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NEAR TRUTHS:
THE LUCIAN DECADE

TAKING STOCK: As Vivendi prepares to spin off 60% of UMG, which now has an estimated valuation north of $40b, the eyes of the biz—most of which are bugging out at the gargantuan transaction—are on Sir Lucian Grainge and company and the details in a prospectus issued for investors on 9/14.

As we note elsewhere, the prospectus underscores familiar bullet points about global growth, the importance of new acts and the large role of catalog in revenue. It also acknowledges that earnings are tied to DSPs and that possible changes at those companies could have unexpected effects.

After distributing 60% of UMG to shareholders, Vivendi will own just 10% of the publicly traded company, while former Chairman Vincent Bolloré’s companies will own an additional 18% combined, second only to the Tencent-led consortium, which will own 20%. Bill Ackman’s Pershing entity currently holds 10%.

Sir LG will of course realize a princely sum in the near term based in part on the massive value created under his leadership, with further bumps said to be attached to benchmark growth. Look for corporate executives (most of whom are listed below) to receive handsome payouts from Vivendi for their work on the IPO and such prior deals as the Tencent and Ackman pacts. Once UMG is publicly listed, a performance-based equity plan will be put in place (as the prospectus notes), which will include a larger circle of key execs to more closely align employees with shareholders of the newco.

The formal process of preparing UMG for market began three years ago. Sir Grainge’s revamping of the company (and, let’s be honest, the business as a whole) began a decade ago. Allow us to set the scene.

THE LUCIAN DECADE: The recorded-music business was in the toilet. Leaning on sales of pop hits and catalog that fans were downloading for free, consolidated up the wazoo and with several of its storied labels gravely mismanaged, it limped into the new millennium. Its survival was in no way assured.

Onto the center of this blighted stage stepped Grainge, an industry veteran and lifelong record man whose decisive, aggressive action was essential to righting the ship. That he happens to have become a knight in the midst of the story only adds to the chivalric heft of this rescue narrative, in a you-can’t-make-this-shit-up kind of way.

His first big move also moved the center of gravity of the business, quite literally. Having previously relocated from London to NYC, he opted, in 2010, to base his operations on the West Coast, close to the state’s tech giants and even closer to music’s creative center. Beyond the myriad practical considerations, though, his choice to have his kingdom by the sea in Santa Monica underscored that he was his own man. That assertion of independence was a natural correlative to the confidence with which he cleaned house and cut vital deals.

WITH CATLIKE TREAD: Making a series of shrewd calls, he tightened the leadership of UMG’s frontline labels and—crucially—maneuvered the company through the acquisition of EMI’s recorded-music division (for a mere $1.9b), transforming that harshly neglected jumble of logos into Capitol Music Group, a mighty profit center for both frontline and catalog. His acquisition of EMI, it should be noted, was particularly stealthy—you may remember that much chatter at the time centered on a Warner-EMI merger, with much squabbling between those entities about their respective valuations and control of the potential newco. While negotiations dragged on, LG made a backdoor move, acquiring EMI from the bank that had assumed control. This surreptitious gambit would ultimately rank among the most strategic actions of the modern era. In that depressed market the price tag seemed hefty—analyst estimates of UMG’s own valuation in 2013 ranged from $5.8b-7.8b—and claims that he’d overpaid ricocheted around the peanut gallery. That the valuation of UMG has increased at least fivefold since then tells the real story about taking the long view and betting on the great catalogs built over the last 75 years. Indeed, Grainge’s persistence through bidding contests and regulatory roadblocks now looks rather prescient.

He also correctly surmised that the future of the biz was digital and negotiated licensing deals with key DSPs Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, Amazon and Facebook; in doing so he was bargaining not only for Universal but, truly, for the entire recording industry. As a result, when the streaming windfall he’d foreseen at last began to materialize, UMG was perfectly positioned to reap the enormous benefits. Irving Azoff’s 2014 description of him as “the great hope for the music business” had proven prophetic. Deals with emergent tech behemoths like TikTok naturally followed in ensuing years. Those who negotiate with him say Sir Grainge is the king of kicking the can down the road to optimize timing and take full advantage of changing landscapes.

