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I.B. BAD: CAN CAMERON STRANG RESTORE
WARNER BROS. RECORDS TO RESPECTABILITY?
Having Pulled a Bunny Out of His Hat With Warner/Chappell,
WMG’s Great Big Hope Is Hard at Work on His Next Magic Trick
Is Cameron Strang making Warner Brothers Records competitive again as Black Keys battles for #1? There’s no question that Strang has done a remarkable job of bringing Warner/Chappell from the bottom of the heap back to competitiveness, topping off the feat with the hiring of renowned publishing exec Big Jon Platt to run day-to-day operations.

This dramatic turnaround followed years of neglect and indifference on the parts of Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Lyor Cohen, who had used the once-powerful publishing company as a cash cow, milking it dry and cutting back on all expenses in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to make their numbers. Strang and Platt’s expert ministrations are paying off big time, as Warner/Chappell has ascended to the lofty status of the #2 pubco behind Marty Bandier’s Sony/ATV.

Strang was named the head of Warner Bros. Records in December 2012, taking charge of the beleaguered label at the lowest point in its history. The company’s rank and file had been demoralized by the ongoing miscalculations about the direction of the business throughout the macho-driven regime of Cohen and his appointed second in command Todd Moscowitz, which did as much damage to the storied company as any of the previous administrations, including the infamous Bob Morgado-Michael Fuchs reign of terror in the 1990s, which had culminated in the wholesale dismantling of Warner Music Group’s revered executive hierarchy. Most students of the game mark that era as the beginning of the end, for good reason: Warners has been consistently wracked by changes to its top leadership and ownership ever since.
 
What was Bronfman thinking when he gave the man Def Jam veterans mockingly refer to as "Run-DMC’s roadie" the job of heading up WMG in the U.S. 10 years ago? Cohen’s reign was defined by one ill-advised move after another, such as his decision not to join Sony and UMG as an equity participant in VEVO—whose current value is said to exceed $1 billion—simply because he didn’t think it was a good idea, or his firings of Jason Flom, Tom Whalley and Roger Ames, or standing idly by as Madonna fled the company she’d been with for her entire career. He also failed to hold onto Metallica at the peak of its popularity, lost The Eagles and AC/DC and its valuable catalog, dropped cornerstone act Fleetwood Mac and came within a split hair of losing Neil Young.

When Strang took over WBR, The new boss moved quickly and decisively, empowering promo head Peter Gray, firing Moscowitz, getting rid of several other Cohen-appointed execs and started hiring his new team while rebuilding the artist roster, which had wasted away under Cohen and Moscowitz.
 
A pair of much-debated deals gave the label a cause to rally around while also putting some cash in the ravaged coffers. The first involved putting WBR’s full clout behind Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ "Thrift Shop" as the DIY record was starting to explode but well before anyone could have possibly known that it would go on to sell 7.5m, making it the fifth-biggest digital song ever. That historic breakthrough led to total album sales of 1.4m and total track sales of 17.6m, for a stunning 3.2m in TEA.

In essence, Strang "rented" his marketing and promo team for a fixed percentage of gross sales, with all costs coming off the top. The deal gave his new team a winning attitude, proving once again the old music-biz adage about really big hits curing all ills, while convincing label staffers that they could compete at the highest level, having played a major role in the most successful new artist story of 2013.

The second deal, similar in structure to the first, took Passenger, a little-known U.K.-based act on Nettwerk, to the upper reaches of the album and track sales charts; All the Little Lights has sold more than 300k, and "Let Her Go" is at 3.8m.

Subsequently, Strang’s new team began to go after new acts based what it had accomplished with Macklemore and Passenger and, just as significantly, Strang’s passion about the label and its prospects. In the coming months, we should begin to see the fruits of those new signings—and Nico & Vinz, one of the first of that new crop following a highly competitive signing process involving several top majors, is showing signs of becoming a bona fide hit. Add the 3.3m and counting sales on Jason Derulo’s "Talk Dirty," the return of Prince to the label, a new Black Keys album vying for #1, and an upcoming release from Linkin Park, and you have the makings of a winning recipe, quieting those naysayers on the cocktail-party circuit who had given up on Warner while dismissing Strang as an outsider.

But this outsider happened to start and run a successful indie label and pubco before selling to WMG and becoming the head of Warner/Chappell. Turning Warner Bros. Records around may be more challenging than bringing Warner/Chappell back to life, but wouldn’t it be something if Strang can actually pull it off?

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