In April 22, Warner Bros. Records’ storied Burbank headquarters — friendly, low-slung redwood buildings whose interiors are lined with gold and platinum plaques from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac and Madonna — were temporarily transformed into a temple to just one star: Prince, whose tragic and unexpected death from an opioid overdose the previous day had prompted a global outpouring of grief. As speakers blasted “Purple Rain,” teary fans laid offerings at an impromptu shrine next to the entrance. Inside, the visage of the Purple One stared down from wall after hallway wall. It was a reminder of how the heritage of Warner Bros. Records proves almost inescapable.
No one knows this better than Cameron Strang, the company’s current chairman and CEO. “This building, historically and today, is populated with music fans,” says Strang, 49, who recently had brought Prince back into the WBR stable after years of acrimony. “So yesterday afternoon we all just came together, cranked up his music, and [former WBR president] Lenny Waronker came in and told stories about working with Prince. It was a deeper and darker thing than any of us could’ve predicted.”
With a background in the niche Americana genre and boutique music publishing, Strang, who has held the role of CEO since 2012, makes for an unlikely major-label boss, let alone the steward of the once crown jewel of Warner Music Group (which also includes East Coast-based Atlantic Records, country label Warner Music Nashville, publishing company Warner/Chappell Music and catalog packager Rhino Entertainment). Laid-back and soft-spoken, he cuts a completely different profile to his hard-charging, alpha-dog peers.
“I just like the way Cameron talks about music,” says Jimmy Iovine, co-founder of Interscope Records and an executive at Apple Music, who first met Strang when they collaborated on an Apple campaign for the Grammy-nominated R&B singer Andra Day. “He cares about it, is completely engrossed in it and focuses on it more than the other things. I like it when I see an executive that has those qualities.”
More so than any contemporary record label that has seen better days, though, Warner Bros. remains haunted by its sunkissed heyday. Despite some recent gains, the label’s reputation has suffered under the stewardship of Strang and his immediate predecessors. “Our history is a double-edged sword,” he admits. “It’s our biggest strength and our biggest weakness. I sometimes say it casts a big shadow — which is great if you’re looking for shade.”
From its late-’60s golden age, propelled by visionary chairman Steve Ross and the groovy savoir-faire of legendary executives Mo Ostin and Waronker, through Time Warner’s 1989 takeover and Ostin’s bittersweet resignation in 1994, WBR was famed as simultaneously the most artist-friendly and commercially successful of the big labels. An endless fount of cool and revenue, WBR singularly created the romantic ideal of the record company as hothouse for hip young creatives. “Warner Brothers was a great home for artists, and one of the first labels with a real culture,” says Iovine.
Mo and Lenny, as they’re warmly known, turned WBR and sister label Reprise into a cutting-edge rock powerhouse, releasing classics by Hendrix, The Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Randy Newman and James Taylor that helped birth the 1960s counterculture and midwife the ’70s singer-songwriter boom. Later, in addition to transforming Prince and Madonna into mono-named megastars, WBR turned college-rock underdogs like R.E.M., Green Day, Depeche Mode and Red Hot Chili Peppers into arena-fillers while stoking long, lucrative relationships with Hall of Famers Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Van Halen and Tom Petty. (Under Strang, Petty had his first No. 1 entry on the Billboard 200 with 2014’s Hypnotic Eye.) The industry’s most talented executives would work for decades at WBR, rebuffing offer after offer from rival labels for the privilege of rubbing shoulders with the best artists and brightest decision-makers. “It became a kind of religion,” explains a former staffer. But years of turmoil have tested even the faithful. As one longtime label head says, “What does Warner Brothers really stand for today?”
