The Four Biggest Labels and the Two Most Influential Radio Stations
TRANSATLANTICISM: U.K. labels, their signed acts and British executives are presently dominating the business on both sides of the Atlantic. U.S. labels execs are paying far more attention to the U.K. than ever before, not only because so many British-signed acts are on the charts (three in the Top 10 albums and five in the Top 20 this week) but also because America and Britain can now legitimately be seen as the hub of a global English-speaking market. What’s more, Europe has historically followed the U.K. in terms of hits. Britain’s top record execs have to be well versed in all aspects of the biz, unlike many of their American counterparts, who came from either marketing/promotion or A&R.

In the past, U.S. label heads prioritized their own signings at the expense of those inked by the U.K. companies, leaving prospective hits on the table. But that is no longer the case, largely because it’s so hard to find potentially big hits these days that whenever one appears, it’s prioritized, no matter where it came from. Columbia’s Rob Stringer, CMG’s Steve Barnett, RCA’s Peter Edge and Island’s David Massey are all acutely aware of the U.K. market, having come from Britain. As for Lucian Grainge, this is a fortuitous time for the head of the biggest company in the world to be a Brit.
Many consider UMG U.K. Chairman/CEO David Joseph, whom Grainge hand-picked to run the British operation, to be the most powerful individual in the British music business. The highly regarded veteran is whip-smart, notoriously press-shy and very British. Joseph’s lieutenants—the Presidents of Universal’s four U.K. majors—are all extremely hot at the moment. Capitol’s Nick Raphael has landed some big fish in Sam Smith, who’s at 532k TEA in the U.S. so far, and 5 Seconds of Summer, whose EP and initial singles convert to 365k TEA in the States, with first-week estimates on the debut album, hitting next Tuesday (7/22) north of 200k. Virgin/EMI’s Ted Cockle is responsible for the signing and breaking of Iggy Azalea (551k TEA) and Bastille (828k). Polydor’s Ferdy Unger-Hamilton gets credit for Lana Del Rey (1.5m on her first album; 289k on her new one) and Ellie Goulding (1.3m). And Island’s Darcus Beese counts Disclosure (239k) among his prized catches. All four are aggressive, opinionated risk-takers who compete with each other for top acts as fiercely as they do with their non-UMG counterparts—and that determination to win has increased Universal’s dominance in the U.K. market.

The two acts keeping Atlantic’s U.S. label afloat were gift-wrapped by Warner Music U.K. under the watch of Max Lousada and former co-Chairman Christian Tattersfield. Ed Sheeran (411k TEA in the U.S.) was signed and developed by the Ben Cook-headed Atlantic U.K., while Coldplay (715k) was delivered by the Miles Leonard-led Parlophone. These same two top-selling acts are driving Warner’s British operation, which heated up as soon as Lyor Cohen was pushed out of the way and has remained healthy under Lousada’s expert leadership. Indeed, he’s drawing praise throughout the music biz for his inspired and wildly successful worldwide marketing plan for Sheeran’s x.
Jason Iley, who was squeezed out at UMG when Joseph revamped that company’s executive team in 2012 following the EMI acquisition, was recently chosen by Doug Morris to head up Sony Music U.K. in his first move to help revitalize the company. The new Chairman/CEO is determined to change the feng shui of the U.K. market—not an easy task when Lousada, Raphael, Unger-Hamilton, Beese and Cockle are all so clearly at the tops of their games. Can Iley steal a hotshot from Universal or Warner to help run one of or more of his three labels? There’s no question that respected SYCO Music Managing Director Sonny Takhar, Columbia’s Stringer (whose best-selling acts, Adele and One Direction, are England-based) and RCA’s Edge will be eager to help close a major player or two. In addition, insiders say that Iley has already shortlisted the next wave of rising executive stars.

The fourth power on the label side is legendary indie entrepreneur Martin Mills of the Beggars Group, which is responsible for Adele and boasts a host of cutting-edge British and American bands and artists on its XL, 4AD, Rough Trade, Matador and Young Turk labels, including Vampire Weekend, Radiohead, The National, Future Islands, The xx and Interpol.
The other half of the equation is U.K. radio, which is controlled by two companies with markedly different philosophies. BBC Radio 1 has been an integral component of the British music business for decades, paralleling the partnership between MTV and the U.S. labels during the 1980s and ’90s (minus the commercials). Radio 1’s highly regarded tandem of Head of Music George Ergatoudis and Music Policy Executive Nigel Harding continue to push the teen-demo-driven format, whose Specialty shows are the primary place where artist careers are launched. Their chief rival is Global Radio, founded and headed by Ashley Tabor, whose Top 40 flagship, Capital FM, is changing the game by adding records in power rotation six to eight weeks before they’re commercially available—making it the only place these tracks can be heard. A number of label execs are displeased about this policy because of the absence of sales to back up the airplay, while they love the Radio 1 model, which typically locks into the top-selling records for its highest rotations.

The British Isles have a population of 64m, a fraction of that of the U.S., meaning Radio 1 (with an audience of 10.5m) and Capital FM (7.3m) reach a huge percentage of U.K. residents. For comparison’s sake, Clear Channel’s biggest Top 40s, New York’s Z100 and L.A.’s KIIS-FM, reach 4.6m and 3.6m, respectively.

A final thought: Will any of the latest wave of British label execs come to the States to conduct the next chapters in their careers?
Names in the rumor mill: Richard Griffiths, Simon Cowell, David Dollimore, Geoff Travis, Richard Russo, Sarah Stennett and Jack Street.
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