The Annual Awards Show Served as a Microcosm of the UMG-Sony Rivalry in the U.K.

The hyper-competitiveness that exists in the U.S. between UMG and Sony Music—creating a tense atmosphere and chilly relations between most executives at the two companies—is mirrored by their U.K. counterparts, and was dramatically apparent last Wednesday night (2/25) at the BRIT Awards, according to numerous attendees. Tellingly, each Sony win was greeted with stony silence by the UMG contingent, and vice versa. But despite the tension that pervaded the O2 Arena, our sources added, the BRITs turned out to be more enjoyable for the attendees than the Grammys had been two and a half weeks earlier.

Universal has dominated the U.K. market for years now, and the company’s presence inside the venue was overwhelming, as the U.S.-based management team showed up in force from Uni’s corporate offices in Santa Monica, including Lucian Grainge, as did label heavy hitters Steve Barnett, John Janick, Steve Bartels, Monte Lipman and David Massey.

On Tuesday night, UMG U.K. head David Joseph and Grainge had hosted a sit-down dinner party for all the top U.K. artist managers, as well as the U.S. entourage noted above, as the British company flexed its muscles for all to see. Word spread that the dinner would become an annual event.

The awards show, which doubled as a sit-down dinner for the principals, opened with a house-rocking performance from Big Machine’s Taylor Swift, whose records are distributed in Britain by Ted Cockle’s Virgin EMI. Swift’s appearance begged the question of why she’d stiffed the Grammys with the flimsy excuse that she was busy—this coming from a superwoman who would drive to Poughkeepsie and back to get more spins.

Capitol’s Sam Smith took the stage next and beguiled this industry crowd just as he has unfailingly done with civilian audiences. After their performances, the two stars mingled with various execs and such luminaries as Guy Oseary and Lionel Richie at the UMG tables, where they hung out for the rest of the evening.

Universal acts won four Brits altogether, with Smith picked up two of them. The combined impact of his performance and the double win propelled In the Lonely Hour back to the top of the U.K. chart for the week.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the arena—divided by a performers’ runway that jutted out from the stage, which some pointedly referred to as the Berlin Wall—sat the new Sony team, led by former UMG label head Jason Iley and supported by SYCO joint-venture partners Simon Cowell and Sonny Takhar. Also among them were mega-managers Jonathan Dickins, Scott Rodger and Sarah Stennett, giving Sony equal time after having attended Joseph’s soiree on Tuesday night.

The Iley-led team has enjoyed a remarkable nine-month run since returning to the U.K. to helm the Sony team on the heels of Nick Gatfield’s sudden departure, hastened by both the SYCO team and One Direction manager Richard Griffiths.

Interestingly, Griffiths was not in attendance at the BRITs, leaving wags to gossip about which side of the Great Wall he would have chosen to sit on—though he had sat next to Grainge at the UMG party the previous night.

It’s believed that Griffiths’ signing of 5 Seconds of Summer to Nick Raphael’s Capitol rather than SYCO may have caused a rift in the SYCO/Sony-Griffiths relationship. Cowell had helped jumpstart Richards’ struggling Modest! Management by inviting him to become the manager for all those X Factor contestants he fancied. Each of these acts had been forced to sign one of those horrible, overreaching, all-inclusive deals in order to get on the show—including the members of 1D—keeping SYCO fiscally involved with Griffiths’ clientele. But he could hardly complain, as 1D made him a wealthy man in short order.

Conversely, Griffiths had hired Cowell as an A&R man when he as running BMG U.K. after leaving Epic in the mid-’90s. Griffiths is also credited with making the SYCO deal with Cowell while at BMG U.K. When Sony bought Bertelsmann out of the merged Sony BMG, the SYCO deal became part of Sony.

Some spin that no one from SYCO or Sony made an effort to sign 5SOS, assuming that because of the 1D relationship, it was coming their way if they chose to sign the act. But Raphael, a former Sony U.K. exec, saw this inaction as an opportunity to swipe something off Sony’s plate and closed the band on one of the 40 U.K. dates on which they opened for 1D—and no one seemed to care at the time.

Iley’s brief tenure has been paced by a string of successes, paced by George Ezra (who has sold 900k+ albums in Britain alone), fellow newcomer Ella Henderson, British Female Solo Artist winner Paloma Faith, Best British Single winner Mark Ronson (whose “Uptown Funk” is at 1.4m and counting) and Video of the Year recipient 1D. Sony’s recent successes are rendered that much more remarkable considering the company’s beleaguered state a year ago.

The Sony team has rallied around its new leader, who has something to prove after being dismissed by Joseph on the heels of the EMI merger. Joseph instead chose Cockle to lead the newly minted Virgin EMI, melting Iley’s former label Mercury into it. Cockle and Darcus Beese had comprised the marketing and A&R team that had led Island to a multi-year hot streak.

Iley’s night at the 02 rapidly turned into a celebration, as Sony acts picked up five of the 11 awards, after which he practically floated out of the arena.


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