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I.B. BAD ON THE YEAR IN THE MUSIC BIZ
Part One: The Moguls and the Majors
THE FUTURE HANGS IN THE BALANCE: 2014 will be remembered as the year the term "streaming" became the buzzword of the biz, and execs uttered the word "conversion" with religious fervor. This was the year "Shazamed" and "Timberlaked" entered the lexicon, and the truly powerful—Lucian, Doug, Marty, Irving, Jimmy, Adele and Taylor—had no more need for their surnames than do kings and queens, or LeBron and Kobe. In 2014, as much as in any past era, the competition among the top scorers appeared to take winning at any cost to a new level.

THE SUPERHEROES: The rivalry between the two major music groups has reached what may well be an all-time high, ranging from battles to sign in-demand new artists to the poaching of established artists and top executive talent—and it’s taking place on both sides of the Atlantic. While the music business has always been competitive, few can ever remember a time when the pitch was as feverish as it has become between Doug MorrisSony Music and Lucian Grainge’s UMG. Since moving from the chairmanship of UMG to the same post at its only remaining rival, Morris has resurrected Sony; the company broke a passel of new acts and has been on fire in Q4. Grainge, Morris’ successor at UMG, has increased his company’s marketshare to the 40% range, in large part through the historic acquisition and subsequent renovation of EMI, having hired away Steve Barnett from Sony to oversee the rebuilding.

In what has essentially become a two-horse race on the recorded music side, WMG is a distant third, and since losing the battle for EMI to Grainge, owner Len Blavatnik has shown little interest in closing the gap, despite the Russian billionaire’s virtually unlimited financial resources. What’s more, Blavatnik’s second in command, Stephen Cooper, had no music-business experience prior to being hired as CEO and simply isn’t equipped to compete with Universal or Sony’s deep pool of topnotch executive talent at the corporate level.

Like Morris, publishing legend Marty Bandier remains at the top of his game decades into his career; indeed, Bandier’s latest act may well be the strongest of his distinguished career, as he captains Sony/ATV, the 800-pound gorilla of the publishing business, into previously uncharted territory. If Bandier had any bona fide competition prior to his reclamation of EMI Music Publishing, the company he built into a perennial #1, it was game-set-match as soon as the two major pubcos were combined.

Live Nation ruler Michael Rapino became increasingly dominant in the live business, as his company broke revenue records and dramatically increased its lead over chief rival AEG. Rapino has the distinction of dominating three synergistic businesses: touring, ticketing via Ticketmaster and management through LN’s Artist Nation division, which Irving Azoff greatly expanded before leaving the company two years ago.

In his first full year of heading Azoff MSG Entertainment, Azoff has given L.A. an important new arena in the lavishly refurbished, music-specific Forum, which is rapidly approaching the same exalted status as the company’s New York citadel, Madison Square Garden. The acts he took with him when he left Live Nation—including the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan—are having banner years. This year, Azoff got into the comedy business, doing a deal with Levity, the biggest and most innovative operation in the sector, while also taking on Chelsea Handler for management. He also added Gwen Stefani and No Doubt to his roster. As if that weren’t enough to occupy his time, Azoff is also making a strong effort to bring the performing-rights organization into the 21st century with Global Music Rights, the PRO he launched in tandem with former ASCAP exec Randy Grimmett.

Jimmy Iovine’s contemporaries view him as the most successful label head of the last 20 years, and most expect him to be just as big a game changer at Apple once his music initiatives begin to be implemented in 2015. It remains to be seen how Iovine will reshape Beats Music when combined with the immense scale of iTunes, whether he’ll be able to sell consumers on the need for enhanced audio fidelity or how he plans to integrate Beats by Dr. Dre hardware into the Apple universe. But the tech giant hasn’t had a true visionary in its hierarchy since the death of Steve Jobs in 2011, and it will be fascinating to see the impact Iovine has on Apple culture in the months and years to come.

Speaking of visionaries, Bob Pittman made great strides this year in his quest to reshape Clear Channel—which he recently renamed iHeartMedia—into a multi-platform colossus, positioning the company as a major player online and in television just as it is in terrestrial radio. The onetime MTV pioneer has used the playbook he helped write up three decades ago in forming mutually beneficial alliances with music companies, jointly creating initiatives that systematically raise artist profiles.

[Note: All album sales totals that follow are presented as TEA.]

