The final mogul: an interview with Common Music’s Lucian Grainge


Lucian Grainge was being introduced again to life. It was his twentieth day at UCLA’s intensive care unit, and the opiates that had left him unconscious had been dissipating. Docs ready to take away the ventilator they’d put down his throat. He was going to breathe on his personal once more. “It’s like a aircraft touchdown,” Grainge remembers. “Seats again, tables up, drinks come away, and also you’re coming in to land.” Docs would later inform him it was extra like a miracle.

Grainge doesn’t know the names or faces of the employees who cared for him, as a result of they had been wearing head-to-toe protecting gear. However a pal had overnighted an iPod to the hospital, and somebody by his bedside stored urgent play. Grainge, who’s the chief govt of the world’s largest file label Common Music, has all the time believed in music’s palliative qualities. Now he was experiencing them first hand. “It was life-giving,” he says, “and it was a pleasure.”

The identical 5 songs had been on a loop. There was Frank Sinatra and The Beatles, however one thing concerning the different tracks was bugging him. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than Grainge, nonetheless groggy from his near-death ordeal, put his finger on it. “There have been some Sony information from the early ’90s. And I simply thought, somebody is torturing me by deliberately enjoying non-Common music.”

He smirks, and it’s exhausting to inform whether or not he’s joking. However in all probability not. Grainge, 61, is the final man standing from a bygone period in music, outlined by hovering personalities, thick income and egos to match. A lot of it was stamped out by the web, authorized and technological misadventures and the trade’s personal hubris. Now music is distributed by Silicon Valley tech corporations, and algorithms shape the hits.

Besides there’s Grainge. Common’s CEO since 2010, he controversially scooped up the ailing label EMI, residence to The Beatles, Coldplay and Katy Perry, when valuations had been at their lowest. Then he used the ensuing elevated market share as leverage in offers with streaming platforms which have helped the trade begin rising once more.

Music artist Taylor Swift hugging music executive Lucian Grainge
Grainge with Taylor Swift, who’s re-recording the albums she made for her earlier label for Common: ‘Lucian positioned his belief in me as an artist and as a enterprise particular person’  © Lester Cohen/Getty Photos for Common Music Group

The artist named The Weeknd with his left arm around music executive Lucian Grainge
Grainge with The Weeknd, whose ‘Blinding Lights’ was probably the most streamed tune on Spotify final yr. Grainge signed a profitable cope with the streaming service in 2017 © Lester Cohen/Getty Photos for Common Music Group

As we speak Common artists usually make up nine out of 10 of the top-charting songs in any week. Having put Grainge atop its trade energy record 4 instances, Billboard journal final yr gave up and created a new category for him: “govt of the last decade”. Elton John informed the FT he would “stroll by way of hearth for him”. Taylor Swift says, “I do know he trusts me, and due to this fact I return that belief.” 

However Grainge isn’t performed but. Once we meet, there are lower than six weeks earlier than he takes Universal Music public. In an trade that has staged its personal sudden revival prior to now 5 years, the September 21 IPO is the last word take a look at of restoration. Beneath Grainge, Common has achieved an Amazon-like dominance of the file enterprise, and bankers speculate that it might fetch a valuation of greater than $50bn. (Simply eight years in the past, SoftBank tried to buy the company for $8.5bn.) The market is about to solid its verdict on an organization whose fortunes are inextricably caught up with the person whose predecessor as soon as described him as “a killer shark”. 

Grainge appears to take aggressive satisfaction in the truth that he was one of many very first folks in Los Angeles to be infected with coronavirus. He tells the story, a yr and a half later, at his residence within the Pacific Palisades, a suburb on the ocean the place mansions are hidden behind gated driveways and tall hedges. “There was one other man at Cedars-Sinai throughout city,” he admits. “However at UCLA, I used to be affected person primary.”

In early March of 2020, as many Individuals had been first wrapping their minds across the lethal virus that had introduced China to its knees, Grainge went to the hospital with a foul cough and no sense of style or odor. Californian docs had by no means seen a coronavirus affected person earlier than, so that they gave him antibiotics. Grainge texted Vincent Bolloré, the billionaire controlling shareholder of Vivendi, Common’s proprietor, to inform him he could be out sick for a pair days. 

His firm by no means disclosed how ailing he was. When Grainge left the hospital a month later, he had misplaced a lot muscle that he twice tried to face and fell “like a sack of potatoes”. Two safety guards needed to carry him to his home. It will take 5 months for him to totally get better. “I used to be utterly at my dying,” Grainge provides, dangling a bottle of Cholula scorching sauce over the already-drenched Spanish omelette on his plate.

