JUST WIN, BABY: It all started to come together in earnest for Steve Barnett and Team Capitol on Grammy night 2015. With freshly anointed breakout star Sam Smith taking Best New Artist, Record and Song of the Year and labelmate Beck snagging the Album trophy, Capitol Music Group had achieved a rare sweep of the Big Four categories. During the afterparty at Steve and Nancy’s domicile high above Beverly Hills, the vibe was very much holy shit, look what just happened. This landmark represented more than a mountain of Grammy hardware; it demonstrated the company’s dizzying rise—under Barnett’s expert rule—from broken brand to powerhouse in a few short years. It also galvanized the CMG team with an undeniable esprit de corps.

That spirit continues to burn brightly in the wake of news that Barnett will be retiring as CMG boss on 12/31; he had his final, emotional Zoom meeting with his inner circle just before presstime.

Since he suited up for the big game in the ’90s, Barnett has demonstrated the unmistakable traits of a true leader and a 24/7 work ethic. His word has always been his bond, and if he had your back, it’s long been said, you were golden. Just ask longtime cohorts like Azoff, Dickins, Griffiths, Silva, Branca, Greenspan or Passman about his integrity.

Barnett always had an uncanny ability to make shit happen that nobody else would have bet on. He was certain Susan Boyle would explode on the U.S. market and sell millions of albums, a contention that prompted a chorus of “Are you fucking kidding me?” from skeptics who were soon eating their words. He faithfully piloted albums by legacy stars like Dylan, Springsteen, Streisand and Neil Diamond (the latter on both Columbia and Capitol) to #1 late in their careers.

In his Turnbull & Asser checked shirts—or sporting the colors of some ancient British clan—he in no way resembled the hoodie-clad hipsters at the Soho House. But he could close a deal with the best of them because he left no doubt that he would bust his ass and always take your call. He rose from blue-collar stock; nobody ever handed him a thing. But he always found a way to win.

His style was unlike dynastic figures such as Blackwell, Ertegun, Moss and Gordy, but Barnett always had the vision to empower creative executives and artists like no one else in his peer group. Here’s hoping he and Nancy steer clear of the Palm Beach gators and enjoy this next chapter to the fullest.

IF IT AIN’T BROKE DON’T FIX IT: The announcement of Barnett’s impending exit was yet another marker of a generational shift in the business, as a pair of young execs—one of whom he mentored assiduously—prepares to assume the Tower mantle jointly.

Jeff Vaughn’s A&R pedigree in hip-hop and other market-leading genres reflects the overall pivot of the industry. Michelle Jubelirer was a shrewd and forward-looking artist attorney at King Holmes Paterno and Berliner when she became Barnett’s first pick for his CMG executive team in 2013, as he and Sir Lucian Grainge plotted the resurrection of a company that had been left in shambles by the mis-managers who drove EMI into the ground. Jubelirer has since gained a reputation as one of the most artist- and manager-friendly COOs in the business, with an admirable mix of sensitivity and steel in her approach; she has also spearheaded the company’s most progressive activism. MJ is a leader the troops know well.

Barnett, with Grainge’s full-throated support, didn’t just restore luster to the tarnished Capitol brand; he assembled a coalition of labels that was greater than the sum of its parts. The result was a stunning range of victories on multiple fronts.

On the Capitol label, he had a stellar run with Katy Perry; broke Sam Smith wide open (facilitating the aforementioned Grammy sweep); developed Halsey into a true star whose creative evolution continues apace; built a strong post-1D career for Niall Horan; and most recently turned the sad-ballad Scotsman Lewis Capaldi into a radio and streaming phenom. With Coach K & P’s Quality Control—via Ethiopia Habtemariam’s Motown—he secured a steady feed of top-streaming hip-hop, including true stars like chart dominators Migos and Lil Baby.

Under Jacqueline Saturn, indie arm Caroline doubled in marketshare and developed a string of chart successes. Elliot Grainge’s 10k Projects achieved monster action with culture-tweaking acts like XXXtentacion, 6ix9ine and Trippie Redd and is now streaming up a pop storm with Surfaces, Internet Money and more. Add genre-leading subsids like the Toby Andrews-led Astralwerks (with Jeremy Vuernick supercharging A&R) and Capitol Christian to the mix, and you had a recipe for marketshare might.

