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RAINMAKERS:
STEVE COOPER

“When I came to Warner Music Group, it was clear people thought I’d only be here for a year or two,” Steve Cooper says. “I hadn’t worked in the music business before, and it struck me as a relatively closed society. Nine years later, I’m still excited by the possibilities that are on the horizon for music. I love that every day brings a new conundrum to solve, and I really enjoy the people. They’re the most driven, most imaginative group I’ve ever worked with.” 

Cooper took his first music-industry job at the age of 64 when All Access Industries chief Len Blavatnik installed him as WMG Chairman in July 2011, following the Ukrainian billionaire’s purchase of the music company for $3.3 billion. A month later, Cooper and CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. swapped titles and responsibilities, which put the reins of the day-to-day operation in Cooper’s steady hands. The veteran exec’s mission was similar to ones he’d had at other firms: restructure the finances and figure out whether there was a path back to profitability.

“I’d led a lot of different companies through extreme transition, in high-pressure situations,” Cooper reflected in 2020. “That meant that during my early years at Warner, when the industry was in trouble, we didn’t get fazed, and we’ve stayed focused on growth ever since.”

He became the label heads’ boss in September 2012 after the departure of Lyor Cohen. “History has shown us that you don’t have to be the biggest to be the best,” he wrote in a memo to WMG staff when announcing Cohen’s departure. “You have to be the most nimble, creative and disciplined.”

Two months later, Cooper restructured the company into three divisions: frontline recorded music, publishing/catalog development and label/artist services.

Cooper recognized an inflection point when he saw one. “I knew streaming was coming and it was going to change everything,” begins his litany of primary conclusions. “I knew that we needed more music, more quality music. And we needed to be truly global, not just Anglo-focused. I knew we had to use technology and data to get closer to our ultimate customer, the fan. Finally, I saw that the whole industry was, rightly, very focused on the careers of artists and songwriters. But I didn’t think our label and territory heads were given the right level of authority and accountability for making creative decisions. So all of that decision-making was turned over to them. As a result, we’ve now got a couple of generations of creative decision-makers.”

“When I first met Steve Cooper,” observes mega-attorney Allen Grubman, “he had entered the music business with very little knowledge of the industry. Over the last several years, I have seen him develop into one of the most dynamic and successful music-industry executives. And as Warner Music Group continues to grow, I believe his creative impact will continue to be extremely important.”

Cooper made one of his most significant changes in the corporate suites, moving Max Lousada from the U.K. to CEO of Recorded Music in 2017. Cooper said that since WMG was “leading the industry’s transition to streaming, this is the perfect time to appoint a proven leader to turbocharge the success of our Recorded Music division.” Lousada’s first major move was to bring in Tom Corson and Aaron Bay-Schuck as the new Co-Heads of Warner Records.

Letting record people handle records has been a key tenet of Cooper’s oversight from the beginning. “I knew enough about business to know that I shouldn’t get involved in creative decisions,” he volunteers. “It’s my job to create fertile ground for creativity and innovation. [Elektra founder] Jac Holzman told me, ‘Look after the music and the music will look after you.’ I haven’t forgotten that.” 

In 2019, Cooper brought in Guy Moot and promoted Carianne Marshall to lead Warner/Chappell—though it’s unclear whether it was he who deleted the slash from the pubbery’s name. Also that year, WMG launched a $650m fund with Providence Equity Partners to acquire recorded-music and music-publishing catalogs.

There was one more plan on the drawing board, and it was a shocker—an IPO. Announced as the world was shutting down from the pandemic, the move proved to be savvy when WMG went live on the Nasdaq on 6/3/20 and raised $1.93 billion in its first day. That was quite a week for Cooper.

While he stresses that decisions about the IPO ultimately lay with Access, Cooper emphasizes that its unfolding spoke to the fundamental health of the industry. “We started on the path to an IPO and then the pandemic happened, and we obviously had to hit pause,” he explains. “But our core business proved very resilient and we even saw an acceleration in many areas of our digital transformation. The company and our strategies had been pressure-tested, and we had the confidence to go for it. So often the spotlight is on technology. We felt it was an important moment of recognition for the value of music.”

Read the entire profile here.

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