Fourteen years ago, EMI production music chief Peter Cox summoned a punk rocker named Russell Emmanuel into his London office.
Emmanuel had launched Extreme Music just a year earlier in 1997 and was the talk of London after he mailed out condoms to a thousand music industry executives. The condom package read, "Extreme Music: The Only Safe Thing You'll Get From Us."
Instead of scolding Emmanuel, Cox shook his hand and told him, "You really are the bad boys of production music."
In the world of production music-with its dodgy history of sound-alike recordings-that was saying something.
"It's always been our duty to shake shit up, rip the industry a new one and create music so sexy you're going to need a safe word," Emmanuel says. "If it's in our catalog, then it's 200% legit, high-caliber audio ammo."
Today, however, Emmanuel finds himself in the unlikely position of being one of the 10 most powerful executives at Sony/ATV, the world's largest music publisher. Following its $2.1 billion acquisition of EMI's publishing business in June, Sony issued a list of the organization's executive hierarchy that included the 50-year-old Emmanuel. It also named other Sony/ATV heavyweights like Joe Puzio, Peter Brodsky, John Pires, Jody Gerson, Danny Strick, Jimmy Asci and others who directly report to Sony/ATV chief Martin Bandier.
Details on how Sony will parcel out responsibilities or consolidate leadership as it integrates EMI remain unclear.
One thing is certain-Emmanuel is uncomfortable with his lofty new corporate status. He shifts uneasily in his seat in his Santa Monica, Calif., office when asked about whether the EMI integration will lead to greater responsibilities for him.
"Yeah, well, we'll see," he says sheepishly.
Brought up in a working-class neighborhood in North London, Emmanuel is happier to be identified by his background as the rebel from the other side of the tracks. His father survived a World War II Russian work camp in Siberia and later joined the Israeli army before reuniting with Emmanuel's grandmother in London. Though the family had owned roofing factories in Bedzin, Poland, they were left poverty-stricken after the war.
Still, Emmanuel managed to get a scholarship to two posh London boarding schools. He dropped out at the age of 15, but not before saving enough money working a paper route to buy an electric guitar and teach himself to play it. His first job, sorting letters in the BBC's mailroom, led to a gig as a studio assistant at MCA Publishing, where he wrapped cables, lined up mics and made tea. At night, when everyone else went home, he taught himself how the equipment worked.
Emmanuel got his first break in 1977. A studio recording engineer phoned in sick at the last minute one morning, and Emmanuel was the only person who could operate the equipment. It was a remix session for Wings Over America, produced by Paul McCartney.
From there, Emmanuel moved on to Bruton Music, a library of production music now owned by Universal Publishing. At the time, production music had second-class status within the world of music publishing. The business was built around cheaply producing libraries of sound-alikes, songs that sound like famous tunes but without the large licensing fees of the originals.
"They used struggling musicians to record these songs," Emmanuel says. "The production values were crappy. But because costs were so low, the business was lucrative."
As a member of a band called Class Ties, Emmanuel recorded one such album for Bruton before he quit his job in 1986 and toured with his group for 10 years. All the while, he received steady royalty checks from his sound-alike album, money that he used to finance his punk rock band's touring efforts.
In 1996, Emmanuel decided to hang up his guitar and look for a "real job," as he calls it. He wound up at Match Music, a production music company in London that was sold a year later to BMG. Once again unemployed, Emmanuel talked to an acquaintance he'd met while at Match Music, an angel investor named Mark Levinson. Emmanuel pitched an idea for a production music company that would up the industry ante by using professional recording equipment and top-notch musicians that Emmanuel had met in his decade of touring.
Levinson and Emmanuel scratched out a budget on the back of a cigarette box, itemizing the things they'd need to start their own company. In April 1997, Levinson wrote a check for Â£100,000 and Extreme Music was born.
Mailing out condoms wasn't Emmanuel's only hijinks in the early days. At an awards show put on by ProMax U.K. for TV marketing executives in 1999, he bought a table front and center of the ballroom. He hired 10 people with dwarfism to attend, outfitting them in Extreme Music T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Size Isn't Everything" on the back. Emmanuel and his staff bought tickets for the back of the ballroom and watched the hilarity.
"Everybody wanted to have their pictures taken with the little people," he recalls.
The business that Emmanuel built, however, is no laughing matter. While the company doesn't disclose its finances, Emmanuel says Extreme Music is "very profitable." Viacom in August 2005 bought Extreme for $45.1 million. Three years later, Sony/ATV picked up Extreme for an undisclosed sum. In both acquisitions, Emmanuel remained in charge of the business.
His formula for recruiting world-class musicians and making high-quality recordings has earned Extreme many top-tier clients in Hollywood, including Paramount, Lionsgate, Walt Disney and Fox, as well as major TV networks and brands like MTV, NBC, HBO, Showtime, the BBC, American Express, Ford Motor and the National Football League. Movies and TV shows that have used Extreme's music include "Katy Perry: Part of Me," "Brave," "Snow White and the Huntsman," "CSI," "30 Rock" and "Jersey Shore." Artists who have contributed music to Extreme's catalog of 12,000 titles include Hans Zimmer, Snoop Lion, Paul Oakenfold, Timbaland, James S. Levine and George Martin.
Estimates of the size of the market for production music are nearly impossible to come by, making it difficult to calculate Extreme's rank in the business. "When it comes to production value, compromise is for pussies," Emmanuel says. "I pity the fool that's in competition with Extreme. We are the bar."••••