THE BIG WINNERS: No label has scored hits from more diverse sources—or more hits in general—than Monte Lipman’s Republic, which has enjoyed huge ongoing success as a marketing/promotion machine, having assembled an unrivaled collection of associated labels in what could be seen as a massive, multifaceted A&R department. Indeed, Ariana Grande (1.2m; 3.3m on "Problem," the year’s #9 single) was Republic’s lone in-house success story—largely the result of the expertise of EVP/marketing guru Charlie Walk. The rest of the hits emanated from its various labels, for which Republic served as the promotion engine, as department head Gary Spangler and his team worked overtime to keep pace with the myriad potential hits they were charged with delivering. Leading the way was Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta, who not only delivered the top-selling album released this year in Taylor Swift’s smash-laden 1989 (3.3m) but also kept the hits coming from Republic Nashville’s Florida Georgia Line (whose 2012 LP moved another million in this year). Lorde (1.3m this year), the 2013 breakthrough artist brought in by Lava’s Jason Flom, cemented her status as a career artist in 2014, while Slim and Baby’s Cash Money had a relatively quiet year, partly because the Lil Wayne album wasn’t delivered as expected—a situation exacerbated when the rapper recently started a feud with his longtime label.

Republic’s marketshare dominance—it’s #1 in both TEA (8.8%) and frontline (9.7%)—was all but assured back in April when David Massey’s Island entered the fold just as it was starting a surprising hot streak. Since then, Island signing Tove Lo has scored a breakthrough hit with "Habits (Stay High") (2m), fellow newcomers American Authors scored with "Best Day of My Life" (1.8m) and core act Fall Out Boy has set up its 2015 album with the ubiquitous lead single "Centuries." Massey’s successes are having a far more dramatic impact on Republic’s bottom line than the razor-thin distribution deals with Big Machine and Cash Money. By contrast, Island signs its acts to more typical artist contracts with substantially higher profit margins. Massey, who has paid his dues, came into his own this year and is poised to become the next major record exec to emerge from the Anglo/American connection.

So much for Steve Barnett’s three-year plan—he only needed two to transform Capitol Music Group from a battered and bruised also-ran to a championship contender. It didn’t hurt that Barnett had access to the musical gold that was being mined by his countryman Nick Raphael at Capitol U.K., providing the U.S. label with consensus artist of the year Sam Smith (1.6m; 3.2m on "Stay With Me," the year’s #10 single) and overnight teen stars 5 Seconds of Summer (847k), while last year Virgin U.K. contributed alt-rock hitmakers Bastille. The biggest homegrown artist to join the roster was Beck, who delivered a critical and commercial landmark in Morning Phase (300k), which wound up with an Album of the Year Grammy nomination, as did Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, while the two artists have 11 nominations between them. Flagship artist Katy Perry (1.3m this year) continued to deliver like the superstar she is, scoring one of 2014’s biggest hits with "Dark Horse" (4.4m, the year’s #3 single). On these and other projects, Barnett’s capable lieutenants Greg Thompson and Michelle Jubelirer acquitted themselves like the pros they are.

Rob Stringer’s Columbia is widely perceived as the industry’s leading A&R-driven label, and his comment earlier this year deriding some of his competitors for relying on "bolt-on marketshare" evidences the pride he takes in nurturing and breaking acts in-house. During 2014, under the watchful eye of President/A&R head Ashley Newton, the label did extremely well with Beyoncé (1.3m this year), Pharrell Williams (1.3m; 6.4m on "Happy," the year’s top seller), John Legend (880k this year; 4.6m on "All of Me," the year’s #2 single) and Jack White (328k), Grammy nominees all. Newcomer Hozier recently hit critical mass and may well be one of next year’s biggest stories. The Irish artist benefited from an intricately calibrated long-term campaign orchestrated by EVP/GM Joel Klaiman, a major breakout executive who rose to further prominence this year in an expanded role, and the solid execution of promo head Lee Leipsner. And AC/DC’s first LP of new material since 2008 debuted at 1# in 10 countries and Top 5 in 25 and is shaping up as a major worldwide hit. This is not to say, however, that Columbia’s numerous successes are exclusively from its own system. SYCO’s Simon Cowell, a significant contributor over the years, created One Direction and developed the British boy band into a record- and ticket-selling colossus. But overall, this old-school model has served Stringer well, and there’s no reason to think the combination of state-of-the-art A&R and expert marketing/promotion won’t continue to pay big dividends. Columbia is climaxing 2014 with a timely and powerful album from Roc Nation’s J. Cole, which, like Beyoncé’s late-2013 surprise release, is likely to have an impact well into next year. But 2015’s biggest story is likely to be Adele.

TURNAROUND SPECIALISTS: In 2013’s year-end column, three labels were singled out as being on the verge of turning around, and each of them did just that. In the second full year of Cameron Strang’s revitalization project, Warner Bros. Records made huge strides, gaining a full point in TEA share to 5.9% behind hit projects from Jason Derulo (closing in on 1m) and The Black Keys (475k plus longtime #1 Alt single "Fever"), the first-chart-topping album of Tom Petty’s four-decade career and breakthrough singles from newcomers Nico & Vinz (2.3m) and Echosmith (1.3m). Much of the heavy lifting has been done by promotion head Peter Gray, who was rewarded with EVP stripes and expanded responsibilities.

