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Lucian Grainge: Artist-friendly leader of a music juggernaut

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Lucian Grainge
Lucian Grainge, photographed in Pacific Palisades on Oct. 30.

When Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Eras tour hit Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium last summer, Lucian Grainge took a high-profile guest: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.

“He and his family are great Taylor Swift fans,” Grainge said of his choice of plus-one, adding, “I think it’s been published that he went to a SoulCycle class” featuring the pop superstar’s music.

Discover the changemakers who are shaping every cultural corner of Los Angeles. This week we bring you the final installment of the L.A. Influential series: The Establishment. They are the bosses, elected officials and A-list names calling the shots from the seats of power.

Yet the London-born head of Universal Music Group also feels that, as “a cultural event,” the Eras tour is “important enough for any president or prime minister to see,” Grainge said. “In the same way, I’d take Joe Biden. And when Taylor plays Tokyo, I would be delighted to take the prime minister of Japan.”

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As the chairman and chief executive of the world’s largest record company — beyond Swift, its roster of talent includes Drake, Morgan Wallen, Olivia Rodrigo, Rihanna, Billie Eilish, U2, Kendrick Lamar, Lady Gaga, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — Grainge, 64, is arguably the most powerful person in the music business, with a level of influence and a global network of connections that regularly put him at the crossroads of art, commerce, technology and government. (In 2016, he was knighted as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honors by Prince William, meaning he’s technically Sir Lucian.)

‘I’m so thankful to have had his insight and protection for my entire career.’

— Pop star Ariana Grande

Grainge assumed his role atop UMG in 2011 at a moment of deep uncertainty for an industry then sorting out a future not built around the cash-cow compact disc. Thirteen years later, the now-publicly traded company has ridden the digital streaming wave to a valuation of approximately $50 billion and to a 35% share of the U.S. market for recorded music, according to the trade journal Hits. UMG, whose subsidiary labels include Republic, Interscope and Capitol — each a distinct fiefdom with its own history and brand — finished 2023 with seven of the year’s 10 most-consumed albums, while five of the eight LPs nominated for album of the year at February’s Grammy Awards were by UMG acts. (Swift took the prize for a record fourth time with “Midnights.”)

The company’s clear commercial dominance over music’s two other major record groups, Sony Music Entertainment and Warner Music Group, is matched by Grainge’s cozy personal relationships with top-tier pop stars.

“Lucian is an amazing ally and advocate for artists,” Ariana Grande told The Times. “I’m so thankful to have had his insight and protection for my entire career.”

Grainge may lack the showbiz presence of machers such as David Geffen and Clive Davis, but with the industry continuing to grow due to streaming — 2022 marked the seventh consecutive year of expansion — and UMG’s unprecedented market share, his control is perhaps unmatched in the history of the recorded music business.

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Yet challenges loom for UMG and for the record industry as a whole, chief among them the rise of generative artificial intelligence — which threatens to upend an economy premised on the idea of artists with nonreplicable skills — and the issue of how streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music pay musicians. In response to slowing growth, UMG instituted widespread layoffs in February; that same month, the company pulled its music from TikTok amid a royalty dispute that was later settled.

Grainge insists he welcomes such complicated problems — that indeed he’s demonstrated “a pattern of pivoting and responding to disruption” since the bad old days of illegal file-sharing. He points to a deal he helped strike before he was CEO between UMG and Nokia to put songs on flip phones and to his early willingness to work with Spotify, which some in the industry saw as just another Napster.

‘Do I believe in copyright and intellectual property and name and likeness and use of voice? One thousand percent.’

— Lucian Grainge

“I like change,” he said over a cup of tea at his stately Pacific Palisades home. “I’m not a rigid person.” Patrician yet low-key, the exec had a cold, so he was working remotely instead of at UMG’s headquarters in Santa Monica. Piles of papers were stacked around him on the kitchen table, stirred occasionally by the breeze through a door opening onto a sprawling backyard. “About 30 years ago, someone who was my boss at the time said, ‘You know, you’re like Trotsky,’” Grainge, dressed in a crisp blue suit, his shirt open at the collar, recalled. “‘And the trouble with Trotsky is he kept having mini-revolutions.’” He laughed. “I knew he was trying to insult me, but I loved it.”

Regarding AI, he said the technology has reached “a point where it’s so inevitable that I want — I need — us to be completely at the epicenter” of its application as a creative tool. In his view, the Beatles’ 2023 single, “Now and Then,” which was produced in part through machine-learning software, illustrates the technology’s artistic potential.

“It’s a brilliant song — great lyric, fabulous performance, incredibly emotive — that unless we’d had AI to individualize different recordings, would never have come to light,” he said. “That’s something good.”

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At the same time, he added: “Do I believe in copyright and intellectual property and name and likeness and use of voice? One thousand percent.” The notion that “anyone can do anything with anyone’s work — I can’t tell you how much I’m against that,” he said. The key to solving the problem, as he sees it, is “the path to monetization,” which he said the major labels failed to discuss with Napster at the onset of widespread file-sharing.

Lucian Grainge

To that end, Grainge cited UMG’s cooperation with YouTube on the latter’s AI Incubator: a squishy if earnest set of principles meant to balance the push for technological progress with a commitment to fair compensation for artists and rights holders.