By all accounts, Strang’s tenure at WBR was an uphill battle from the outset. As one executive puts it, Strang was handed “a total bag of shit” when he took over in 2012. A shell of its former industry-leading self, the label had been hobbled by dramatic changes in ownership, a revolving door of executives and internecine corporate politics — along with a once-robust, now dated, rock-oriented roster of acts that seems to be in search of a viable commercial-radio format. As WBR declined, the music business mutated in a series of disruptions. The ascent of smartphones and global jukeboxes like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal gave rise to an even more singles-dominated industry as streams supplanted downloads (which themselves had superceded albums and CDs); hip-hop mavericks like Drake and Future and viral pop avatars such as Miley Cyrus became the digital era’s rock stars. Therefore it’s no wonder today’s WBR — still with approximately 250 U.S. employees — proves last on a top manager’s list when shopping new acts and songs looking for top 40 domination. “The best songs in the world are going to go to Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beyoncé, Katy Perry,” says the manager. “They’re not going to [WBR pop hopeful] Bebe Rexha.”
“Listen, I’d been at Epic for something like three and a half years before finally having some success with Meghan Trainor, allowing me to get where I am now,” says Antonio “L.A.” Reid, Epic Records chairman/CEO and a hitmaker with decades of hits under his belt as well as recent smashes with Future and Fifth Harmony. “To rebuild a broken record company takes five to seven years,” explains Lyor Cohen, currently the head and co-founder of 300 Entertainment, and formerly chairman/CEO of Warner Music Group who installed the WBR administration before Strang. “WBR was especially broken [when Strang took over]. It was heavily reliant on legacy artists and was not breaking many new ones.”
“When I got here, no question, market share was very low — in the fours,” says Strang. “In 2015 it was up to 5.9 percent; by end of 2016 we’ll be in the sevens.” According to Nielsen Music, WBR ranked seventh among major labels in market share for 2015, at 5.8 percent. Through midyear 2016, Strang has increased that share to 8.1 percent, good for third place and even outpacing its sister label Atlantic, although the bump is due in part to the posthumous sales of David Bowie, whose catalog is controlled by WBR, and especially Prince, whose greatest-hits album rocketed to the top of the Billboard 200 following his death. (All totals include sales from Warner Music Nashville, run autonomously by its chairman/CEO, John Esposito.) “Perversely, Prince and Bowie dying is the best thing that could’ve happened to the current Warner Brothers regime,” says a source close to the situation.
Among the living, Lukas Graham, a Danish band led by its namesake frontman, Lukas Graham Forchhammer, broke through with “Seven Years,” a Spotify streaming sensation and No. 2 Billboard Hot 100 smash. Strang also had help making his numbers with a string of commercially successful singles from pop artist Jason Derulo, a Grammy sales uptick for Day and a No. 2 album from Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Despite the improved performance, Strang, who in 2015 earned $2.25 million in total compensation, according to public records, cautions against the pursuit of market share over profitability. “I’m a strong businessman and very good with numbers. You can distribute Taylor Swift records for a 3 to 5 percent margin,” he says, referring to industry leader Universal Music Group’s best-selling artist, “but what does that really say? I’m not so sure what Andra Day is contributing to our market share, but she’s going to contribute to our profitability.”
Strang’s critics fire back, citing a glaring lack of WBR hits in the nearly four years since he took the reins.
“That guy took a vintage Ferrari and turned it into a broken-down Saturn,” says one high-ranking industry insider. A major music manager notes, “It’s funny — I was just thinking, ‘You never hear about Warners anymore.’ ” One insider with dealings at WBR charges that Strang “has no relationships. He’s not in the mix. Where are the Gee Roberson-managed acts at Warner Brothers?” — citing the high-profile manager of Nicki Minaj — “Where’s your Katy Perry? Your Lady Gaga? Where are the artists who can sell out arenas and have fashion lines?”
“He’s miscast,” concludes a rival label head. “His contemporaries come out of big, successful operations and were front-line label people. This is a person who has never dealt with scale and who has hired bad people. Bottom line: He’s not talented enough to turn it around. And it was totally f–ed when he got there. How would he know what’s the right thing to do?”
