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Michael Downie

michael downie

So it was announced this week that Roadrunner Records will be closing offices around the world. On the hit list are the UK, Canadian, Dutch, Australian and German offices (with the potential for a few more to go) as well as a certain number of staff at the main US office. A further casualty of the cull is founder/CEO Cees Wessells who has stepped down as the head of the label that he poured his heart and soul into for the last thirty years or so.

So what happened?

At the time of writing, there's been no official statement about it from either Roadrunner or the owners, Warner Music Group. All the confirmation has come directly from the staff members who have lost their jobs and a few of the signed artists up in arms that this has happened.

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The story goes that WMG purchased Roadrunner lock, stock and barrel in 2010. Since then everything has ran more or less the same as it ever has. WMG has been almost the silent owner, allowing Roadrunner all the autonomy it's ever had to do its own thing and make its own decisions.

But then a change so sudden that it's liable to cause whiplash. WMG announced the closure of the vast majority of Roadrunner's global offices, save for the mainland US office. It came as an enormous shock for everyone concerned. The initial consensus is that it's a money saving effort, a form of streamlining the business and trimming the fat, but if you look at it, it's something much more surreptitious.

Industry observer revealed that WMG is transferring all the back office functions to in house team members, while the remaining front house functions (like A&R, publicity and marketing) will remain under the Roadrunner umbrella. So essentially, what this means is that you will still be able to buy CDs with that iconic Roadrunner stamp on the back, but the glut of the heavy work will be handled by WMG directly.

The office closures put Roadrunner and a lot of the resultant music industry in a difficult position. For better or worse, a lot of the music industry in the UK has relied on RRUK for something or other. Be it from the BBC reviewing the latest Opeth album, to Megadeth embarking on a UK tour. Websites, magazines, venues, musicians and fans all have some vested interest in RRUK.

For instance, without a local office, promotion becomes very difficult. Magazines and websites spend time and effort maintaining relationships with labels but when they're not based in the same country things can become difficult. For a start, phone calls to arrange things become extra difficult when you have to consider an eight hour time difference, email correspondence can become incredibly time consuming, taking days to resolve simple queries and then there are the inevitable language barriers to contend with.

On top of this, how are the bands going to operate properly? Roadrunner doesn't contract out its PR to third party teams; they've always been big enough and been in enough places to handle it themselves. Roadrunner always lived up to their name by signing a band and then sending them out on extensive global tours to earn their keep, but with no (or very few) global RR agents left to book gigs, arrange interviews and PR moments, just how are the bands meant to cope? Even taking the vast majority of functions into WMG, they are going to need one hell of a savvy team to maintain the current working rate of RR bands.

Further to that, there has been no mention of how the bands will be affected by this. If this really is a cost cutting measure then surely some of the bands are going to suffer? Any band who doesn't have a cast iron deal could find themselves free agents in a competitive market place.

I don't think RR will get rid of the older, more established (nay, classic) bands such as Rush, Slipknot, Dream Theater, Megadeth and the like, but the smaller bands could be in trouble. Bands like Revoker, Halestorm and Dommin as well as newly signed bands like Gojira could find themselves in hot water if WMG decides it wants to streamline the operation.

I'm sure the uncertainty is crippling some people. In a brave step, Trivium vocalist Matt Heafy took to Twitter when the news broke and unleashed hell with tweet after tweet lashing out at WMG in support of his friends in the UK (the UK was the first territory where Trivium made it big, as a result the band always held the UK in high regard), as did his bandmate Paolo Gregoletto.

However, most of the RR artists have been very quiet about the whole thing. In Heafy's diatribe he mentioned that he didn't know the ins and outs of what's going on, which I think underlines the whole sorry state of affairs.

Nothing is official. Neither WMG nor Roadrunner have made any kind of announcement regarding the subject up to now. Nothing is on their respective websites. It's a testament to the power of social media these days that even without an official announcement about the subject, the whole world is getting a rough idea of the internal machinations of the company.

What is worrying is whether or not either company will make an official statement at all, even just to confirm what will happen to the current roster and its plans.

The thing is though, it's not as if Roadrunner were particularly struggling of late. The brand of RR is enormous, the badge on the back of a CD case is sometimes enough incentive for a switched on rock fan to know that they stand a good chance of liking the album.

RR have made some massive signings of late, with bands like Gojira, Megadeth, Dream Theater and Rush all joining within the last five years or so. Machine Head, Opeth and Porcupine Tree have enjoyed unprecedented chart success with their latest albums and bands like Slipknot have even scored number one albums across the world during their careers.

I could understand the rapid restructure and mass reduncany if they were having trouble selling records, but to be honest, RR have never been stronger in the market place.

Whether we find out what's going to happen or not, it's a sad day not only for the rock scene, but for the music industry in general. When one of the most consistently brilliant and profitable independent labels can be bought by a major, then stripped of all it's worth to become, literally, just a brand, it's a reminder of how ugly the music industry can be.

We can all dream of being rich rock stars, living the high life, touring and partying all year round, but the reality of it is, the people who put you there are the hardest working people in the industry. Without the PR people, the A&R, publishers, artists, writers, hell, even without the tea boy in the office, a band will never make it to those lofty heights.

According to WMG though, those very people who helped make and break some of the most important bands of the last thirty years are eminently disposable.

The heart and soul of Roadrunner has been cast aside. All that's left now is a logo and a lot of questions.

For those who worked in the office and helped great music reach loyal fans, I wish the best of luck to you. You deserve much better than this.

Rest in peace Roadrunner Records UK, you will be missed.



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