.K. indies’ organization had to deal with much of the flak from MOS and Gut, they all said they have stuck rigidly to the indies’ long-stated principle of opposing "mergers without remedies."

It is not Impala’s goal, although there might be some media-led popular perception to the contrary, to oppose all mergers.

Wenham said it’s not a sustainable position because, ultimately, Impala and AIM have no real control over whether they’re allowed.

Their pragmatic answer is to support mergers that allow the indies more space to compete, rather than compromising or marginalizing them, and to talk to any major that is prepared to give enough ground to justify their support.

Wenham’s on the Merlin board as a "non-regional member," as is Charles Caldas – the new Merlin chief exec who moved over from Australia’s Shock Entertainment Group.

Caldas, who is relocating to the U.K. from Australia to start full-time work from Merlin’s London offices on April 23rd, said the non-profit indie-owned agency is embarking "on a unique journey to license collectively the individually unlicensable."

The Interim board members were nominated by international trade bodies including World Independent Network (WIN), American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), and Impala.

The other members are Tom Silverman, chairman and chief exec of U.S.-based Tommy Boy Records, Glen Barros (president and chief exec of the U.S. Concord Music Group Inc.), Takashi Kamide from the Japanese MS Entertainment, and Mark Kneebone from New Zealand’s Tardus Music.

The interim board will oversee the establishment of a constitution, the appointment of core staff and initial operations. Once these are in place, they will elect a full sitting board that’s likely to be larger in size, thereby providing an opportunity for broader inclusion and representation.

The interim board will disband once the main board commences its activities.

The creation of Merlin was first mooted at Popkomm ’05, where representatives of leading independents from around the world elected to build a business case for a new global rights licensing organisation.

At Popkomm ’06, a steering committee was elected to ascertain the best structure and operational model for such an agency.

After 18 months of consultation and development, it was decided that the answer was to build Merlin. It was announced at MIDEM a couple of months ago, when it sealed its first deal – a landmark tie-up with digital music company SNOCAP, which includes the MySpace social-networking site.

AIM’s eighth AGM has been slotted for June 28 at the London Calling conference at Earls Court.