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Ray Cooper, Former Virgin Records America Co-Head, Dies at 69

Ray Cooper, a U.K. music marketing exec who co-helmed the first Virgin Records UK and led campaigns for the Spice Girls, U2, George Michael and many more, has died. He was 69.

Ray Cooper, a U.K. music marketing exec who co-helmed the first Virgin Records UK and led campaigns for the Spice Girls, U2, George Michael and many more, has died. He was 69. 

Cooper’s 46-year career began in 1972 as a local salesman at Transatlantic Records, selling records by Bert Jansch, Sonny Rollins, Brian Eno-produced Portsmouth Sinfonia and others, ranging in genre from folk to blues to esoteric and more. There, he rose through the ranks to become sales manager and went on to work at a number of major labels on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including Anchor Records, Jet Records, Island Records, Circa Records, Virgin Records UK and Virgin Records America. 

Over the years, he helped conceive and execute sales and marketing strategy for some of the past half-century’s most successful acts, including the Rolling Stones, Janet Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Electric Light Orchestra, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Bob Marley, Grace Jones, Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry, Lenny Kravitz, The Chemical Brothers and over a hundred others. 

“I am saddened to hear of the passing of Ray Cooper,” said Victoria Beckham of the Spice Girls in a statement. “Ray’s guidance, support, creative and marketing ideas from the very beginning were invaluable to the success of The Spice Girls. It was obvious to all who spent time with Ray that he was not only a favorite to his team, but also a favorite to artists and their managers. Ray had passion for life and his work and it showed in his many successes. I will be forever grateful to Ray Cooper.”

Following his stint at Transatlantic, Cooper went on to roles at Ian Ralfini‘s Anchor Records and then Don Arden‘s Jet Records, where he helped lead Electric Light Orchestra’s Out of the Blue to massive commercial success. In 1980, he was hired by Chris Blackwell as sales director at Island Records. There, he rose to marketing director of Island Records UK, Bob Marley, U2, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and others, while forming a lasting connection with then-A&R Director Ashley Newton (now president of Capitol Music Group). 

“When U2 were signed to Island Records in 1980 every label but Island had passed,” remembered U2’s manager from 1978-2013, Paul McGuinness, in a statement. “It was hard to get attention for U2 at first but we had some staunch supporters at Island — including Ray Cooper in sales and then marketing. The first two U2 albums, Boy and October, didn’t have much success but War went to No. 1 in 1983 which became the norm for U2 from then on. Ray was a delight to work with, ingenious and energetic. His subsequent career with his buddy Ashley Newton at their own label Circa and then Virgin was always interesting to observe. Sorry to lose such a smart music man.” 

In 1987, Cooper and Newton left Island to create their own U.K. imprint, Circa Records. As their label successfully broke such acts as Massive Attack and Neneh Cherry, they developed a relationship with Virgin Records founder Richard Branson and eventually sold their label to Virgin Music Group and were installed as Virgin Records UK’s co-managing directors. The duo’s success continued under their new roles with Spice Girls, The Verve and Daft Punk and in 1998, Cooper and Newton were transferred to Los Angeles under the new title of co-presidents of Virgin Records America. There, they worked with Lenny Kravitz, Janet Jackson, Smashing Pumpkins, N.E.R.D., the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, among others. 

“I had the wild good fortune to be both a close friend and business ally with this vibrant, fearless, talented and kind man,” said Newton in a statement. “Together, across several decades and labels, Ray & I were blessed to be consistently in the orbit of immensely important music — but like everyone around him, I was forever surrendering to his ridiculously sharp and eccentric sense of humor. We literally laughed through the ages and I will miss him more than words can express.”

In a statement, Branson called Cooper “an extraordinary delightful individual and an incredible talent.” He continued, “Virgin Records would never have grown into the music force it became without him.”

Added former president Virgin Records UK, Paul Conroy: “Ray and I had been friends for many years before we had the opportunity to work together at Virgin. He was a larger-than-life character who lit up a room. He had a passion for music and the artistes he worked with. The years we worked together were very special and I miss him already–.”

Later on, Cooper remained living and working in Los Angeles after leaving Virgin in 2002 and managed a wide swath of clients as a consultant. He led the marketing campaign for the Oscar-winning film Crash, was the worldwide music consultant for the virtual reality company Magic Leap, worked with environmental organization Future Forests and formed a company called D(icon)struct that linked artist with Milan designers to develop fashion lines. 

“Having worked in the industry for nearly three decades, I wanted to continue to learn and evolve,” he told Billboard in 2004. “So the idea of representing talent and creative ideas across environment, music, fashion, new technology, art, film and TV seemed to have a strong thread to it. All of these areas tend to co-exist together in media and marketing and ultimately, hopefully, to the consumer.”

Over the past several years, Cooper was battling the very rare neurological condition Progressive Primary Aphasia (PPA) that increasingly impairs language capabilities for communication and eventually causes other problems, such as memory loss. He died in his sleep on Saturday, July 28. 

In a 2005, Cooper wrote his first employer, Transatlantic’s Nat Joseph, a note thanking him after he had risen to become co-president of Virgin Records America that was both a self-effacing and heartfelt reflection on the beginning of his career and his life at the time. 

“I have lived a very privileged and amazingly diverse life,” he wrote. “But without your push, drive and encouragement, I could never ever have imagined myself as a successful career-minded individual. I was a pot-smoking, wild-eyed, lazy, dole-addicted, relatively useless member of some hippie society, until you decided to send me out in a mini-van to sell your madcap music ideas to the world of unsuspecting UK record retailers! I got here all because of your rallying call ‘get out there and sell more! You’re a born salesman!'”

Martin Lewis, co-creator and producer of the Secret Policeman’s Ball series, remembered his longtime friend and professional colleague in a statement: “Ray and I first met in 1973 when we worked together at Transatlantic Records. We were babes in the music industry woods. He knew nothing about the business. And I knew even less! We immediately bonded as blood brothers and stayed close over the next 45 years. Over the decades, I watched with pride as my friend grew in skill, smarts, insight, creativity and perseverance until he towered over the industry like a benevolent marketing Colossus. And although he reached the very peak of the music world he still retained his cheeky, cheerful, caring, loving, punning, laughing soul. He was — and will always be — a Ray of eternal sunshine in our lives…”

Cooper will be laid to rest in the English countryside during an intimate family service. His family plans to honor what would have been his 70th birthday in December with celebrations of his life in London and Los Angeles. Details will be announced at a later date. 

Survivors include his soulmate Philippa, sister Pam, daughter Becky, grandsons James and Jack, step-daughter Liana and son Christopher-Robin.

A tribute website is in preparation.