In the dark days of the 2000s, a time marked by plummeting record sales and widespread digital piracy, Lucian Grainge was on the warpath due to the lack of new chart-topping stars his label discovered. The last to arrive at a management meeting, he turned off the lights, walked around the room and said to the staff, “Get used to it. This is what it looks like when you have no record of success.
Having trouble producing hits is now laughable for the CEO of Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record company and artist house from Ariana Grande to Bob Dylan, who over the course of a week given, can claim up to nine of the top 10 best-selling songs. .
“When I joined UMG 35 years ago, the idea that we could one day make it into a premier music company with the ability to determine its own destiny would have been unimaginable at the time,” says Grainge. . “But here we are.”
On Tuesday, the British-born CEO will cap off the remarkable streaming-led revival that has transformed the fortunes of the music industry over the past decade, when Universal Music goes public with its € 40 billion IPO ( £ 34 billion) on the Amsterdam Stock Exchange.
But Grainge, who will receive a ‘deal bonus’ of at least $ 150million (£ 110million) when parent company Vivendi splits from the band, has hardly lived to see the milestone . Weeks after a star-studded 60th birthday party last February, Grainge was admitted to hospital with the coronavirus.
He remembers being “patient # 1” at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, where he spent weeks in intensive care. It took him five months to fully recover. “I was completely dead,” he said in a recent interview.
In his role as Head of Universal since 2010, the person considered the most powerful ruler in music has been a key architect of the rebirth of an industry that appeared to be facing terminal decline.
In 2011, he pulled off an astonishing, albeit controversial, stunt by buying EMI, the home of the Beatles and Coldplay, for a £ 1.2bn windfall after a disastrous period of ownership under venture capitalist Guy Hands in the during which the British label was in debt. .
The deal drew widespread criticism, with Beatles producer Sir George Martin describing the sale as “the worst thing music has ever faced” – and it has come under regulatory scrutiny from the United States. two sides of the Atlantic.
“The common wisdom was that buying EMI would never get [regulatory] approval and that it would never be swallowed by any of the big three [music companies]”Says a former executive at a rival record company who was considering making an offer at the time.” But Lucian came up with a plan to part ways, but keeping the vast majority was a brilliant decision. “
Grainge was forced to sell some pieces to assuage competition concerns, most notably the Parlophone label to compete with Warner Music, but ultimately retained around 70% of EMI. The acquisition gave Universal an unprecedented 40% market share and allowed Grainge to negotiate from a position of strength with the new wave of digital services led by Spotify, which has become essential for the recovery of the music industry. .
Speaking of this crucial turning point, Grainge says, “At that point, I promised that, if we acquired EMI, we would: bring it back to life, along with Capitol and Virgin; invest in more artists and labels; and promote more competition between streaming platforms for the benefit of consumers and artists – and that’s exactly what we did.
In the year it closed the deal, Universal Music made 4.2 billion euros in revenue and made a profit of 507 million euros. This year, the company is on track to achieve nearly 8 billion euros in sales and profits of up to 1.5 billion euros.
Born in North London, the lifelong Arsenal fan was always destined to work in the music industry. His father owned a small record store and Grainge remembers spending the 1960s and 1970s listening to “just about everything – from Wagner to Ray Charles to Mozart and Elvis.” He left school at 18 after passing an A-level exam to attend a meeting where he negotiated his first recording contract. His first signing was the Psychedelic Furs.
In less than five years he had joined a record company and was director of A&R responsible for talent research and development. In 1986, he joined Universal to launch Polygram Music Publishing UK. Seven years later he joined UMG’s Polydor label and in 2001 he became director of Universal Music UK. Four years later, he was given responsibility for all of Universal’s operations outside of the United States.
Described by a rival as “possibly the UK’s brightest musical director”, Grainge has been variously described as a “killer shark”, being warm and charming while having ice in his veins. At a charity event celebrating three decades in the industry, Bono described Grainge as a “ruthless motherfucker … but he has good ears.”
Grainge says, “I can tell you that when I fight on behalf of my artists, on behalf of the music community to which I have dedicated my life, I am probably all of them. As for Universal Music and the industry, there is so much more to come. Just watch. “