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Warner’s cold streak should end this week with the release of Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight. The LP is generating a major buzz, and label executives are hoping it will debut between 600-700k.
IB BAD PONDERS THE RICK RUBIN ERA AT SONY
Grammy-Winning Producer’s Appointment at Columbia Augurs Change in the Corporate Culture
The anointing of Rick Rubin as the co-leader of Columbia Records, joining Chairman Steve Barnett, is being hailed as a bold move to change the culture of a company.

The move was initiated by Sony Music chief Rob Stringer, who is putting his own stamp on the company—and putting an emphatic end to the Mottola-Ienner era. Rubin is universally considered to be a prodigiously talented creative executive with unparalleled instincts, manifested in a remarkable run of hits, and pairing him with Barnett, an experienced and savvy operator, looks like a can’t-miss idea on paper.

Nonetheless, one big question has arisen as Rubin prepares to take on challenges he’s never before faced: Can those legendary instincts spill over into other areas of the company? Those close to him are saying that he’s up for these new challenges, and his arrival is being extremely well-received within the artistic and deal-making communities.

Meanwhile, competitors are spinning that the task will prove to be too daunting for Rubin, who has never before taken on such broad-based and multileveled responsibilities, while also questioning the nature of the Rubin-Barnett pairing, citing the high failure rate of manufactured executive partnerships.

What the skeptics don’t realize is that the two executives have already bonded through a series of shared experiences, which began with Barnett going to Rubin and convincing him to come back into the fold after the producer’s less-than-amicable parting with Sony Music earlier in the decade. 

But the experience that truly galvanized their relationship came about as they faced a common adversary in the Tom Whalley/Lyor Cohen/Edgar Bronfman troika. During the taxing extended negotiations that took place as Rubin tried to get out of his deal with Warner Bros. Records, the three WMG executives were obstructive every step of the way, according to insiders, who describe their behavior as consistently petty, extending all the way to micro-managing this week’s press release announcing Rubin’s hiring. What’s more, say those in the know, the troika agreed to let Rubin go only after forcing him to acquiesce to their demand of an override on all future American Recording releases.

This behavior typifies the nature of the current WMG regime, say these insiders, theorizing that it results from a lack of leadership, as well as ongoing ill will and bad blood between Whalley and Cohen. Some inside Whalley’s circle say that the source of the problems between the two head-butting colleagues starts with their antithetical personal styles, making them like oil and water.

Whalley’s lack of respect for Cohen has been exacerbated by a pair of factors: First, the WB chief feels that he’s been forced to carry the abysmally performing East Coast operation on his shoulders, despite the fact that the responsibility for fixing Atlantic is clearly Cohen’s. Second, in response to the commonly uttered criticism that his only successes since taking over WB were on acts signed prior to his arrival, Whalley claims that Cohen has handcuffed him from the moment Bronfman brought him in to oversee North America.

The last thing WMG needs at this point is civil war in its executive suite. The company is in the throes of its most difficult period since the Bronfman/private equity takeover in 2003, with 400 more firings cutting the already severely depleted staff back to the bone, another devastating quarterly earnings report and a sales drought extending back to last summer—not to mention the damning allegations contained in a lawsuit filed against Bronfman by former partner Richard Snyder. No wonder WMG digital head Alejandro Zubillaga just sold off around 40% of his Warner stock—and he’s Bronfman’s brother-in-law.

Warner’s cold streak should end this week with the release of Linkin Park’s Minutes to Midnight. The LP is generating a major buzz, and label executives are hoping it will debut between 600-700k; the band’s previous album, Meteora, which came out four years ago, had an 810k first week on the way to selling 5.4 million domestically.

But WMG’s problems can’t be cured by the success of any individual album, not even one as crucial as Linkin Park’s. The company appears to be hanging on by the skin of its teeth, which begs the question: If Bronfman and the private equity investors had it to do over again, would they still turn down EMI’s $32-a-share offer?

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