The Chairman proved a truly supportive mentor to Saturn, Habtemariam and Grainge the Younger, furnishing guidance and counsel that strengthened the very nucleus of the Tower. He kicked the company dynamic up another notch by tapping Greg Marella as his head of promotion in 2016. Marella’s piloting of not one but two aching ballads by Capaldi to huge #1 berths at Pop radio is a stat for the Hall of Fame all on its own. Some believe that, pound for pound, Marella is the top promo exec in the business. The Tower team—which also includes stalwarts like Blue Note chief and muso Don Was and head of comms Ambrosia Healy—executed Barnett’s vision with aplomb.

Barnett reconnected the label with a key part of its glorious past by bringing Paul McCartney back into the fold and (via Polygram Entertainment) brought its legacy to new platforms with acclaimed documentaries on Motown, The Beatles, The Bee Gees, The Go-Go’s and many more.

He has also been a passionate steward of that legacy, coordinating a coffee-table book, orchestrating a lavish celebration of the company’s 75th anniversary and deploying the Tower as a true Hollywood event space and American cultural icon. His Capitol Congress gatherings turned what might have been a dry corporate confab into a lively team-building festival with a distinctly global perspective, where McCartney, Katy Perry or the surviving Beastie Boys might drop by.

Barnett grew up in the rural U.K. hamlet of Codsall, near Wolverhampton (home of the Wolves, now enjoying their third straight season back in top-flight football) and spent the early years of his career in artist representation. Among his clients were Uriah Heep, Deep Purple, Elton John, Black Sabbath, Foreigner and, most famously, AC/DC. His ability to chart a steady course (and, when necessary, right the ship) as captain of these swashbuckling rock ‘n’ roll vessels would stand him in good stead.

He learned the U.S. record business in the fiery crucible that was the Mottola-Ienner Sony “wolf pack,” alongside such luminaries as Michele Anthony, Dave Glew and Polly Anthony. In his 16 years inside that system, he held many titles, including Epic President and Columbia Chairman. After Doug Morris arrived to sort out Sony’s post-BMG tangle in 2011, Barnett, as Columbia co-helmer (with friend and fellow Brit Rob Stringer), helped guide that formerly beleaguered label to #1 in marketshare in 2011 and 2012. Then Grainge came calling.

Barnett’s leadership style is all team, all the time. He’s known enough to identify able execs, empower them and not get in their way. He’s also understood on a cellular level that when an act is real, it’s worth fighting for—and that tenacity is a through line with Smith, Halsey, Capaldi and Lil Baby, among others. The executives he’s mentored—including Jubelirer—speak of that experience as a multilevel master class in company management. Undoubtedly, Barnett has made a decisive mark on the modern history of the biz.

UNSWIRVING: The L.A. Times profile of Irving Azoff that coincided with the Barnett news provided a striking contrast to the outgoing Capitol chief’s thoughtfully conceived exit. The elegantly penned piece by Alex Pappademas detailed Azoff’s extraordinarily diverse career, not only as a manager but also as MCA chief, Live Nation topper, Azoff MSG head and Forum overseer. Nobody has had a more sustained run of success at the top of this game we all play, and no one in his circle of music-loving overachievers has been at it longer. Azoff is now at an all-time career peak, and Full Stop has cultivated such artists of the moment as Harry Styles, Travis Scott (though Irving calls him “unmanageable”), Lizzo, Roddy Ricch and Nicki Minaj to go along with veteran stars The Eagles, Jimmy Buffett, Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, Earth, Wind & Fire and Maroon 5. The Swirv, who, like young Barnett, has been (among other things) the steady managerial hand on the tiller of many a globetrotting freak show, indicated in the piece that he’ll keep going until the Grim Reaper’s tour bus snakes up his driveway. He may have just gotten a valedictory induction (alongside fellow management legend Jon Landau) into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but he clearly intends to rock on indefinitely. Nobody’s done it better than Big Shorty.

The future's so hot, they gotta wear shades. (5/30a)
Better get used to this 1-2 punch. (5/30a)
With sugar, please. (5/30a)
Will another one bite the dust? (5/30a)
Redrawing the Mason-Dixon Line (5/24a)
Gosh, we hope there are more press releases.
Unless the Senate manages to make this whole thing go away, that is.
No, not that one.
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