He moved with dispatch, re-upping the Lipman brothers at Republic, re-centering the East Coast labels, luring Fueled by Ramen wunderkind John Janick from his perch in the Atlantic system to become the heir to Jimmy Iovine’s throne at Interscope and tapping fellow Brit Steve Barnett to oversee the Tower complex. He also made the historic appointment of Jody Gerson as head of UMPG—the first woman to lead a major global pubco. Gerson is one of several women who’ve been empowered at or near the top of the Uni pyramid during Grainge’s tenure, along with corporate EVP Michele Anthony, Motown CEO Ethiopia Habtemariam, CMG COO Michelle Jubelirer and Caroline/Virgin’s Jacqueline Saturn. In addition to key players like Janick, Monte Lipman and Gerson, UMG U.K. & Ireland Chairman/CEO David Joseph and Central Europe and Deutsche Grammophon Chairman/CEO Frank Briegmann are among the top execs who’ve been integral to worldwide growth and profitability.

Grainge’s close-knit inner circle, which is essential to both strategy and functioning, includes CFO/EVP and President of Operations Boyd Muir, General Counsel/EVP Biz & Legal Jeff Harleston, EVP/Chief Administrative Officer Will Tanous and Gerson.

That said, Grainge has never seemed to worry about making changes if his team members aren’t up to beating the odds and winning the big-stakes races. What’s more, he demands loyalty from his troops—once you cross that bridge, things are never quite the same.

Interscope, of course, has been the year’s marketshare leader; IGA, Republic and CMG were three of the Top 4 labels in the midyear marketshare contest, contributing mightily to Uni’s 38.6 group share, which has jumped nearly eight points during LG’s tenure (an increase of roughly 25%). Earnings, we hasten to add, have gone from less than 500m 10 years ago to an expected 1.5b (or $1.77b, as projected for the next earnings report), a threefold spike.

UMG’s catalog holdings are the crème de la crèmeThe Beatles, The Beach Boys, Sinatra, classic Motown and on and on—and Grainge has been a full-throated advocate for deluxe product and film, theater and other media projects to maximize the legacies of those indelible creators.

The growth of a global business has always been fundamental to Grainge’s approach, a sorely needed corrective to an often highly provincial U.S. business. His deals with Tencent and to establish frontline labels in China, alliances in Korea, a concerted and multitiered creative and commercial push in Africa and other initiatives have turned a spotlight on an array of new planetary possibilities. Grainge’s global vision—surely nurtured during his years in international—has been fundamental to this new era of exponential growth, as streaming enlarges and democratizes the pie.

SHOP TALK: His story begins in north London, where his father, Cecil, ran a shop selling TVs and radios—and records. Lucian and older brother Nigel imbibed the allure of the biz early on. Nigel formed Ensign Records in 1976, while teenaged LG, besotted by the bracing energy of punk and new wave, began cold-calling label bosses whose names he’d found in Music Week. CBS Records’ mega-colorful U.K. boss, Maurice “Obie” Oberstein, rolled the dice and offered him an A&R gig at pubco April Music. Young Lucian promptly inked The Psychedelic Furs to a pub deal. A post at RCA Music Publishing followed. Not long thereafter, Obie, by now MD at PolyGram, tasked him with the launch of that company’s pubbery.

He became Polydor’s GM in ’93 and MD of the label in ’97. He continued his rapid ascent over the next few years, working his way to the top of UMG U.K. and, in 2005, to the head of UMG International. Jean Bernard-Lévy, then CEO of Vivendi, selected him as the successor to global CEO Doug Morris in 2010, and he fully stepped into the top post in 2011, adding Chairman to his title.

Universal became the jewel in Vivendi’s crown in the ensuing years as the bet on streaming paid off with jackpot earnings. In 2016, as streaming’s growth was hitting a fever pitch, Grainge was knighted by Prince William at Buckingham Palace in recognition of his service to the industry.

But even with this massive turnaround and the prospect of a stock-market windfall, Sir Grainge has never taken his foot off the gas. Recent months have found him realigning leadership across his domain, choosing creative execs for top posts in keeping with his own deeply ingrained understanding of A&R’s importance. He landed Tunji Balogun as the new head of Def Jam, recruited Imran Majid and Justin Eshak to run Island and tapped Jeff Vaughn to lead Capitol alongside the highly effective Jubelirer.

When he took the reins at UMG, he declared that further declines were “unacceptable.” It’s a fair bet that this doctrine will remain in force. What’s more—l’dor v’dor—his own shop has provided both a master class and a source of inspiration to his son, Elliot, who soaked up wisdom and shared intel on new music at countless shabbat dinners and Arsenal broadcasts on his way to becoming a young lion of the biz in his own right.

Now, as the knight charges toward this market debut, the work of a decade—and the devotion of a lifetime—comes to fruition.
 

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