By some means, he emerged with no vital lung harm. He seems to be wholesome and upbeat as he tells the story publicly for the primary time, perched on the head of a convention desk that might simply match two-dozen employees. As we speak it’s simply us and a few Purell sanitiser bottles, in the kind of work-from-home paradise that rich CEOs have loved for the previous yr and a half. The out of doors patio the place we sit is flanked by orange and lemon timber, wafting citrus by way of the air. It’s sunny, however not too sunny. The temperature hovers round 24C. A light-weight breeze blows in from the Pacific Ocean. Peak California. 

Grainge sizes up the day forward of him, peppering an assistant with questions. “We’ve received the crew assembly at 11. Then I’ve a Zoom. And apparently we’re doing photographs at 1, can that be fast? I’m not doing an album artwork cowl. And Abel is coming at 2, proper? However that’s late for lunch, so we’ll eat earlier than.” He drifts right into a story a few well-known pop star displaying up at 11pm to a 7pm dinner at Nobu. “The truth is in California, kitchens shut at 9.40. They solely preserve the kitchen open as a result of they know that you simply’re coming with somebody.”

There’s a vulnerability and scrappiness about Grainge, whilst he perches on the high of the enterprise. “I like to be underestimated” is a phrase he repeats on a number of events. Requested whether or not falling gravely ailing from coronavirus has modified him, he says “No” definitively earlier than persevering with. “I’ve been by way of quite a bit. You don’t get from nowhere, to the place I’m, with out all the time making an attempt to show your self. What occurred yesterday, occurred yesterday. I really like the following transfer and I really like successful. I don’t romanticise the previous.”

He was raised in a Jewish north-London household, his mom an accountant and his father a file shop-owner. A love of music, notably melody, was within the blood. Grainge’s older half-brother, Nigel, entered the music enterprise earlier than him and opened the door to London’s punk scene within the Nineteen Seventies, taking him alongside to Ramones live shows. The teenage Lucian frolicked with punk bands in garages and derelict homes, creeping into studios at midnight and, legend has it, quitting college when he signed his first band, the Psychedelic Furs.

By 1993, Grainge had labored his method as much as head of A&R at Polydor Information and was being groomed to turn into managing director. Whereas his spouse Samantha Berg was giving beginning to their son Elliot, she suffered an amniotic fluid embolism that put her in a coma from which she by no means recovered. Elevating Elliot on his personal was “preventing another way”, Grainge says, trying away from the desk in direction of the backyard. “Combating for survival, preventing for him, preventing the competitors. It was extraordinarily exhausting,” he says. Returning his gaze, his eyes are moist. “I’ve by no means actually talked about this earlier than, really.”

He calculates that juggling being a single guardian together with his profession set him again professionally “in all probability about three years”. Then, when Elliot was 4, Grainge met Caroline, who he would finally marry. Along with her daughter Betsy they fashioned a brand new household earlier than later having a daughter of their very own collectively, Alice. “My spouse and that household gave me the quilt and the emotional help to have the ability to do what I do,” he says. 

Grainge moved to LA when he grew to become CEO a bit of over a decade in the past. However again in north London, he would take Elliot to Arsenal matches each different Saturday. “To go along with your son or daughter for that, you realize, hour within the journey, two hours on the recreation, have a scorching canine or a bag of Maltesers, and with out telling anybody that you simply’re giving them a Coca-Cola or 7Up,” he remembers. “Speaking about [the game] collectively. It’s one of many best issues ever.” As he speaks, that day’s Arsenal recreation is enjoying on a big tv by way of French double doorways behind him. The masked cleansing employees mill round, quietly bringing out tea and crisps. 

The interview has turn into heavy, and we conform to take a break. “I’ve learnt all about myself,” Grainge says. After which the businessman is again. “Who’s paying who?” he wisecracks, and disappears to verify on the rating. 

One adviser of Grainge’s believes his life experiences have made him “snug with complexity, even loss”, and fuelled his willingness to take huge gambles. The largest was the 2012 purchase of EMI when Grainge had been on the reins of Common for about two years. When he took over, it was the most important file label in a dying trade. As one adviser places it, “He inherited, principally, the Austro-Hungarian empire: a multiheaded beast slowly subsiding however with some crown jewels within the museum.”

That shrinking trade wanted to consolidate to save lots of prices, and the apparent smooth goal was EMI, which had gone by way of a disastrous buyout by Terra Firma, Guy Hands’ non-public fairness agency. However nearly everyone within the trade assumed that Common was already too huge to purchase EMI. The chance of regulators blocking Grainge’s deal was actual. Plus, EMI and the smaller Warner Music had made repeated makes an attempt to merge. “When he signed the letter to purchase EMI I bear in mind him saying, ‘I don’t know if that is going to work, however fuck it, I’m going to attempt,’” a former US govt remembers. 

