We begin with a look at the big picture moving forward. Len Blavatnik has thrown down serious money of late as the fundamental economics of the business continue to change due to streaming, while Sir Lucian Grainge is renowned for his aggressive acquisitiveness and Rob Stringer and Marty Bandier are never ones to be bashful when they want something. The rapidly growing stacks of chips in front of all these players should make for some high-stakes poker games during what promises to be an interesting year of dealmaking.

But this year was interesting for another reason. Typically, very little changes at the top rungs of the major labels from one year to the next. But 2017 has been a radical exception, with new monarchs crowned at two of the Big Three recorded-music groups and new—or significantly altered—teams either in place or imminent at no less than six labels: Warner Bros., Def Jam, Columbia, Epic, RCA and Interscope. The splitting up of Peter Edge and Tom Corson after their complementary leadership of RCA since 2011 is analogous to the situation six years ago, when Columbia co-heads and fellow Brits Stringer and Steve Barnett went their separate ways. Since then, both have achieved new career highs, Barnett at Capitol and Stringer at Columbia. Students of the game predict a similar outcome for both Edge (another Brit) and Corson as they move on parallel tracks a continent apart through the next half decade.

THE500 LB. GORILLA: Turning to the 2017 marketshare competition, Grainge’s UMGcontinues to rule the roost with 36.5%, while the smashes just keep pouring out of Monte Lipman’s Republic (8.9%), with Post Malone, multi-Grammy nominee “Despacito,” Drake, The Weeknd and Taylor Swift leading the charge and Lorde re-energized by an Album of the Year nod. Shawn Mendes and Demi Lovato helped David Massey’s Island (1.8%) maintain its rep as a hit machine. It was also a breakout year for Republic President Charlie Walk, with his signings, Grammy BNA nom Julia Michaels and Hailee Steinfield, and his gig moonlighting as a judge on the upcoming Fox TV show The Four. As Walk was going through his metamorphosis, Gary Spangler became the label’s de facto head of promotion.

John Janick’s Interscope wraps up a great year, led by multiple Grammy nominee Kendrick LamarImagine Dragons, Lady Gaga, Lana Del Rey, 6lack and more, with what’s expected to be a strong finishing kick provided by the just-released U2 album and the 12/15 set from Eminem. The label has weathered the news of Aaron Bay-Schuck’s unexpected departure thanks in part to the veteran presence of #2 exec/marketing wizard Steve Berman and the urban signings of Joie Manda.  

Steve Barnett’s Capitol (6.1%) has gotten hotter as the year has progressed, with Sam Smith’s second album performing well on the heels of chart-toppers from Halsey and Niall Horan, while Katy Perry had a hit single if not a full-on smash. The diversified label group is also well positioned for 2018, as Motown head Ethiopia Habtemariam played a key role in the deal with Atlanta’s Quality Control, which led to the recent arrival of Migos. Caroline rapper NF, another recent chart-topper, is also lined up to have a big ’18. And Greg Marella has done an impressive job in his first year as the company’s promotion head.   

Def Jam, meanwhile, has nimbly weathered a transitional year, with the imminent departures of Steve Bartels and Rick Sackheim and the arrival of new head Paul Rosenberg all common knowledge for months. Through the changes, the determined staff, including recent arrival Scott Greer, has kept the ball rolling, scoring with Big Sean and Grammy Song of the Year nominee Logic while establishing Grammy BNA nominee Alessia Cara as a career artist. The pressing question is, who will fill the void left by Bartels and Sackheim, two of the most accomplished marketing/promotion strategists in the business?

UMG Nashville (2.5%) has consistently performed at a high level under Mike Dungan and Cindy Mabe, and this year has been no exception, as Stapleton continues his roll and Keith Urban notches another hit album, with Luke Bryan on deck.

BMLG’s Scott Borchetta got a capable new lieutenant earlier this year in Mike Rittberg, the company’s first Chief Marketing Officer, as Thomas Rhett, Florida Georgia Line and, of course, Taylor did much of the lifting in boosting the company’s share to 1.64%.

And Ken Bunt’s UMG-distributed Disney Music Group (1.8%) kept its run of big soundtrack albums going with Moana, Beauty and the Beast and 2016’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.     

SONY’S NEW CHAPTER: Sony Music has held serve during a transitional 2017, with a 27% share. Columbia (9.1%) has maintained its #2 standing despite an off-cycle year and a series of hierarchical changes, with Stringer transitioning to Sony Music CEO, Joel Klaiman holding the fort through the transition and Ron Perry waiting in the wings. The label’s biggest sellers are The Chainsmokers and Harry Styles, while Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem had chart-topping debuts.

Under Peter Edge, RCA (6.1%) is enjoying one of its strongest stretches in ages, as the A&R specialist cements the longstanding label’s modern-day identity. RCA is now viewed as nurturing, artist-friendly and a cool place to be—a perception underscored by the Khalid and SZA noms—while the company’s experienced executive team, which includes Joe Riccitelli and John Fleckenstein, continues to effectively market a diverse roster of major acts that includes Justin Timberlake, P!nk, Foo Fighters, Kesha, Miley Cyrus, Bryson Tiller, G-Eazy and Pentatonix. RCA has powered through the temporary distractions of the Crush-orchestrated move of Sia to Atlantic and the exit of Corson and is hotter than ever as the year comes to a close, with a Timberlake album and an as-yet unannounced major signing on deck for 2018.

Following the abrupt departure of L.A. Reid in March, Epic (3.7%) more than maintained its momentum under President Sylvia Rhone, one of the industry’s most seasoned execs, scoring with Reid-signed, heavily streamed acts Future, DJ Khaled, 21 Savage, Travis Scott and French Montana, as well as SYCO/Epic’s Camila Cabello. And the label’s promotion efforts will be further strengthened with the arrival of Sackheim at the beginning of the year.

At Sony Music Nashville (2.5%), the primary focus of label chief Randy Goodman and his key hire, EVP of Marketing & New Business John Zarling, has been breaking new artists, and they’ve done quite well, establishing the careers of Maren Morris and Kane Brown. It’s only a matter of time before these distinctive young talents join established superstars Miranda Lambert and Kenny Chesney as cornerstones of the SMN roster.

THERE’S A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN: As Lousada takes over WMG’s recorded music operation, the #3 music group controls 17% of the market. Atlantic (10.1%) is a virtual lock to finish on top of the final standings, thanks to Craig Kallman, who, with his Big Beat roots, had the foresight to double down on hip-hop/urban, though Migos, the label’s top seller behind Sheeran and Bruno, is now on Capitol. Atlantic’s audio-streaming numbers lead the field (11.8%), and its video streams are through the roof—and many are wondering how those video numbers could possibly be so high.

The challenges facing Tom Corson and Aaron Bay Schuck, hand-picked by Lousada to jointly run Warner Bros. Records (5.3%), are daunting. They’re inheriting one of the great catalogs of a bygone era, whose contemporary business has been one failed experiment after another since the late ’90s, a period characterized by infighting, mismanagement and finger-pointing. Given enough time, will WBR’s great legacy and catalog provide a sufficiently stable foundation to enable Bay-Schuck and Corson to return this iconic West Coast music company to its former glory? Don’t bet against them.

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