EMI appointed former Second Life CTO Cory Ondrejka as its senior vice president of digital strategy last year. We sat down with him during MIDEM to see what he’s been up to.Compared to popular music sites like Imeem, iLike and Last.fm, the recently-relaunched EMI.com portal looks somewhat limited. However, the man in charge of the project, Cory Ondrejka, says it’s just a starting point, allowing the label to connect directly with music fans, while working with labels to find new ways to release content. Oh, and to help in negotiations with startups. “It’s very much a first step, and we’re going to be building on it,” he says.“We’re not doing it to compete with any existing businesses in the space, but if we’re going to be working with other businesses, we better understand that business and the data issues involved. If a startup comes in saying ‘we wanna do this and here’s the data we’ll share’, we can say ‘well, we know you’re also collecting this data, because of the experiments we’ve been doing. And if you’re not, you should be!’ We’ll just be a better partner.”For now, the site offers streaming music and videos, user playlists and artist profiles, but it seems actually selling music will be high on EMI’s agenda.“Sure, we’ll get out there and learn what it’s like to sell direct to fans,” he says. “We’ll learn what expectations a fan has buying directly from EMI.com versus, say, iTunes. They may have different expectations, so let’s understand them.”He’s been busy hiring a team of developers from the Bay Area around San Francisco to work on EMI.com and other projects. Can he really try to create a startup-like mentality within a major record label with thousands of employees?He’s certainly trying, saying that his team aims to “run lean” and be “frugal” like a startup, rather than fling cash at sundry new technologies just for the sake of it. What advantages does it have over a startup, though, other than the ability to license its own music?“In terms of what we can do, the majors have an almost unfathomable amount of data,” says Ondrejka. “Sales data, behavior data, consumption data and music data… Nobody has that data the way the majors have, so any question you can ask of that data, a major can do better than a startup. And of course majors have scale, which lets you do certain things in terms of driving fans between communities. And startups don’t typically have a relationship with the artist.”He concedes that the lack of those artist relationships may give startups more freedom for experimentation, not to mention the fact that they don’t have thousands of staff to pay based largely on an existing business model.But does his team’s focus on having the mentality of a startup also mean they’ll be looking to nab some of the better – if often unlicensed and/or unsuccessful – ideas from the music startups? It seems so. “A lot of startups didn’t fail because they were doing the wrong thing: they might have been early, their execution may have been flawed, or they may not have had enough money,” he says.“Those ideas tend to flow into larger companies. I would be flabbergasted if ideas coming from the startups didn’t flow into the majors, if the majors are able to try them. It goes back to whether you can create an experimental culture within a large company.”Ondrejka says he’s also benefitting from those EMI artists who are equally keen to experiment with new technologies. He alludes to building a blogging platform for artists with the help of artists who are already keen bloggers as one example – a hint at one of his team’s current projects perhaps – while also stressing that it’s pointless to try and force artists to use new technology or services, for example Twitter.“If you’re a band, you’re using Twitter because, y’know what, it’s really kinda fun giving your fans this blow-by-blow account of getting to the stage, or your bus breaking down in a snowstorm,” he says. “Sharing stories is what builds communities, and for some artists that is really enjoyable. But if Twittering is work for you, maybe you should have someone else doing it for you. And that’s okay.”Overall, he’s keen to stress that music continues to be the main driver. “This is not building technology for the sake of building technology. We’re building technologies to help us be better at being a music company. It’s not just a bunch of geeks coming in: it’s about building internal external products that are going to make artists happy and fans psyched.”This interview originally appeared in the Music Ally Report, which is part of our premium subscription service. Besides the fortnightly PDF Report, you get a daily Bulletin covering the day’s biggest industry news stories. To sign up for a free trial, click here.

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