HITS Daily Double


COOP DREAMS: WMG CEO Stephen Cooper is due to end his tenure in 2023. Recruiter and advisory firm The Up Group has been tasked with exploring candidates.

Cooper arrived at the label group in 2011, after owner Len Blavatnik’s Access bought it for $3.3b. Cooper was known as a turnaround specialist who took troubled companies and whipped them into shape. A pioneer in building a lucrative business around bankruptcy, he achieved benchmark after extraordinary benchmark for clients in crisis, including Macy’s/Bloomingdale’s owner Federated, Greyhound owner Laidlaw, Enron and Krispy Kreme, serving as interim CEO at the latter. When the firm he co-founded, Zolfo Cooper, was acquired by Kroll in 2002, it became the largest independent global corporate-recovery firm.

Once installed at WMG, Cooper fired some of his top execs (including Lyor Cohen) and endeavored to revive the company from its 50-year nadir. To this end, he also made a series of strong music hires, namely Jon Platt, Guy Moot and Carianne Marshall, and promoted Max Lousada, who hired Tom Corson and Aaron Bay-Schuck.

Warner had been outmaneuvered by Lucian Grainge in its attempt to buy EMI, but Cooper benefited from the EU’s antitrust stipulation that forced Universal to divest itself of Parlophone as a condition of the acquisition. As a result, Coldplay, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush (who has provided a resurgent smash) and David Guetta, among others, enhanced Warner’s roster for $750m. In hindsight, of course, this has turned out to be money very well spent.

Cooper earned considerable respect within WMG for being forward-looking with regard to the macro business—including streaming, emerging global markets, the growth of gaming and other platforms and Web3—while always striving to empower his music execs. Outside the company, however, artist representatives are said to have found him difficult to work with. What’s more, the larger music community never gave this “civilian” the respect he deserved.

Cooper’s biggest move was straight out of the Krispy Kreme gift box as he took the company public in a swiftly and deftly mounted 2020 IPO, handing Blavatnik a valuation that was eight times what he paid. The Access chief’s net worth is now thought to be north of $37b. Cooper, who was already quite wealthy when he arrived, is now very wealthy—his IPO windfall is said to have been in the hundreds of millions—and is expected to retire to an impeccably feathered nest in Southern California.

CIVILIAN RULE? Now, succession—and we don’t mean the TV show—is on everyone’s mind. Warner’s extraordinary success in the 20th century was built by record men like Ostin, Ertegun, Morris, Holzman, Geffen and Krasnow. Its decline, meanwhile, was overseen by the likes of Morgado, Fuchs, Semel, Daly, Bronfman, Cohen and a clutch of bankers, who were lost in the wilds of the biz like a minotaur in a labyrinth and decimated the company’s fortunes and august legacy. A similarly disastrous path was blazed by the array of ill-equipped execs given oversight of EMI and BMG, including Andrew Lack, Guy Hands, Elio Leoni-Sceti, Eric Nicoli, Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, Michael Dornemann and many others.

No matter who gets the top job, it’s a tall order to compete with Grainge and Rob Stringer, who between them have approximately 75 years of combined experience in this industry—with an encyclopedic knowledge of artists’ interests, strengths and weaknesses and how to communicate with them and their representatives. They possess the savoir faire to constantly succeed as new platforms, trends and genres emerge and turn old models upside down. It’s simply not a fair fight, many say, to put someone from outside the music world up against them.

This is not a unanimous view, however. The question is whether the board will install an experienced music exec in the top spot or someone with technology expertise and awareness of developing opportunities who can further empower their music-executive team. Blavatnik’s big investments in Spotify, Deezer and Snapchat, not to mention Alibaba, Square, Rocket Internet and sports-on-demand giant DAZN underscore the increasing importance of that tech competence in the marketplace.

Within the music hierarchy are several top execs who are highly regarded both internally and externally, including Moot, Lousada and general counsel Paul Robinson. We’ve written extensively about the first two, of course; Robinson, who’s been part of the Warner system since 1995, has never been in the spotlight but has earned considerable esteem (indeed, reverence) for his integrity and commitment, both inside and outside WMG.

The speculation game is only beginning. While enjoyable, it’s not yet terribly meaningful. Tim Ingham’s Music Business Worldwide wins for most entertaining list of names so far.