Grainge has taken a similarly public role in developing a so-called artist-centric model for streaming royalties that rewards acts whose outsize popularity drives users to pay for subscriptions and that penalizes those seeking to manipulate Spotify’s rules with brief sound-effect clips that can be looped by machine to generate lucrative clicks.

Mark Mulligan, an analyst at Midia Research, calls Grainge an “icebreaker” in the music business for his vocal positions on these issues, and Grainge seems to relish his perception as a thought leader shaping conditions not just for UMG acts, but for the entire industry.

“If you want to be a musician and you’ve got some talent and you take it seriously,” Grainge said, “then I’m your greatest supporter, whether or not we touch it.”

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‘The shareholders, the investors, the board — what you get with me is long-term strategy. That’s who I am. That’s what I stand for. That’s what I care about.’

— Lucian Grainge

Grainge, who scribbled notes throughout our conversation, grew up amid music both inside and outside the home. His father owned a record shop, while his older brother, Nigel, founded Ensign Records; Grainge cut his teeth in London’s rowdy punk scene and eventually scored a gig as an A&R rep in which he signed the Psychedelic Furs. By 1993, he was on his way up the corporate ladder when his first wife, Samantha Berg, entered a coma from which she never recovered as she was giving birth to his son, Elliot. He married his current wife, Caroline, in 2002 and not long after was appointed head of UMG’s international operations.

Grainge moved his family to L.A. in 2009 — Elliot would go on to start the indie label 10K Projects, home to the breakout rapper Ice Spice — ahead of his succeeding Doug Morris in UMG’s top job. One pastime he quickly cultivated: driving the canyons of Malibu, where spotty cell reception meant he could listen to music without fretting over which manager or producer he owed a phone call.

His first big move was UMG’s controversial acquisition of EMI, which shrunk the number of major labels to three from four and which required considerable regulatory finesse to pull off. In 2021, just a year and a half after he spent a month at UCLA Medical Center with a grave case of COVID-19, Grainge led UMG’s initial public offering and later was awarded a one-time bonus of $100 million when his contract was extended to 2028. A hallmark of his reign has been his nurturing of the executives who oversee UMG’s labels — John Janick at Interscope, for instance, and brothers Monte and Avery Lipman at Republic — though Def Jam and Motown have both suffered from high-level turnover, while Capitol Music Group went through some turmoil before Grainge installed Michelle Jubelirer as the label’s CEO in December 2021. Jubelirer stepped down in February amid a restructuring of the labels under Janick and Monte Lipman.

Grainge prides himself on giving these leaders “complete freedom and autonomy in an entrepreneurial sense to run their businesses the way they want,” he said. “But we’re also a collection of shopkeepers [devoted to] what I call the common good.” When more than one UMG label is interested in signing an act, he said, each label makes its pitch in-house so that he can decide which might be the most attractive to the artist. “Then the group will make an offer,” he said. “And the group will stick by that offer.”

How has Grainge’s role been affected by UMG’s going public? “It’s made no difference whatsoever,” he replied. “And I mean that — it’s made absolutely no difference. I have to spend more time with a wider group of people talking about the business and explaining it. That’s fine,” he said.

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“The shareholders, the investors, the board — what you get with me is long-term strategy. That’s who I am. That’s what I stand for. That’s what I care about.”

‘The fusion of different kinds of music is something that’s always fascinated me.’

— Lucian Grainge

According to Tim Ingham, founder and publisher of Music Business Worldwide, that long-term strategy rests equally on Grainge’s “nose for sensible risk-taking” and on a flair for dealing with A-list talent that Ingham said inspires “everyone in the music industry, even his detractors, to take their hats off.”

Asked if he’s ever seen anything like the current frenzy over Swift, Grainge said he was talking about this just the other night with Elton John. (The rock icon is among UMG’s prosperous legacy acts, as is Lionel Richie, whose daughter Sofia married Elliot Grainge in April 2023.) John proposed that Taylormania is the first sensation to rival Beatlemania, though the elder Grainge compared it to Michael Jackson’s run in the mid- to late ’80s.

“He was one of the first artists to do three nights at Wembley [Stadium],” he said. “If you couldn’t get a ticket, you’d get on the ferry and go see him in Holland or you’d fly to Berlin. That was 40 years ago. Now she’s it.”

As crucial as a megastar such as Swift is to UMG’s health — half of the company’s 10 best-performing albums last year were by her — Grainge said he’s determined to keep finding fresh talent in new places. At the moment he’s excited about Afrobeats and Indian music, and he sees plenty more growth potential in K-pop and Spanish-language music, both of which have exploded of late among American listeners.

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“The fusion of different kinds of music is something that’s always fascinated me,” he added, recalling having his mind blown when a fellow A&R executive played him Aerosmith and Run-D.M.C.’s “Walk This Way” for the first time. “One of the greatest records ever made,” he said.

The memory of encountering that groundbreaking rap-rock track in a London label office all those decades ago casts Grainge’s mind back to his days as a scrappy up-and-comer — before streaming, before AI, before the corner suite and the millions (and millions) of dollars.

How much of the punk he once was remains inside him?

“A lot,” he said. “I’m a talent scout. A product guy.” He grinned. “I’m still here peddling my wares.”

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