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I.B. BAD'S THUMBNAIL
HISTORY OF THE U.K.
MUSIC BIZ

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES: Our just-published annual U.K. issue, with editorial from the head of our London bureau, Rhian Jones, provides ample evidence of the significant progress that’s been made in the British music business in terms of gender diversity. The number of women working the levers in virtually every corner of the U.K. biz—including the corner office—marks, in some substantial ways, a serious departure from the history we’ll be detailing in a moment.

That progress still has a ways to go, particularly in terms of women at the very top of the food chain, but it’s undeniable that an evolution is underway, and that this evolution (in the U.S. as well) is part of what has made 2018 a Year of the Woman. The Weinstein and other scandals that roiled the entertainment world—and the blatant misogyny of the U.S. President and his administration—helped pave the way for a political and cultural uprising that supercharged the midterm elections on this side of the pond. The resulting Blue Wave was driven largely by women and swept into a power a class of freshman Dem legislators that is more diverse in terms of gender and ethnicity than at any time in history.

The three British men now running the major-label groups—Sir Lucian Grainge, Rob Stringer and Max Lousada—have made diversity a priority, and have made strides in empowering women in key posts throughout their organizations on both sides of the pond. There’s still much to be done in terms of righting the exclusionary trends of the past, but even a casual flip through the volume you’re holding shows how much change has already occurred in the U.K.

And now, here’s how we got to this point in music-biz history.

THE SUN NEVER SETS: The talented female U.K. executives and entrepreneurs showcased in the U.K. Special are the inheritors of a rich and colorful legacy. Indeed, the music business as we know it wouldn’t exist without the massive contributions made by Brits over the last six decades. Since the British Invasion in the 1960s, U.K. bands and artists have taken their place as the royalty of the musical universe: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Dusty Springfield, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Elton John, Queen, The Clash, The Police, Annie Lennox, U2, Coldplay, Amy Winehouse and Adele. But Britain’s behind-the-scenes game-changers have had a profound impact on the music business as well; they include EMI’s Sir Joseph Lockwood and Len Wood, Columbia U.S.’s English-born President Goddard Lieberson, Decca Records founder Sir Edward Lewis, Beatles producer Sir George Martin and manager Brian Epstein, Stones Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham, Island Records kingpin Chris Blackwell, Thorn EMI’s Sir Colin Southgate, indie pioneer Martin Mills, heavyweight managers Peter Grant, Robert Stigwood, Don Arden, Tony Dimitriades, Bill Curbishley and Malcolm McLaren, and American expat Maurice “Obie” Oberstein, who’s considered one of the architects of the modern U.K. music business. This proud lineage extends all the way to Sir Lucian Grainge, who got his first break from Obie and, after transforming UMG U.K and its international operation into dominant forces, became the first Brit to truly conquer the U.S. market, along with the rest of the world.

THE MOTHER OF ALL LABELS: It’s not a stretch to say that EMI—which Grainge eagerly snapped up on UMG’s behalf when it went on the block in 2011—was for quite some time the most important music company in the world. Electric and Musical Industries Ltd, as it was known in the olden days, was the onetime home of Columbia, and the original owner of RCA’s “His Master’s Voice” trademark (which led to EMI naming one of its labels HMV). EMI distributed dozens of American labels at various times, and no record company could compete with it after The Beatles became a global phenomenon during the mid-’60s. Rather than depending on U.S. majors, EMI established its own distribution system in the U.S., grabbing marketshare to sustain it. For a time, it seemed like the stuffy, old-school British execs who were running EMI had come straight off the set of Downton Abbey, and that they viewed their American counterparts as riff raff from the Colonies. But EMI’s U.S. rivals eventually got big enough to go on their own. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, CBSWalter Yetnikoff, Atlantic’s Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, and Warner/Reprise’s Mo Ostin-Joe Smith tag team grabbed indie labels on both sides of the pond in acquisitions and distribution deals, as did Netherlands-based Philips/Phonogram and Germany’s Bertelsmann/BMG in the ’80s and ’90s, ending EMI’s near-monopoly.

