Not quite a year ago, Douglas Merrill left his position as Google's Chief Information Officer and went on to try something crazy challenging - and maybe even just plain crazy. He accepted an executive's position at record label EMI and was handed the task of figuring out this whole digital music thing. Just shy of his one-year anniversary, he's out - with no replacement named.
In a memo to employees obtained by and posted on the All Things Digital blog, EMI CEO Elio Leoni-Sceti said:
With digital now comprising over 20 per cent of our revenues and growing fast, and with the progress we have made in integrating all of our digital operations fully into the business, we will no longer operate a standalone digital function. Douglas Merrill has today stepped down from his roles as President of Digital and COO of EMI New Music and will be leaving the company.
The memo makes it sound as if EMI has this whole digital music thing figured out. I'm not buying that for a second. Record labels have been struggling with the digital transformation since Shawn Fanning first stirred things up with the original Napster.
I can't imagine that Merrill - who said at the time of his hiring last year that he had no background in the music business - came in and transformed the digital unit so quickly that he's no longer needed.
The recording industry, like other industries impacted by the arrival of modern technology, has done its best to hang on to old business models - CDs in this case. And it when it looked like it would lose the fight, it resorted to filing lawsuit after lawsuit in an attempt to scare music pirates into ceasing their online music-sharing activities.
None of that has helped the music industry find the right formula. It's true that things have changed at online music stores, notably iTunes' addition of DRM-free tracks and some variable pricing models. But that doesn't mean the Hollywood mentality has changed. Even last year, when the Recording Industry Association of America promised to stop filing lawsuits, it really didn't.
As much as it sucks to get kicked to the curb, it's even worse when you haven't even been given a full year to do your job - especially when that job involves reversing a trend that's been refining itself for just about a decade. From an outsider's perspective, it feels like Merrill was being set up for failure.
Maybe it's a good thing he got out with only a year's worth of battle scars.