Interview: Douglas Merrill, President, EMI Digital Business: 'We Need To Question Everything'

This story was written by Staci D. Kramer.
Just got off the phone with Douglas Merrill, the Google (NSDQ: GOOG) CIO who is leaving what he called "the best CIO job in the world" to join EMI as president of digital business. Turns out Merrill and EMI Group Chairman Guy Hands were introduced by a mutual friend. The result: a switch from the all-digital world of Google to the still-trying-to-figure-out-digital world of EMI. When he officially starts April 28, he'll report directly to Hands in a new post that combines, as the announcement puts it, "leadership responsibility for all of the company's digital strategy, innovation, business development, supply chain and global technology activities." He'll be based in LA, though, at the iconic Capitol Tower. Merrill was willing to talk today on his way in to Mountain View from the East Bay after a whirlwind that started late yesterday afternoon when word of the new job broke-- but, as he admits, he's not quite ready to talk specifics, a sign both of his newness to the job and the industry. Excerpts after the jump.

Making the switch: It sounds trite but I'm still incredibly excited about my opportunity. I've spent the last four years at a great company that's been lots of fun; I learned a lot there. But music's been critical to my life from the very beginning." As for joining an industry in survival-modeand a company that has its own well-reported issuesMerrill says he likes challenges. "I think the music industry has lots of challenges right now and I think it's a terrific time to come here. I'm not a music professional, right? I'm a technologist ... on the other hand, I can bring a different perspective, and hopefully help."

Digital business models: I think the industry as a whole has got some really interesting experiments in what the future world is. I think EMI has done some really terrific things like their recent move to DMR-free. But, as for me, I always start with principles. The first principle is simple: Fans want to experience art and artists want to create. What the roles of the music labels are in connecting artists, helping artists create, to fans, helping fans experience, I think it's TBD. ... I think there are some interesting experiments but what I want to do at EMI is a whole bunch more experiments. We don't yet know what the real business model is going to be. We have to do more experiments, try more things to see what works. Artists want to create and they want to sell, fans want to experience those things. What's the role of the labels? I don't know." He added later, "I think it's going to be critical that EMI find ways to add value to partners."

Warner's ISP fee idea, etc.: Would EMI consider the kind of ISP "tax" Warner is spearheading? "I don't have a crystal ball. I can't see the future; I wish I could. Picking a horse is much easier. I don't know what the right model is. We're watching what Warner is doing with interest, lots of things going on the industry as well. ... I believe that fans will pay for music. I think the only question is who they'll pay and what they'll pay bundled."

Question everything: Merrill isn't a believer in industry gospel. "We need to question everything." He also brings something from Google that may seem a little alien to some in the music business: the idea that not all experiments have to pay off in direct monetary terms but may add value to the experience in other waysand a different kind of payoff.

Too early o talk tech: Merrill isn't ready to say what changes or suggestions he might have for how business is done at EMI or to weigh in on the issue of sound quality for digital downloads and streaming. 

Subscription music: Merrill is an iTunes user now, with friends who have opted for subscription music. (He turned the tables a bit, asking me how I like subscription and what I use.) "I think it's an interesting model. I don't know if it's the perfect model, but it might be one model. ... I'm not close enough around the details of the actual schemes but for me, it's around asking users what they want, making sure users get the best of the value change."

MySpace Music, etc.: No comment on potential deals. 


By Staci D. Kramer