Merlin conjures up first board meeting

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CANNES -- Merlin, the global licensing agency announced a year ago to represent independent record labels, had its first board meeting at this year's Midem music market and chairman Bob Franck said Tuesday that it is not far from announcing its first deals.

Formed as a standalone adjunct to the World Independent Network, which represents indie trade bodies around the globe, Merlin's primary goal is to gain the same access as the major music companies to services such as iTunes and networks like MTV, said Franck, who is president of Koch Records, the biggest independent label in the U.S.

"The business has been turned upside down and they're cutting deals with all the large companies, so Merlin is about gaining access that individual labels cannot get," Franck said, speaking on a panel during the International Indie Summit. "We want the same deals as everybody else, and I think it will happen."

Open to indie labels everywhere, the non-profit organization does not compete with national trade bodies, he said, but is there to step in where needed. "We don't do deals with companies they can deal with directly. Our goal is parity," he said, "but getting $1 from YouTube is better than getting nothing at all."

The summit conference kicked off earlier with an appearance by British record producer Nick Gold, owner of World Circuit Records, whose biggest hit was "The Buena Vista Social Club."

After starting his career as a volunteer working at a small label, Gold began producing records by artists from Africa and later as a hugely successful owner of a label specializing in the genre, helped coin the term World Music.

"I'm in two minds about it now," Gold said. "I don't think anyone then thought it would still be around 20 years later. It was just about trying to get the music into shops. That's how it started out, but it became a category of music. The danger with that is it became easier to sideline."

Gold said his label has about 50 albums in its catalog, although he admitted, laughing, that he wasn't sure and nor did he know about his label's digital sales. Asked if he was happy with the quality of digital downloads, he said, "No, not really. It's difficult because you do want the music to be heard," he said. "It was hard for me going from vinyl to CD, but my kids listen to a lot of digital music and as a result they probably hear a broader range of music than I did when I was younger."

Gold said that while the majors have snapped up many prominent indie labels, he has no intention of selling World Circuit Records and remained enthusiastic about the artists it produces. An album of the Buena Vista musicians playing at Carnegie Hall 10 years ago is to be released plus, on Feb. 25, an album by Toumani Diabate, soloist on the kora, a West African stringed instrument, titled "The Mande Variations."

"It's a traditional instrument from Mali being played on its own for an hour," Gold said drolly. "But it makes you want to weep, listening to it. It swings and it grooves. It's a fantastic record."



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