KANYE & THE PIRATES: It isn’t Kanye West’s decision to withhold the release of his Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam album The Life of Pablo, because he doesn’t own it—UMG does. By un-releasing the album, so to speak, following its less-than-one-day window of availability, Kanye has in effect delivered a gift to the Torrent sites, where the album by some estimates was downloaded more than 500k times in its first 24 hours. At this point, there’s no way to track sales or streams, because UMG hasn’t provided the metadata to the bean counters, perhaps not wanting another embarrassingly low chart debut, as recently occurred with Rihanna. The painful irony here is that the only way a fan can get The Life of Pablo at this point is by pirating it. The digerati continue to play a global game of whack-a-mole with the album, adding torrents faster than UMG can take them down. But look for Uni to get control of worldwide distribution rights and make the best of this presently chaotic situation. Will the plan include Apple, over Kanye’s protestations, or will the tail wag the dog?

WILD ABOUT HARRY: Harry Styles is viewed throughout the business as the hottest free agent in recent memory, having generated a huge social footprint and millions of fans, and label heavyweights have been taking meetings during Grammy week with the artist and Jeffrey Azoff to discuss future recording right. Azoff Senior has been telling people that Styles and his son will decide where the new deal ends up, and most believe the former One Direction centerpiece will either go with UMG or stay with SYCO/Columbia. Insiders speculate that one of the reasons for continuing with SYCO/Columbia is Styles’ familiarity with the company; he’s well aware of SYCO’s capabilities in both the U.S. and Britain, and he’s accustomed to working with Simon Cowell and Sonny Takhar. But, like former 1D bandmate ZAYN, who signed with RCA, Styles may well see the benefit of taking a new direction with his solo career. Some believe the relationship between Irving and Lucian Grainge, who are said to be thick as thieves, could weigh heavily in the decision-making process. If a deal is struck at UMG, Capitol would seem to have the inside track because of Styles’ relationship with Steve Barnett, who was closely involved in the launch and breakthrough of 1D while serving as Columbia Co-Chairman. The fact that Capitol is L.A.-based is another plus in that Styles has bought a house here, and the record will likely be made here. But Republic’s Monte Lipman and Charlie Walk are believed to be dark-horse contenders and are working it hot and heavy.

OLD-SCHOOL, NEW TWIST: Lipman is also focused on another competition, one label insiders say he’s obsessed with winning. He’s upset with SONGS (which signed Republic stars Lorde and The Weeknd for publishing) and its label RECORDS, going so far as to ban one of the pubco’s execs, who had been hanging out in his office and allegedly picking up inside info. Although the ban has reportedly been lifted, tension remains, and could be sensed at Republic’s Grammy afterparty. The issue revolves around Nelly’s cover of Thomas Rhett’s Country radio hit “Die a Happy Man” (on Scott Borchetta’s Valory), after SONGS/RECORDS guru Barry Weiss went full-on old-school, enlisting Nelly, formerly a Republic artist now on RECORDS, to sing the cover. While Weiss was heading UMG’s East Coast operations in 2012, a Nelly vocal had been added to the Florida Georgia Line Country hit “Cruise” (on Republic Nashville, then a Borchetta-Republic JV), turning it into the biggest
Country-to-Pop crossover hit in the last half decade. Early rumors of a potential mashup of Rhett and Nelly’s versions of “Die a Happy Man” started
circulating—but Borchetta and Lipman took that idea off the table, the situation seeming to rekindle the strained business relationship between Lipman and Weiss at UMG. The Nelly record is off to a reasonably good start at Pop—but Lipman rarely loses battles like this one. Expect him and Walk to redouble their efforts to cross Rhett in the sort of cover battle rarely seen in recent decades.

CROSSOVERS CROSSED OUT: The current situation shines a light on the question of why so few Country records cross to Pop. Apart from the aforementioned “Cruise,” the highest-charting recent crossover records were Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” (#1 Country, #28 Top 40, #12 Hot AC), FLG’s “This Is How We Roll” (#2 Country, #26 Top 40, #22 Hot AC) and Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” (#2 Country, #62 Top 40, #20 Hot AC). Country labels don’t have their own Pop promotion departments, thus depending on their sister labels in New York and L.A. But these labels have their own top priorities, and when push comes to shove, these need to be closed. The last massive Country crossover apart from “Cruise,” Lady Antebellum’s 2009 single “Need You Now,” on Mike Dungan’s Capitol Nashville, benefited from the fact that EMI, then based in New York, was in the throes of the disastrous Terra Firma takeover and had no viable records of its own to work, so Greg Thompson was able to focus exclusively on the Lady A single, taking it all the way to #3 Top 40 and #1 Hot AC that April.

WHERE THE ACTION IS: Beyoncé is close to making a new worldwide, multi-album deal with Sony Music, and the final release under the current deal is now set for April. But there are rumors of another Beyoncé album in 2016, this one a joint project with husband Jay Z. Beyoncé’s star power is off the charts—her stadium tour sold out within hours after the Super Bowl promo, including two nights apiece in New York’s Citi Field and Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Although the Grammys received mixed reviews and experienced a ratings dip, the show did trigger the typically short-lived halo effect on hit albums from Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, Adele, Chris Stapleton, Alabama Shakes and Sam Hunt. Other artists and their labels are capitalizing on Grammy momentum in their assaults on Pop radio. The biggest beneficiary is Republic’s James Bay, whose “Let It Go” has made a massive move, led by Walk and Co.—it appears that this proven U.K. smash simply needed a real audience to ignite it in the U.S. Also in play are WBR’s Andra Day, whose “Rise Up” is about to impact radio; Capitol’s Tori Kelly, whose “Hollow” is nearing Top 20; and Interscope’s Gwen Stefani, whose longform Target spot launched her new single “Make Me Like You” while also setting up her 3/18 album. Additionally, Meghan Trainor’s Best New Artist victory sets up her next Epic single, which is said to be a smasheroo.

NAMES IN THE RUMOR MILL: The Kardashians, Steve Bartels, Lawrence Engel, Wendy Goldstein, Rob Stevenson, Peter Gray, Ken Ehrlich and Jonathan Dickins.

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