Sir George Martin, the well-known Beatles producer, dubbed the deal “the worst factor that music has ever confronted”. Edgar Bronfman Jr, who then led Warner Music, warned that it will create “one innovation-stifling dominant participant”. However by promoting off simply sufficient of EMI’s components to placate regulators and most small-label critics, Common emerged with a market share of roughly 40 per cent, one thing no music firm had loved earlier than. Grainge’s aggressive facet had prevailed once more. “The actual purpose Common weighed in was actually to fuck up Warner and EMI,” says a former UK colleague.

Shopping for EMI’s property at “hearth sale” costs was “important” to Grainge’s subsequent success, Fingers informed the FT. It additionally secured him a singular place in his trade’s historical past.

Chris Blackwell, who based Island Information 62 years in the past, signed Bob Marley and now lives in Ian Fleming’s old home in Jamaica, rattles off an inventory of music enterprise legends, from Motown’s Berry Gordy to Ahmet Ertegun, who based Atlantic Information. None of them, he says, ever managed as a lot of the trade as Lucian Grainge.

“I need this complete album performed in like 10 days,” Abel Tesfaye, higher identified by his stage identify The Weeknd, tells Grainge repeatedly.

In particular person, The Weeknd — self-declared Starboy, Tremendous Bowl headliner, wearer of disco aviators and high heels — seems to be a well mannered Canadian who takes his espresso with almond milk. Carrying a distressed jean jacket and white trucker hat, he might move for a college pupil quite than a famous person who has simply purchased a $70m residence in Bel-Air.

It’s lunchtime, and the desk has been remodeled into an album-listening get together for the brand new visitor, with plates of glazed salmon and chopped salad in entrance of us. Tesfaye barely touches his plate.

It’s all the way down to the wire with the brand new file and he’s desperate to play the songs for Grainge. “I actually need to get it out of my system,” he says.

Grainge is prepared. He has perfected the artwork of listening to somebody’s music in entrance of them. Greater than merely nodding alongside, he is aware of when to gush (over the refrain), when to pantomime (air drums and keyboard solos) and when to mouth the lyrics. After the playback, he lavishes the work with reward, and it appears real. “Fabulous! It’s simply bathed in melody. It’s timeless. I do know successful, you realize successful. That’s a correct file,” he says. “In 20 years’ time, you can have an orchestral model of this.”

Tesfaye is completely happy. He needs to do a “Pink Floyd The Wall-type live performance” in 10 years. As lunch goes on, it turns into clearer and clearer why pop’s superstars love Grainge. As one among Drake’s lyrics places it, “Billionaires discuss to me totally different after they see my paystub from Lucian Grainge.” He’s additionally name-checked in songs by Jay-Z and John Legend. “I really feel like a younger child at an enormous firm that I do know really cares about the place my music goes, although I’m 74,” says Elton John.

Grainge provides these stars one thing they will’t purchase: validation. By speaking about their songs as necessary artwork, he earns their belief. (Flattery could appear apparent, but it surely’s an indication of how a lot the trade has modified, how far energy has shifted in current many years.) Earlier, on a name with one other well-known pop star, Grainge had complimented her music as up there with the greats, earlier than gingerly suggesting she change the ending to her new single to a double refrain and fade, quite than stopping abruptly. She declared this suggestion good.

Taylor Swift, who’s re-recording for Universal the albums she made along with her earlier label after a feud over the sale of her catalogue, informed the FT that Lucian “positioned his belief in me as an artist and as a enterprise particular person and by no means questioned the instructions I needed to go in creatively.” She provides, “He actually permits the artist to be the compass.”

Not everyone seems to be a fan. In a uncommon public rift between Grainge and a pop star, Kanye West final yr demanded he be let out of his Universal contract in a sequence of tweets, claiming he “was informed to talk with Lucian Grange . . . I stated I don’t communicate with non-billionaire staff.”

“[Grainge] is the archetype of the key label,” says one govt, musing on why resentment over artists’ share of the pie is directed in direction of Grainge. “He’s the highest-profile, loudest particular person there. Just about everybody within the market will really feel some sort of antagonism.”