But the British bastion, which included owned labels Parlophone, Harvest and U.S. Capitol (acquired in 1955), remained a force to be reckoned with. Immediately following its 1979 merger with Thorn Electrical Industries, Thorn EMI scooped up additional American assets in United Artists, which included the Liberty, Imperial and Blue Note labels, while it later bought Richard Branson’s Virgin (1991) and Chris Wright and Terry EllisChrysalis (1992). But after Southgate was succeeded as Executive Chairman by the laughably inept former biscuit-company exec Eric Nicoli in 1999, while Ken Berry was concurrently tarnishing the Virgin brand, EMI completed its fall from first to worst, ending up in the hands of Terra Firma, which led to the banks owning the once-great company and its cornucopia of top-end masters and copyrights. So, in taking ownership of EMI’s iconic nameplate and invaluable assets, Grainge was in effect becoming the caretaker of a huge chunk of British musical history—which made it that much more gut-wrenching to part with Parlophone and other national treasures, as stipulated by the EU

MASTERING THE GAME: Music-biz annals are filled with tales of British execs preceding Grainge who failed to comprehend what British artists had absorbed from obsessively spinning imported American 45s—that popular music was and is rooted in black music and culture. Unlike his predecessors, Grainge possesses a deep-rooted understanding of black music, evidenced by his deals with Cash Money, TDE and QC, among other indies, and by the rebranding of Def Jam and Motown—the result being a streaming marketshare approaching 40% in the U.S. The list of clueless U.K. execs who came before him is long and winding. Consider Decca A&R rep Dick Rowe, who made the biggest mistake in pop history by passing on the R&B-loving Beatles (“Not to mince words, Mr. Epstein, but we don’t like your boys’ sound,” he’s believed to have stated), but saved himself from eternal damnation by inking the blues-steeped Stones.  

Rob Stringer would be the next Brit to take the reins of a major music group after Grainge, becoming Sony Music chief in April 2017. Stringer later admitted that he initially struggled in his first U.S. chief-of-staff role—replacing Don Ienner as head of the Sony Music Label Group in 2006, after playing a key role at the U.K. company for 21 years, the last two as the label group’s ranking exec. But he rebounded strongly, applying his U.K. training to help shepherd Her Royal Highness Adele and the Simon Cowell-led SYCO to massive success, notably including One Direction. Now, in conjunction with Ron Perry and Sylvia Rhone, Stringer is rebuilding the management teams of Columbia and Epic, two of the biggest brands of the last century, whose combined marketshare consistently topped 20% from the 1970s through the’90s as the twin turbines powering CBS/Sony’s big red machine. But a year and a half into his reign, piloting the combined companies of Sony and the former BMG (which had once made its own mark in the U.K.), Stringer has his sights set squarely on the future.

It bears noting that CBS/Sony was where Capitol chieftain Steve Barnett (who came to the States in 1988), RCA ruler and onetime Clive Davis protégé Peter Edge (1991) and recently installed Arista topper David Massey (1991) learned the tricky nuances of the U.S. business. Incoming Island chief Darcus Beese is the latest Brit to take charge of a U.S. label. And Richard Griffiths headed Epic and BMG U.K. before guiding 1D to the honey pot as co-head of Modest! Management. At present, Griffiths and Cowell are involved in a test of wills, which most say has been a long time coming. But that’s a long story for another day.

Max Lousada is WMG’s first worldwide head of recorded music—and the second Brit to lead the company after Roger Ames (1999-2004)—since Lyor Cohen was forced out some six years ago, bringing a merciful end to his tanking of Warner in the U.S. During his eight-year regime, Cohen fired hundreds of staffers and pocketed tens of millions of far-from-hard-earned dollars, as WMG marketshare sank from 16.7% when he got there in 2004 to 11% when he left in 2012, only to rebound dramatically since he was fired. Now, it appears that history is repeating, as YouTube top brass, like Steve Cooper and Len Blavatnik before them, come to the belated realization that Cohen is doing more harm than good, in this case as the poster boy for its attempt to make peace with the industry, as rumors of his imminent demise continue to circulate. While Cohen was thrashing about, Lousada was doing an incredible job as head of Warner U.K. Under Lousada’s guidance, the British company broke a slew of acts, notably including freshly minted U.K. star Dua Lipa, after taking Coldplay and Ed Sheeran to massive worldwide status, all of which served as the springboard that vaulted him to the top spot at WMG. In his new role, Lousada has made a series of shrewd, catlike moves, most significantly bringing in some U.S. muscle to long-beleaguered Warner Bros. Records by installing Aaron Bay-Schuck as Chairman/CEO and Tom Corson as Chairman/COO in a determined effort to bring it up to speed with the U.K. company and Atlantic, both of which have sprung to life since Cohen’s exit. Like his two fellow Brits, Lousada has emphatically shown that he’s a perfect fit to oversee a major music group.

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