“In our business,” Strang says calmly, in the face of such criticism, “people talk for different reasons — some, frankly, strategic.”
In person, it’s hard to reconcile Strang — a gentle giant at 6 feet 6 inches tall, dressed in an emo-business-casual black T-shirt and matching minimalist Tom Ford high-tops — with the fervor surrounding his tenure. Strang’s ascetic vibe is a sharp contrast from his predecessor, Todd Moscowitz, who, as WBR’s co-president and CEO from 2010 to 2013, hired street-art superstar Mr. Brainwash to redecorate his offices and create an installation for the lobby. (Moscowitz currently serves with Cohen as co-founder of 300 Entertainment.) Strang’s holistic, team-centric management style evokes Silicon Valley’s corporate experiments more than the take-no-prisoners micromanagement of most label heads. “I was struck by how Cameron treats people in the company,” says longtime WBR CFO Hildi Snodgrass. “He always ends the meeting by saying, ‘Be safe and take care of one another.’ That’s such a different sentiment than most chairmen would express.”
“Often what people learn in a corporate culture is about persona and ego,” says Strang. “They wonder, ‘How do I make it about me, so I’m the one chosen?’ But I’m not the type of guy to shout from the rooftops about myself. That doesn’t strengthen the company.”
Industry opinion is dramatically split on Strang’s current performance and future potential. Some consider him uniquely well suited — philosophically, temperamentally — to reimagine the role of the record label in the digital age and create a corporate culture in line with contemporary trends, all while honoring WBR’s fabled past.
“It has taken time and patience to revitalize WBR, but Cameron’s skill set has made him an important catalyst for change,” says Warner Music Group CEO Stephen Cooper, 69, the company’s No. 2 under Russian-born owner Len Blavatnik, 59, who acquired WMG for $3.3 billion in 2011. “He has filled the label with real music fans, and the entire company is now committed to real, long-term artist development.”
Forchhammer, meanwhile, says Strang’s willingness to take a chance on an unknown act from Denmark is characteristic of him. “A weak executive goes with the safe choice rather than the bold statement — that’s not Cameron,” says Forchhammer, whose foursome’s 2015 debut album was developed by the label during the past three years after A&R rep Kate Craig signed the band.
Indeed, Strang’s backers praise him as a forward, innovative thinker. As founder of alt-country label New West Records, he was the first to give away a song on Amazon (a track from singer-songwriter Ben Lee). As CEO of Warner/Chappell, he restructured the company, instituting a new administration system and broadening its reach. “We were early in networking in Sweden and Nashville,” says Strang. “We took what traditionally had been administration and collection outposts and also made them A&R sources.”
Since he has taken over WBR, Strang has instituted a bespoke approach to social media and streaming. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all,” he says. “Lukas Graham built at Spotify; the growth for [Drake-aligned act] PartyNextDoor is at SoundCloud.” In 2014, Strang partnered with Stanford University to create the Stanford/Warner Music Group Leadership Initiative. “The idea was to go to the tech community,” says Strang, “and start a dialogue about innovation and music, as well as provide a one-stop shop for what they need around rights and licensing.”
Strang’s doubters, meanwhile, are not so kind; they see him as operating out of his depth, substituting ”visionary” with “lightweight” or “unfocused.” In fact, rumors have abounded that his position was in jeopardy: Multiple sources tell Billboard that the company sought to recruit a replacement and had, as recently as six months ago, approached potential candidates.
WMG upper management denies this, as does Strang. “I feel good about where I am with Len and Stephen, and where I am with the company,” says Strang, the only WMG label head to sit on the company’s board of directors.
In an email statement to Billboard, Blavatnik affirms his support for Strang: “Cameron and his team have reignited the entrepreneurial spirit at WBR. Artists and executives gravitate to him because he brings an open-minded approach to creativity and a proven track record of founding and reinventing music companies.”
One reason Strang might perplex his peers is that he has little in common with them. The youngest of five, the native of British Columbia was raised in an old Tudor mansion in the then-remote outskirts of West Vancouver. Strang’s childhood home became a locus of ’70s social consciousness. He says his parents — his father a physician who performed in local operas, his mother a homemaker — rented the apartment above the garage to early founders of the Greenpeace environmentalist movement. Music and sports, though, were his twin passions. Strang is an obsessive hockey fan who scrimmaged alongside future NHL players such as Joe Sakic; meanwhile, he had caught the rock’n’roll bug, taking in screenings of Woodstock and attending DIY punk gigs thrown in his high school gym.
Strang entered the industry after he ditched a career as a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver and moved stateside to start New West in 1997. “I realized fairly quickly that I didn’t have a passion for the law,” he says. “I was out every night seeing a Blasters show or a Ron Wood concert. Working in music was in total spiritual alignment with my being.”
Serving as New West’s sole employee for years, Strang focused on the burgeoning Americana movement, reviving the careers of heritage roots artists including Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam while fostering like-minded younger acts such as Drive-By Truckers — and earning Grammys along the way. “Cam was the first guy in the alt-country game,” says Howie Gabriel, an early Strang hire at WBR who exited after a year, and who currently runs the global indie Cooking Vinyl. “New West created that genre.”
Strang followed up New West’s success by founding the boutique Southside Publishing. “I started an independent publishing company when nobody had one,” he says. Southside caught the industry’s attention thanks to prescient signings like Bruno Mars and Kings of Leon. WMG then-chieftain Cohen took particular notice. At the time, the music conglomerate was owned by investor-financier Edgar Bronfman Jr., who hoped to stem the revolving door of executives at the top of WMG’s Warner/Chappell publishing arm. “Edgar gave me a list of candidates, and I said, ‘My God, this just regurgitates the usual suspects,’ ” recalls Cohen. “So Edgar said, ‘Well, do you have someone that’s off the beaten path, who has a different résumé?’ I said, ‘Yeah, this guy Cameron.'”
Bronfman set up a meeting with Strang, which ended up taking place in the backyard of Strang’s Santa Monica home, where he lives with his wife of eight years, Tory, and their three young children. “I didn’t want the same old, same old,” confirms Bronfman. “Publishing was a bit of a stepchild at WMG, despite being the most profitable part of the company. Executives in New York didn’t take it seriously; they just saw it as another business. I wanted someone who understood both records and publishing.”
Strang’s arrival as chairman/CEO of Warner/Chappell, however, coincided with a fierce battle for power in WMG’s highest echelons. Tom Whalley had worked his way up from the WBR mailroom in 1979 to A&R, where he helped develop the career of Madonna. Whalley would enjoy a spectacular run at Interscope in the ’90s as Iovine’s No. 2, signing everyone from 2Pac to Limp Bizkit and Nine Inch Nails.
It was in the early 2000s, though, that Whalley fulfilled what he has called his “dream come true”: becoming chairman of WBR. By 2010, Whalley had been at the helm for nearly a decade and had turned Warner Bros. Records into WMG’s strongest recorded-music division. During Whalley’s tenure, the label broke new acts like My Chemical Romance, developed adult contemporary superstars Michael Bublé and Josh Groban, and pushed Green Day to its career peak with American Idiot. But behind the scenes, Whalley and Cohen battled for boardroom supremacy in one of the music business’ most toxic rivalries. They were like “oil and water,” recalls Bronfman.
As Warner’s revenue sharply declined in the post-Napster download era (by $15 million in one year, according to a former top executive), and hip-hop and pop (never Warner’s strong suit) rose on the charts, Whalley was left vulnerable. Bronfman put his faith in Cohen, who was riding a surge of power after his successful turnaround of Atlantic Records, and ousted Whalley, enabling Cohen to install an awkwardly constructed executive committee: Cohen loyalists Livia Tortella and Moscowitz, both from Atlantic, were named co-presidents, and longtime WBR staff producer Rob Cavallo was promoted to chairman.
Chaos ensued. WBR employees loyal to Whalley and his idealized vision of the company’s heritage outright rebelled against the new administration. Despite notable signings like The Black Keys (to subsidiary Nonesuch) and pop success with Derulo, the three-headed Tortella-Moscowitz-Cavallo regime proved disastrous. Tortella and Moscowitz barely lasted three years, while Cavallo hung on until 2014. “I have to take the full blame and responsibility,” says Bronfman. “At the time, even though he was successful, I had come to feel Tom’s A&R vision wasn’t inclusive enough, and I backed Lyor. We then tried to replicate Atlantic at WBR, which didn’t make sense considering the powerful heritage there. We didn’t need two Atlantics.”
When the wealthy Blavatnik, who had made his fortune primarily in petrochemicals as the chairman of Access Industries, bought the company from Bronfman in 2011, the once all-powerful Cohen quickly was ousted. Blavatnik and his newly installed CEO, corporate turnaround guru Cooper, liked what they saw in Strang’s steady hand at Warner/Chappell. “Len and Stephen were absolutely crazy about Cameron,” says a person who was present at the time. “He was the exact opposite of Lyor in every way, and they had complete confidence in him.” So much so, in fact, the new ownership gave Strang control of not just Warner/Chappell, but also of catalog/merch powerhouse Rhino and then finally of Warner Bros. Records, making the relatively inexperienced Strang the first executive in music industry history to run that many companies simultaneously.
Strang’s early moves seemed to bode well for WMG’s future. In September 2012, he installed publishing titan Jon Platt as president of creative for North America at Warner/Chappell, proving an instant triumph. Platt enticed Beyoncé and Jay Z to Warner/Chappell from his previous employer, EMI Music Publishing, and added superstar producer-songwriter Mike Will Made It to a roster that already included Dr. Dre, Katy Perry and Kendrick Lamar.
This unorthodox setup proved short-lived, though. In 2015, Platt was promoted to CEO of Warner/Chappell, while London-based Tim Fraser-Harding was brought in to head Rhino. Strang was left to focus solely on righting WBR. “This isn’t some short-term plan,” says Strang. “This is ‘I’m here, let’s make this company great.’ That message got sent to the artists, the employees and senior management. Morale and results definitely increased.”
Strang’s first years in charge of WBR were marred by high executive turnover. “There were growing pains,” admits Snodgrass. A recently departed senior employee, when asked to rate company morale on a scale of 1 to 10, says flatly: “Zero.” “There were different executives coming in and out all the time,” says Day, who signed with WBR in December 2012, at the dawn of Strang’s administration. “I’m fortunate that I survived.” Day notes, however, that WBR “finally got it right with Cameron and his current team.” (Strang’s handpicked No. 2, president Dan McCarroll, recently re-upped his contract.)
“The question now is, What is Warner Brothers going to do?” says Strang. Most pressingly, the label still lacks a strong pop presence; on the July 30 Billboard Hot 100 there was just one WBR entry: Lukas Graham’s “7 Years,” at No. 22. “We were definitely lacking in that area, and we’re constantly addressing it,” says Strang, who helped enlist pop maestro Max Martin to work on Bublé’s upcoming fall release and a debut from aspiring hip-hop artist Daye Jack. Lukas Graham, meanwhile, is considered a contender for Grammy song and record of the year, and Warner has promising partnerships with rock management firm Crush and Drake’s OVO imprint. With new music from Green Day on the horizon, the company could be looking at its most successful year this decade.
“Obviously there was turmoil,” says Strang. “It took a while to rebuild and develop a roster, but we’ve seen those artists start to become successful. I call on Mo for advice, but I’m not here to fill Mo’s shoes. I don’t compare myself to what he did. This isn’t about one person. It’s about doing things the Warner way.”
This article was originally published in the latest issue of Billboard.