Record label owners have immense power in the music industry. But would you recognise these powerful people if you passed them in the street?
The owners of the ‘big three’ – Universal Music Group, Sony Music Group, and Warner Music Group – are especially powerful. They own, and in some cases operate, fully-fledged music empires.
Yet despite the influence that they wield, most people do not know the names of the record executives and owners who run the industry.
In this article, we’ll look into the story behind some of those major players. We’ll also look at some slightly smaller label owners, whose names may be a little more familiar.
Let’s find out more about the major record label owners you really should know.
Vice Chairman of the Board, Warner Music
Len Blavatnik is an example of a record label owner who came from outside the music industry. Upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, he bought former state aluminium smelters through his holding company, Access Industries, after emigrating in 1978.
In May 2011, he bought Warner Music Group for $3.3 billion when the company was struggling with debt and sought an answer to the online music piracy crisis. By May 2020, Warner announced that the record label was valued at just over $13.3 billion.
The label continues to expand and is now home to a range of global artists including Coldplay, Dua Lipa, Ed Sheeran and Cardi B.
Chairman, Sony Music Group / CEO, Sony Music Entertainment
Rob Stringer first entered the music industry as a promoter, when he booked acts like Simply Red as a student entertainment manager at Goldsmith’s College. He went on to join CBS Records as a graduate trainee in 1985.
Progressing through the ranks, he has worked with a multitude of massive artists along the way, including Oasis, George Michael, and The Clash. Today he is the Chairman of Sony Music Group and CEO of Sony Music Entertainment.
Under Stringer’s leadership, Sony have been successful on all fronts. In Sync licensing, the label retained its no. 1 position last year with Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” playing a key role.
Stringer’s success continued as Harry Styles’ “As It Was” became the most globally streamed song of 2022.
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, Tencent
In Ma Huateng’s first job, he supplied telecommunications products for China Motion Telecom Development, reportedly earning less than $200 a month. He went on to become one of the most significant record label owners in the world.
Co-founding Tencent in 1998 with four classmates, the multimedia company is now one of the highest grossing companies worldwide, and Huateng’s personal shares give him a current net worth of $37.2 billion.
Tencent Music Entertainment (TME) was founded in July 2016 after Tencent’s purchase of China Music Corporation to add another industry to the conglomerate. TME have joint label deals with all the ‘big three’ record companies, and an 8.6% share in Spotify.
TME are looking to collaborate with and use the influence of the western music business, and Ma Huateng is certainly a music industry titan to look out for.
Chairman and CEO, Universal Music Group
The Chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG), Sir Lucian Grange, has led the record company to huge revenues. But even he must answer to an individual with influence across multiple industries – that individual is Vincent Bolloré.
As a well-known corporate raider in France, Bolloré used his principal stake in the multimedia company Vivendi to acquire large shares in UMG in 2000. The major label works with many international artists including the likes of Drake, Taylor Swift, and The Killers.
As of September 2021, Vivendi reduced its ownership of UMG to 10%, but Bolloré Entities still acquired 18% of the total shares, whilst a Tencent-led consortium now own the largest share of 20%.
Founder and Chairman, Roc Nation
With no major label willing to give Jay-Z a record deal, he was forced into founding his own independent label, Roc-A-Fella Records, early in his career.
Everyone knows Jay-Z’s talent as a rapper and producer, but his entrepreneurial pursuits and ability to recognise the potential in others has been equally as impressive.
Long before the release of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, Jay Z stated he would “put his money” on Kanye, inviting him to feature on ‘The Bounce’ from The Blueprint 2.
His influence was also crucial in launching the career of Rihanna, whilst in 2009, J. Cole became the first signing he made to his second and current label, Roc Nation.
Founder, Asylum Records / Founder, Geffen Records
Dropping out of the University of Texas, David Geffen moved to LA to find his way in the entertainment business. Starting as a mailroom assistant at the William Morris Agency, he secured a job as a talent agent after forging a letter to show that he had graduated.
In 1971, he founded Asylum Records, with the name representing the label’s reputation for signing artists that struggled to gain contracts elsewhere.
Asylum became associated with the Southern California folk-rock sound of the 70s, with artists such as Eagles, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.
Founding Geffen Records in 1980, this label went on to release recordings from Cher, Elton John, Aerosmith, Peter Gabriel, and Guns N’ Roses to name a few.
Co-Founder, Co-Chairman, and CEO, Interscope Records (until 2014)
Born into an Italian working-class family in Brooklyn, New York, Iovine, much like Geffen, had to really work his way up. Dropping out of college to become a cleaner in a recording studio, he soon took up audio engineering.
Iovine arrived at the right time, and helped to produce John Lennon’s fifth studio album Walls and Bridges. He went on to help in the production of over 250 albums.
In 1990, he co-founded Interscope Records, with the goal of signing ground-breaking artists as major labels continued to release the same music styles.
In 1991, 2Pac signed as one of the first artists on the label, with the addition of Eminem and 50 Cent coming later.
Iovine’s gamble shows the reward in challenging the status-quo when the industry seems stagnant.
Joint Owners, Apple Corps
Apple Records was founded by The Beatles in 1968 as a part of their multimedia parent company Apple Corps. The label was initially a means to contain the creativity of all four members in one place following the death of their respected manager, Brian Epstein.
However, the band later wished to put their accumulated wealth back into music, signing numerous acts that they had discovered. These included James Taylor, Mary Hopkin, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and Badfinger.
There would later be legal disputes between Apple Corps and that company over trademark rights. Relations between Apple Corps and Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.) eventually improved, and in 2007, Apple Inc. bought the trademark rights for an agreed settlement fee.
Today, the record company is owned by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, and Olivia Harrison.
CEO, Defected Records (until 2022)
Inspired by the New York City label Strictly Rhythm that propelled house music during the 1990s, Dunmore founded Defected Records after promoting West London events and working various A&R jobs.
Defected hold regular events at Ministry of Sound and Printworks in London, alongside many residencies that they have also held in Ibiza.
Early successes included Soulsearcher’s “I Can’t Get Enough”, followed by Roger Sanchez’s “Another Chance” (hitting no. 1 in the UK Singles Chart in 2001) and other big hits like Paul Johnson’s “Get Get Down.”
More recent catalogue features include the likes of Peggy Gou, Purple Disco Machine and Franky Rizardo.
Growing up alongside close affiliates of the Westside Piru Bloods street gang, Kendrick Lamar had already witnessed two murders by the age of 8. So, when he saw 2Pac and Dr. Dre film the music video for “California Love” in his Compton neighbourhood at the same age, he was inspired to start freestyling.
Rap gave Kendrick an outlet to articulate the experiences of his youth, and the rest is history. Fast forward twenty-five years and Lamar now finds himself with his own entertainment agency, pgLang.
Founded together with record executive Dave Free in 2020, the company is comprised of multiple production and publishing services. The agency’s mission is to “use different languages (referring to music, film, TV, art, books and podcasts) to speak to many nations, races and ages.”
To date, the label boasts a small but powerful roster of Kendrick Lamar, Baby Keem, and Tanna Leone.
Chairman & CEO, Epic Records
As this list makes evident, there are few women at the highest ranks of the music industry. However, Sylvia Rhone is amongst the women who have broken the mould, rising to become Chairman and CEO of Sony’s Epic Records.
Having helped to guide the careers of Metallica, ACDC and Busta Rhymes, Rhone was appointed to the position in 2019.
This made her the first female CEO of a major record label owned by a Forbes 500 company, and the first black woman to attain such a title.
You might also like: