In a year like non other, Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge‘s annual end-of-year memo to staff had a lot of ground to cover and struck a different chord from usual.
“2020! For many of us, those four simple digits say all that needs to be said about the incredibly difficult year now finally coming to a close,” he opened the message sent to staff Thursday night (Dec. 17) and obtained by Billboard. “‘2020’ has come to represent pain and loss on a scale none of us ever could have imagined. We can never forget the suffering that this year inflicted on so many. Likewise, we must never forget that even in the face of historic challenges, so many of you achieved great things—personally and professionally.”
Taking his time to get to the usual accolades (of which there were plenty for the world’s leading music company), instead he focused on the power of music in trying times, noting, “I want this year-end note to remind each of you of the instrumental part you played in bringing to the world something powerful, inspiring, uplifting, and yes, universal: music. A force for good unlike any other in the world.”
Grainge then highlighted other kinds of achievements that his company can tout, taking action during the year’s multitude of crises: “organizing, volunteering, educating, donating,” as he listed off, detailing how Universal responded to the pandemic, the nation’s racial reckoning and the election. Universal donated to a swath of organizations and delivered more than half a million masks to healthcare and frontline workers in partnership with Tencent, the Chinese conglomerate that owns 10% of Universal, he said. Responding to “the harsh realities of inequality and racism,” he noted, the company created its Task Force for Meaningful Change and established a number of initiatives to take action both in and out of the industry.
And Grainge teased more to come: “Next year, for example, we are launching an initiative to help our artists—both past and present—find critical heath care resources at a time when they’re needed most,” he said. “In addition, we will: expand our support for independent venues; broaden our education initiatives; and launch an employee-led action committee to fight homelessness in the communities where we live and work.”
From there, it was onto the label’s dominance over the past year, driven by stars like Taylor Swift, Drake, J Balvin, Post Malone and The Weeknd. And looking ahead to next year, said, “in terms of creativity, innovation and commercial success, I want us to build upon our stature as the most successful music-based entertainment company ever.”
“There’s no question that 2020 was a year of struggle and tragedies, but it was also a year of courage and heroes,” Grainge said, closing the memo. “It will be a year we remember with sadness for what we lost but it will also be a year we remember with pride for how we weathered the challenges we were forced to confront. My own personal battle with COVID underscored for me just how truly blessed I am to be working in the industry I love, and to be surrounded and supported by all of you—the best damn team this business has ever known!”
Read Grainge’s year-end letter in full below.
For many of us, those four simple digits say all that needs to be said about the incredibly difficult year now finally coming to a close. “2020” has come to represent pain and loss on a scale none of us ever could have imagined. We can never forget the suffering that this year inflicted on so many. Likewise, we must never forget that even in the face of historic challenges, so many of you achieved great things—personally and professionally.
A little later, I’ll describe the spectacular and record-breaking success we had in 2020. It’s a success I’m extremely proud to share with you. But first, I want this year-end note to remind each of you of the instrumental part you played in bringing to the world something powerful, inspiring, uplifting, and yes, universal: music. A force for good unlike any other in the world.
Putting music’s power to work for good may have been more important this year than it’s ever been. With your help, our artists and songwriters not only raised the spirits of millions everywhere, but also brought awareness to worthwhile causes that will help to repair a world so badly in need of repair. And more often than not, that awareness will trigger action, funding, and, ultimately, results.
In a wide variety of ways—organizing, volunteering, educating, donating—we responded to the challenges of 2020, both as a company and as individuals, by standing up and showing up. Whatever we did, we did it in a big way, taking action around the globe on critical issues such as health care, social justice and inclusion.
To address some of the pandemic’s devastating consequences, we donated millions to support artist organizations, launched our own foundation to aid artists and employees, funded programs in the U.S., the UK and elsewhere to tackle problems of mental health, homelessness and food insecurity, and with Bravado and our partners at Tencent, helped deliver more than half a million masks to hospitals and frontline workers.
When the harsh realities of inequality and racism exploded across the globe, our artists were galvanized and, together with them, we responded quickly. We created the Task Force for Meaningful Change. Its goal is simple: be a driving force for social justice in the music industry and beyond. To achieve that goal, we created a number of initiatives—to provide housing assistance; to promote wellness; to improve education by addressing the digital divide; to establish mentorship programs; and more. We expanded our industry-leading work with the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to address diversity and inclusion issues facing the music business. And we raised our individual and collective voices to ensure that we were heard—through our support for voter registration, the census and other initiatives.
All this is just the beginning.
Next year, for example, we are launching an initiative to help our artists—both past and present—find critical heath care resources at a time when they’re needed most. In addition, we will: expand our support for independent venues; broaden our education initiatives; and launch an employee-led action committee to fight homelessness in the communities where we live and work.
Our purpose—our continuing commitment—is to harness our collective talents and resources to shape culture through the power of music and the artistry and creativity that give it birth. When, in collaboration with our artists, we come together as a company, as a community, what we can achieve is truly remarkable. And it’s never been more urgent or more necessary to do so than right now.
Given all the challenges that 2020 has dealt us, and given all the time and effort so many of you have personally expended to help those in need, it is truly amazing that somehow you still found the bandwidth to remain laser-focused on achieving unprecedented success for our artists.
Look at what we accomplished in one of the most difficult years any of us has ever experienced. To share just a few of the highlights with you, in 2020, we had:
- Four of the Top 5 artists of the year on Spotify globally (Drake, J Balvin, Juice WRLD and The Weeknd), as well as the No. 1 song of the year (The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”) and two of the Top 3 albums (The Weeknd’s After Hours and Post Malone’s Hollywood’s Bleeding);
- Artist and Songwriter of the Year on Apple Music (Lil Baby and Taylor Swift);
- For the third consecutive year, J Balvin was the most-streamed artist on Deezer and Karol G was the most-streamed female Latin artist across all major platforms;
- Based on Nielsen data, eight of the Top 10 artists in the U.S. YTD including No. 1—with Drake, Taylor Swift, Juice WRLD, The Weeknd, Post Malone, Pop Smoke, Lil Baby and Eminem, and all of the Top 5 albums—Lil Baby’s My Turn, Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon, Taylor Swift’s folklore, The Weeknd’s After Hours and Juice WRLD’s Legends Never Die;
- All of the Top 3 biggest debut weeks in the U.S. (Taylor Swift, Juice WRLD, The Weeknd) and the No. 1 album 34 weeks so far this year;
- The all-time industry high for U.S. catalog share for the fourth consecutive year;
- Four of the Top 5 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart by UMPG writers, including No. 1 (The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” Post Malone’s “Circles,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” and DaBaby feat. Roddy Ricch’s “Rockstar”);
- 13 of the Top 20 artist albums in the UK YTD, including No. 1 (Lewis Capaldi’s Divinely Uninspired to a Hellish Extent) and four of the Top 5 most-streamed artists (Drake, Eminem, Billie Eilish and Lewis Capaldi);
- The No. 1 and No. 2 most-streamed artists of all time in Germany (Capital Bra and Bonez MC) and five of the Top 10 albums YTD (Sarah Connor’s Herz Kraft Werke, Die Ärzte’s Hell, Metallica’s S&M 2, Kerstin Ott’s Ich muss Dir was sagen, Bonez MC’s Hollywood);
- The No. 1 and No. 2 albums of the year so far in France (Versus by Vitaa/Slimane and Les Derniers Salopards by Maes);
- In Canada, the No. 1 album 38 weeks so far this year, with Pop Smoke’s Shoot For The Stars Aim For The Moon holding the top spot for 10 non-consecutive weeks, as well as nine of the Top 10 albums and artists, including all of the Top 5 artists: Eminem, Drake, The Beatles, Queen and Post Malone;
- All of the Top 5 most-streamed artists on Spotify in Australia: Juice WRLD, Drake, Taylor Swift, Eminem and The Weeknd, as well as the most-streamed Australian artist of 2020, Hilltop Hoods;
- The No. 1 streaming market share in Japan;
- Three of the Top 5 albums in China on QQ Music including Chen Linong’s 格格不入 (Unbelonging), Taylor Swift’s folklore, and Sunnee’s 天气：晴 (How’s The Weather?), as well as the biggest breakthrough male and female solo artists of the year with Chen Linong and Sunnee respectively, which is a first for the China company;
- Relaunched or expanded a number of iconic brands in both established and high-growth markets, including EMI, Motown UK, 0207 Def Jam, Def Jam Africa, Def Jam Vietnam, Island Records Philippines and Astralwerks Asia, and further strengthened our worldwide footprint through new operations or key partnerships in Israel, Morocco, Vietnam, Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Italy, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Korea, to name just a few; and
- Re-engaged fans and introduced our music to new audiences through award-winning film and television productions including Polygram Entertainment’s The Apollo, The Bee Gees, Beastie Boys Story, The Go-Go’s and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, along with Mercury Studio’s That Little Ol’ Band From Texas.
Again, all this is just a sampling. In country after country, and region after region, the achievements are simply astonishing. And I’m awed when I realize that even as the world seemed to have lost its bearings in 2020, you managed to achieve all this…while working from home!
With dedication like that, it’s no wonder that once more this year so many artists made UMG their partner, from Stormzy to Daddy Yankee for recorded music, from Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar to Bob Dylan for music publishing, among many, many others. We are, undeniably, the destination of choice for the world’s greatest artists at every stage of their careers.
Metrics are a clear and measurable sign of our success, but metrics don’t explain our success. Our expertise, our global resources, our experience, our thousands of passionate employees are, of course, a part of the answer. But I believe the ultimate key to our success is our unique culture—a complex mix of independent entrepreneurism and strength through unity. We are simultaneously many and one.
In an industry that loves to hype new companies they label as “disruptors,” our culture of constant internal disruption makes us the most powerful driving force for innovation this industry has ever seen. And next year, will be no exception. We want our presence and reach to continue to grow.
As 2021 unfolds, we’ll be:
- Bringing into our family some of the industry’s best new and established artists and songwriters while broadening our relationships with our currently signed talent;
- Launching more new creative labels in high-growth markets;
- Providing independent artists and entrepreneurs with the most powerful, global resources available;
- Broadening our digital partner portfolio to include new innovators in social, fitness, gaming and other sectors;
- Offering fans truly immersive musical experiences;
- Meaningfully expanding our ecommerce and direct-to-consumer businesses; and
- Building on our success in film, TV and other audiovisual content.
In short, in terms of creativity, innovation and commercial success, I want us to build upon our stature as the most successful music-based entertainment company ever.
There’s no question that 2020 was a year of struggle and tragedies, but it was also a year of courage and heroes. It will be a year we remember with sadness for what we lost but it will also be a year we remember with pride for how we weathered the challenges we were forced to confront. My own personal battle with COVID underscored for me just how truly blessed I am to be working in the industry I love, and to be surrounded and supported by all of you—the best damn team this business has ever known!
Thank you for everything you accomplished this year. It was an extraordinary performance under any conditions, let alone in the most trying circumstances. Thank you again.
Have a wonderful holiday with your friends and family. Stay safe. Stay well.