So private relationships matter, and it was Grainge’s that this yr helped Common rating the crown jewel of songwriting repertoires: the entire Bob Dylan catalogue. He says that deal got here collectively due to his historical past with Dylan’s supervisor, Jeff Rosen. Eight years in the past, Grainge held superior talks to deliver Dylan’s recorded music over to Common from Sony, his longtime label. On the eleventh hour, Rosen backed out and “he felt dangerous about that”, Grainge says. 

Again at lunch, he’s planning with Tesfaye for a cocktail party with Lionel Richie as casually as most individuals make plans for a potluck.

It’s exhausting to imagine that devouring strawberry tarts and listening to secret Abba songs is a typical day’s work for a CEO about to take his firm public. However a dozen confidantes and former colleagues reckon his capability to not simply make offers however to identify — and schmooze — stars is the important thing to Grainge’s energy. “The quantity of instances I’ll make a deal at 11 o’clock at evening, saying, ‘Rattling it, do it,’” he says. “We’re not proper on a regular basis. Nevertheless it’s about having a nostril. I’ve performed this lengthy sufficient to know that it’s not all the time about knowledge.”

As for The Weeknd, the star is on a profession excessive after his hit “Blinding Lights” grew to become the most streamed song on Spotify final yr. However Grainge believes they should push additional. “Let’s take a look at making some magic in rising markets,” he urges Tesfaye.

“We will be actually imaginative in China. Possibly we do a function on one thing for a film? To pry it open. Like cracking a walnut.”

The cope with EMI made Grainge the particular person anybody hoping to launch a brand new digital music service wanted to get previous. When the Swedish entrepreneur Daniel Ek launched Spotify in 2011, many within the file enterprise had been suspicious or fearful after being burnt within the Napster period. As Grainge tells it, his response to Spotify’s pitch was much less dramatic. “I assumed, ‘OK: Sweden, fascinating. European, simply across the nook, anti-piracy. Wonderful, I’ll give it a go.’ I’m the hostess with the mostest. I’d attempt something. I’ll nonetheless attempt something.”

The place some executives needed to throttle the upstart, involved that it was permitting an excessive amount of free entry, Grainge noticed one other route. In 2017, he thrashed out a new deal that propelled each Spotify’s development and file labels’ digital earnings. “Lucian performed an infinite function in establishing the economics of streaming,” says Invoice Werde, the previous Billboard editor who now directs the Bandier music programme at Syracuse College. 

The investor Merck Mercuriadis, whose Hipgnosis fund has inflated the worth of tune catalogues to eye-popping ranges, says Common is “dictating what everybody will get” by controlling such negotiations. “Lucian’s made an terrible lot of cash for Common and Vivendi. Now he must share that cash going ahead with the artists and songwriters that make it potential for Common to make all that cash,” he argues.

Grainge could also be sentimental about music however he’s resolutely unemotional on the subject of enterprise. Figuring out that the Spotify-driven development in streaming revenues can’t final for ever, Common, Sony and Warner are looking for new methods to squeeze cash out of their mental property. When Common Music artists’ songs are performed on social media apps, Peloton train bikes or in video video games, these royalty pennies can add up. 

Grainge sees such shops as the following frontier. Nevertheless it has been a slog to get a few of these corporations to pay up. Common not too long ago struck a cope with Snapchat’s guardian after years of fierce negotiations, regardless of Grainge’s shut relationship with CEO Evan Spiegel. “He has ice in his veins,” says one former colleague, and you may see it as he speaks to his crew about negotiations with expertise giants like Fb and YouTube. Dealing with a gaping tv display screen by way of which his colleagues’ faces on Zoom seem life-sized, Grainge advises them on techniques to clinch beneficial phrases from the most important tech corporations on the earth, a relentless problem as licensing contracts expire each few years.

The infinite stream of frothy offers results in one apparent query: will Common’s IPO mark the highest of the market? The final time issues had been this rosy within the music trade, says Werde, on the peak of the CD period, the demise was already being written. “I go searching proper now on the multiples being paid for music property and the offers being performed and I do see echoes of that decadence,” he says. Fingers is an imperfect authority on the music trade’s swings, however he too fears that this can be the height. “Put it this manner, if we nonetheless owned EMI at present we’d be a vendor at 9 instances our cash,” he says.

Grainge is having none of it. “Look, I do know what can go unsuitable. Consider me, I’ve been round for thus lengthy, I’ve been knocked down so many instances and been informed both personally or professionally, it’s over,” he says. “I’ve practically died 10 instances. What’s there to be nervous about?”

Anna Nicolaou is the FT’s US media correspondent. Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US enterprise editor

Comply with @FTMag on Twitter to seek out out about our newest tales first. Hearken to our podcast, Culture Call, the place FT editors and particular visitors talk about life and artwork within the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you pay attention.