Universal Music Group, the world’s biggest record label, was listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange on Tuesday and quickly rocketed to $55bn in value. That’s about seven times what French media giant Vivendi, which bought Universal in 2000, was offered for it in 2013. It’s music to the ears of Sir Lucian Grainge, 61, the company’s British chief executive. He is set to net at least $150m from the flotation, one of the biggest paydays in corporate history.
Sounds like proper pop-star money
It’s not quite on the level of Universal artist Taylor Swift, who’s worth $550m, but it puts Grainge past his young signings Billie Eilish ($53m) and Ariana Grande ($72m). Grainge will also get more than $20m from the sale of 10% of Universal to Chinese tech firm Tencent, and about $41m in bog-standard yearly salary and bonuses. But if any exec has earned his lunch, it’s Grainge: he was described by predecessor and mentor Doug Morris as a “killer shark” and by U2’s Bono as a “ruthless f**ker” who nonetheless has “good ears”. Grainge once boasted he could “sign somebody on a park bench”.
Is the hype justified?
Absolutely. Grainge took over at Universal in 2011, when music industry revenues were near their lowest ebb. A year later he scooped up EMI Recorded Music for $1.9bn, cutting the number of major record labels from four to three. That expanded catalogue (and up to 40% market share) meant Grainge could drive a hard bargain with ascendant music-streaming platforms like Spotify. Buoyed by streaming subscriptions, the music industry has grown every year since 2014, as has Universal’s revenue.
How did Grainge find his (lucrative) groove?
He was born into a north London Jewish family and grew up listening to “just about everything – from Wagner to Ray Charles”, he has said, as his father owned a small record shop. His half-brother Nigel (another music exec, who discovered Sinéad O’Connor) introduced him to London’s punk scene. Lucian set about breaking into the industry with singular focus, walking out of an A-level exam to negotiate his first record deal. He became Universal’s UK chief in 2001 and, during one particularly bad commercial spell, arrived at a management meeting, turned the lights off and said: “Get used to it. That’s what it looks like when you don’t have any hit records.”
Does he talk that way to his musicians?
Certainly not. Grainge has signed and worked with acts including the Rolling Stones and Stormzy, and is known for winning over artists by rhapsodising about their music. Elton John (a Universal artist worth $450m) once said he would “walk through fire” for Grainge. The rapper Drake (another Universal signee, worth $150m) even name-dropped him in a lyric: “billionaires talk to me different when they see my pay stub from Lucian Grainge”. Kanye West had less-kind things to say last year, when he demanded to negotiate with Vivendi’s billionaire owner Arnaud de Puyfontaine rather than “non-billionaire employees” like Grainge.
Charming. But could Grainge be heading for 10 figures himself?
Universal’s healthy listing might point in that direction. In recent years, the company has explored new revenue streams by signing licensing deals with firms such as TikTok and Peloton. It has also got involved in the booming market for music rights by buying Bob Dylan’s songwriting catalogue for a price estimated to be more than $300m. But the convenience of streaming is leading more and more artists to ditch record labels altogether. Many musicians, and more than a few politicians, are kicking off about the fractions of pennies artists make per stream. Windfalls for the execs will only put wind in their sails.
What about the man behind the mogul?
Grainge has been through a lot. In 1993, his first wife, Samantha Berg, went into a coma while giving birth to their son Elliot. She died 14 years later, having never recovered. Last March, two weeks after his 60th birthday party – whose attendees included Tim Cook, Philip Green and James Corden – Grainge became one of LA’s first Covid cases. The virus came close to killing him. But when he got off his ventilator and started regaining consciousness, a loop of five songs on an iPod beside his bed was played to him repeatedly. It was torture, Grainge later said: some of the songs had been released by rival label Sony. He had lost so much muscle he had to be carried into his house by security guards, and it took him five months to fully recover.
Hopefully his LA life is usually a bit sunnier
It is: he has a mansion in posh Pacific Palisades, bought in 2012 for $13m, and a $6.3m getaway in the Californian desert resort of La Quinta. Simon Cowell is known to pop round for bagels, lox and Arsenal matches. Grainge’s second wife, Caroline, with whom he has a daughter and stepdaughter, is also a Brit – the daughter of River Island founder Bernard Lewis, no less. She worked at the clothing chain for 25 years but now divides her time serving on the boards of various art galleries. Elliot is now 27 and dating model Sofia Richie, daughter of singer Lionel, who is one of Lucian’s pals (and a Universal artist, natch). Elliot founded his own label in 2016, 10K Projects. Its hiphop-heavy roster has already racked up 22 billion streams and eight platinum singles.
Looks like Lucian has got competition