L.A. Reid’s Epic had its best showing since Doug Morris tapped the renowned talent spotter to take the reins of the sputtering label in 2011. Reid pulled off the turnaround in his inimitable fashion by signing and breaking new artists, three in all. Pop duo A Great Big World started the run with the ballad "Say Something," which has gone on to sell more than 4m units. Next came KONGOS, the only new rock band to break this year, as "Come With Me Now" crossed from Alt, where it had rocketed to the top of the chart in near-record time, to Top 40 (1.4m). The label’s third and biggest breakthrough occurred this summer with the appearance and subsequent explosion Meghan Trainor’s "All About That Bass" (4m and counting), scoring Record of the Year and Song of the Year Grammy nominations. This trifecta took place following the naming of Sylvia Rhone as President, and the wily veteran has emphatically impacted the label’s day-to-day operations. But more than anything, Epic’s comeback year exemplified an industry-wide trend, as the efforts of Todd Glassman’s promotion team made each of these breakthroughs possible, proving once again that in the digital age, as in preceding eras, radio promotion is the key to selling records and establishing careers. Look for Reid to sign on for a second term.

Steve Bartels faced the biggest challenge of any label head in 2014 after an April reorganization of UMG’s East Coast labels left the former IDJ chief with the chairmanship of the newly standalone Def Jam. With no superstar releases imminent, Bartels applied his sharply honed marketing skills to the label’s new and developing artists, increasing the momentum of August Alsina and Jhené Aiko (who received three Grammy nominations) scoring a hit single with Jeremih (1.3m) and turning distaff Aussie rapper Iggy Azalea into a full-fledged star, with a big album (1.1m), a pair of smash singles (selling nearly 6m between them) and four Grammy nods, including two majors. Moving forward, will the transformed Def Jam under Bartels, EVP Promotion Rick Sackheim and recently promoted EVP A&R No I.D. become the next obvious destination for the top hip-hop acts, in keeping with the image and history of the iconic 30-year-old label?

WHITE-HOT: After a relatively quiet 2013, Ken Bunt’s Disney Music Group speed-skated back into the heat of the action with the soundtrack to the hit movie Frozen, which spent no less than 13 weeks atop the album chart while selling a towering 4.2m. Frozen single "Let It Go" from Idina Menzel rose to the upper reaches of the charts, propelling the Oscar-winning Best Original Song to sales of 3.3m, #8 on the year. Disney doubled down with another soundtrack, Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Tape, Vol. 1—a collection of classic-rock tunes, no less—moving another 763k units. With 5m combined soundtrack sales, Disney went from 1.9% to 4.8% in frontline marketshare, the biggest uplift for any label this year.

RELOADING: This year, Interscope’s John Janick formally got the job for which he’d been chosen and groomed as Jimmy Iovine left for Apple. The primary issue for the new Chairman/CEO was a release schedule containing just one superstar act—Maroon 5. While the Adam Levine-led group sold as expected (854k), previous releases from Imagine Dragons, OneRepublic and Eminem kept throwing off hits, and Lana Del Rey delivered a chart-topper with her sophomore album, Janick and capable wingman Steve Berman concentrated on the new-artist business. Aloe Blacc came out of the gate with the smash single "The Man" (2.4m), and ScHoolboy Q established himself as a major player in the hip-hop sector, approaching 500k on his debut album and topping the Urban singles chart. With Aaron Bay-Schuck installed as President of A&R, Janick’s team is now in place. Like Iovine before him, Janick is expected to continue to make deals and stay in business with all the top production and writing teams as well as developing artists from the alt rock genre. Look for Gwen and Kendrick in Q1.

In 2013, RCA’s Peter Edge and Tom Corson had the top-selling album in Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, maximized the P!nk franchise and guided the transformation of Miley Cyrus into a grown-up pop star. In 2014, the label’s ruling tandem faced a more challenging task—trying to make the most of an off-cycle year. With EVP/GM Joe Riccitelli QBing promotion, RCA kept putting points on the scoreboard. The label’s biggest hit, improbably, was the pop-reggae confection "Rude" from Canada’s Magic! (2.9m), while the reliable Pitbull delivered another smash with "Timber" (2.4m) and hit songwriter Sia established herself as an artist in her own right with the acclaimed 1000 Forms of Fear (351k) and Record/Song of the Year Grammy contender "Chandelier" (1.9m). But its best-selling release turned out to be a seasonal album from a cappella group Pentatonix, which was well past 800k with two and a half weeks to go before Xmas. The label also surprise-released D’Angelo’s first album in 14 years on 12/15. Expect the highly skilled Corson (who was responsible for bringing PTX to the label) to extend his deal and continue the Edge/Corson winning combo.
 


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Collect 'em all!
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Not Mixed Martial Arts; the Music Modernization Act, dummy.
IS IT COLD IN HERE?
...or are our bosses from outer space?
THE KIDS
They're leaning on the button.
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