An Exclusive Q&A With CMG Chairman/CEO Steve Barnett

When Steve Barnett arrived at the Capitol Tower in January, he approached the challenge of rebuilding the company much like a newly hired coach would approach building a winning team. Indeed, the word team has a special meaning to the veteran British label head. The challenge Barnett faced as Lucian Grainge’s choice to oversee the rebuilding of Capitol Music Group was made all the more daunting by virtue of the fact that the UMG chieftain and the company’s label heads had set the bar extremely high.

When you arrived at the Capitol Tower, you faced the monumental task of overhauling the company from the ground up and revitalizing an iconic brand. What did you envision as your goals for the first year?
The first thing that you realize when you become part of the Universal system is that it’s full of hits, and you can look at the really unbelievable job that Monte and Avery have done at Republic. And then, with John Janick’s arrival, the revitalization of Interscope with what John and Steve Berman have done. It tells you that you had better be on point and you had better get it right. And so, for me, there were several goals. I wanted to make sure that the right team was in place—whether it was empowering those that were already here at EMI and I knew would be a big part of our future, such as Greg Thompson and Dan McCarroll, or bringing in key executives that would be a key to the company’s revitalization, such as Michelle Jubelirer, Ron Fair and Robbie McIntosh, and Piero Giramonte and Jacqueline Saturn to run Harvest. I wanted the industry quickly to understand that we would be very aggressive with signings, and I wanted to let artists and their managers know that we were building an artist-friendly environment here, and that we have the capacity to be competitive in virtually every genre of popular music.

I also felt very strongly that we needed to revitalize the Tower and our offices in New York. I didn’t want artists and employees to walk through these doors and feel like they were walking into a museum. We want people to be motivated by Capitol’s incredible legacy but not hindered by it. So when you walk into the Tower now, or our offices in New York, which are almost completed, the feeling that you get reflects who we are and what we want to be—a 21st century entertainment company that lives and breathes music. And I think we have accomplished most of this in the first 11 months, and it’s really a testament to everybody who works here. But this was always a three-year plan, and starting with me, we’ve all got to contribute more.

“What we want to be is a 21st century entertainment company that lives and breathes music.”

Capitol Music Group was part of EMI, which gives the company a U.K. pedigree, and in the U.S., Capitol has a rich history. How are you leveraging these back stories for the future and incorporating them into your own vision?
The first thing is that we had to have a global philosophy, and I was obviously thrilled when Ted Cockle was appointed to run Virgin/EMI in the U.K., who I have a long-standing relationship with. I had felt very strongly that Capitol needed to have a presence in the U.K., and the choice of Nick Raphael was great for me because I had a relationship with him as well. So those two components were key, and the fact that Caroline U.K., with Jim Chancellor, now has a global solution. And I think that for us within this system, we have to differentiate ourselves however we can. The Tower is an advantage, as is the fact that we have an independent global distribution system.

I also felt that the industry, as well as artists, managers and lawyers, want Capitol to be successful again. And that was not the case when Rob [Stringer] and I went to Columbia [in 2006, at the end of the Don Ienner regime]. Those early days were brutal, because for whatever reason, that company had become an easy target. And here, people feel bad for everyone who went through those dreadful Terra Firma years. So it’s a completely different set of circumstances, and we have the benefit of an incredibly supportive shareholder in Lucian and his impact on what we’re trying to do. We feel his presence every day.

What input did you get from Lucian going into the gig?
If you know Lucian, you know that he’s not short with his opinions on things. But he’s been fantastic, starting with those basic early decisions to relocate the business back to the Tower, to renovate the Tower, to go back and embrace Virgin and Harvest and try and rebuild those incredible legacies, the establishment of Caroline. He couldn’t have possibly been more supportive.

What’s your vision for this variegated structure you’re creating, with Caroline, Astralwerks, I.R.S. Nashville, Priority, Troy Carter’s Atom Factory and T Bone Burnett’s Electromagnetic among the constituent parts?
That plays to our objective to be slightly different from our competitors. And at the helm of each of these labels are really super-talented executives and creative individuals who bring tremendous expertise and connections to the separate fractions of a global artist community. That was the plan. So in that list alone, you’ve got T Bone Burnett with his manager Larry Jenkins, RedOne, Troy Carter, John Grady [I.R.S.], Michael Cohen [Priority], Glenn Mendlinger [Astralweks], and we have very important relationships with Tricky Stewart and his team and Rodney Jerkins. Each of these people is responsible for bringing artists and projects from all kinds of genres. And I think they add tremendously to what we are trying to do in-house with the core labels—with Capitol, Virgin, Harvest and Blue Note. Now what Dominic [Pandiscia] and Mike [Harris] are doing with Caroline, I think that further expands that outreach by creating a welcoming environment and effective voice for independent artists and labels. And that unique upstream capability that we have, that can happen in 24 hours; can go from Dominic being excited about something that deserves more time and attention, and all of a sudden the whole of the Tower are working on the record, and I think that’s an important thing. So that structure broadens our ability to invite artists into our family, and to utilize those experts to create those opportunities, I think that absolutely makes sense and brings real value to CMG.

TOWER POWERS: Katy Perry is unconditionally delighted that Steve Barnett has taken the reins of long-struggling CMG, turning the company around in the months leading up to the October release of her hit album PRISM.

What deals you made this year are you most excited about—including the signing of artists, label deals, partnerships, JVs and other agreements? How do you see them paying off down the line?
Michelle was responsible for a partnership with Arcade Fire and Merge, and that was very, very exciting for us. When they played on the roof of the Tower, that was a real highlight for everybody. And having back-to-back #1s with Katy Perry and then Arcade Fire, artists who couldn’t really be more different but are obviously the biggest and very best in their genres. There are so many—persuading John Grady to get back into the mainstream, persuading Robbie McIntosh, the best international person I’ve ever worked with, to move from London and run international. And, of course, we’re so proud of the reintroduction of Harvest by Piero and Jacqueline, two of the most creative people I’ve worked with. There were so many of those instances—convincing Michelle to leave private practice and come in. There are just so many of those, all adding to the common goal, because if you’re trying to build a company like we are, those companies are founded on great teams. It’s not really about individuals and power structures, it’s about a team, and that’s what we are trying to accomplish.

Is it accurate to say you’re trying to turn CMG into a marketing company?
Yeah. The history is well-documented in the last four years since Katy broke on to the scene, which had been pretty barren. You have to be strong in that area, and that’s something that comes out of confidence and aspiration, not fear. When I arrived, I had this feeling that everybody looked at the downside, and nobody really looked at the upside in things, and we have to change that culture. I think we’ve made progress in that regard, but it’s not completely there yet—that comes with success. It’s that old football analogy, where you torture your team through training camp, and the first week of the season they beat the much better team, and then they go, “Oh, we get it!” So that’s what we’re trying to bring to the culture. We want to be a really strong marketing company, and under Greg Thompson’s leadership, I think we’ve made tremendous progress in that area.

What things coming up in 2014 are you most excited about?
I’m really excited about the continuation of the Katy story. It was a fantastic global launch, absolutely textbook, and the continuation of that throughout next year is of vital importance to us globally. There are a number of new artists that we signed that I’m incredibly excited about. In partnership with Virgin in the U.K., we signed Porter Robinson to Astralwerks, which was really a very competitive deal. He’s a super-talented guy. Sam Smith, who was signed by Capitol in the U.K., is an extraordinary artist, and I believe it could really work for him. Rarely in your career do you come across an artist that you think can change the culture of a label; he has the potential to do that. We are obviously incredibly excited to work with Naughty Boy. Shahid [Khan] one of the most talented young producers and artists to come out of the U.K. We feel that Bastille is on the verge of just being an enormous Pop record. That’s an unusual circumstance, a young band from England, a #1 record for six weeks at Alternative, and the feeling that’s it’s really going to translate into the mainstream. We’re incredibly excited about Banks and The Preatures on Harvest, and Don Was producing a Van Morrison duets album for Blue Note, and the Rosso Sisters, a young group that Ron Fair has signed to Virgin. So I think there’s enough good music for us to build a solid foundation that crosses the entire company. T Bone Burnett has got two or three brilliant ideas for us for next year, notably The Basement Tapes, based on recently discovered lyrics that Bob Dylan wrote in 1967, and which were never turned into songs. A fantastic idea. The band that he’s put together for the project is reminiscent of what was done when the Wilburys were formed, an Americana vision which I think could be brilliant.

And, of course, we are the home to The Beatles and the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra, and Brian Wilson has returned to Capitol with his forthcoming solo album. There’s also an incredible new Don Henley solo album coming out on Capitol next fall, thanks to Irving Azoff, who’s been so supportive to our vision. And we have the greatest studio in America. A music company is defined by the artists who record for it, and the people who work for it. So, although I think we’ve got a long way to go, I couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve accomplished in this first 11 months.

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