With the announcement last week that Stephen Cooper would be stepping down from his role as CEO of the Warner Music Group by the end of 2023, industry speculation has ramped up around who might replace him.
Cooper took over WMG in the summer of 2011 at a time when the company and the music business at large were in very different places than they are now: industry revenues had been tanking for a decade with no end in sight; Spotify had launched in the United States just a month prior, with streaming still a speculative format; Warner was a newly private company under the umbrella of its then-new owner, Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries; and the music group, as with much of the recorded-music sector at the time, was struggling. Cooper at the time was chairman of the company’s board and had a background in turning struggling businesses around, with stints at MGM, Hawaiian Telecom and LyondellBasell Industries N.V., as well as in private equity and financial advisory — but, crucially, no record label experience, making him somewhat of a left-field choice to lead the major label.
But Cooper, now 75, was successful nonetheless, leading a series of smart tech investments and helping return the company to profitability, ultimately allowing it to go public in 2020 — and becoming WMG’s longest-serving CEO in the process. Several sources who spoke to Billboard on condition of anonymity said that Cooper’s unpredictable selection to lead the company 11 years ago leaves the door open to the possibility of another less-obvious candidate being chosen this time around, too.
In his memo to staff announcing the news last week, Cooper said he had “informed Len and our Board of Directors that we should begin the search for my successor,” noting that they would “be looking at candidates both internally and externally.” And while one former executive acknowledges that, given WMG is a public company now, Blavatnik won’t have the only say in the process, as the company’s largest shareholder he likely will have the strongest voice in the room in making that decision. And that means Cooper, given his transformative achievements for Blavatnik, will have major sway.
That, however, doesn’t necessarily rule out an executive with a more creative, music-business background taking the top job, and several sources tell Billboard that CEO of recorded music Max Lousada would be an obvious leading candidate internally. “Max has had to dig himself out of a few holes, but he is now doing pretty well; he is smart and clever organizationally, and has already felt the pressure of working for a publicly-traded company,” one music industry executive familiar with the company says, adding that “the WMG staff is probably rooting for Max to get it.”
One former insider speculates that if Lousada were the first choice to get the job — or, for that matter, any other internal candidate that was being considered — the company would have announced it already and given that candidate a chance to watch and learn sitting at Cooper’s side during the rest of his tenure with the company. But another music executive dismisses that idea, saying the company would be smart to go through a thorough vetting process, and would probably lean towards bringing in an outside candidate, or a member of the WMG board, rather than dipping into its music executive ranks with someone like WMG chief digital officer/executive vp of business development Oana Ruxandra, despite her being highly regarded and well respected internally. (Atlantic Records co-chairman Julie Greenwald, one of the most respected and successful leaders in the business today, has, according to multiple people’s speculation, been offered bigger jobs and turned them down in the past.)
Members of the Warner Music Group’s board of directors could also fill the role, these executives say, including chairman Michael Lynton, who was previously CEO of Sony Entertainment and is currently chairman of Snap Inc., though one person shot that down as unlikely. Another candidate could be Ceci Kurzman, who worked at Sony for several years and founded talent management firm Nexus Management, and is widely regarded as being extraordinarily talented and qualified for the position — she also has an investment background — and someone who is active in her role on the board.
One who has emerged as likely on the shortlist is Nancy Dubuc, a longtime television executive who is currently the CEO of Vice and chair of Warner’s audit committee, giving her a knowledge of the company’s finances. One executive noted that if Dubuc were to take over the top job, it could coincide with another exec with a creative background — like Lousada, for instance — also getting a promotion, to pair a business and creative executive atop the company. Two of Warner’s flagship labels, Warner Records and Atlantic Records, have co-chairmen leading them that pair execs with A&R backgrounds and marketing or operations backgrounds, a model that it’s suggested the parent group could follow in some fashion — if not with Dubuc, then perhaps with another exec with a strong finance history, given Access’ past pattern of scrutinizing even small financial details.
If the company were to go with someone from outside the company’s ranks or board, some think Jon Platt, who spent seven years working for Cooper at Warner/Chappell Music Publishing, first as president of creative in North America, then as chairman and CEO, before leaving to take over Sony Music Publishing at the beginning of 2019, should be considered. Platt is widely respected across the music industry and within Warner as a leader, and was a favorite of Cooper, who let him out of his contract two years early to take the job at Sony. But one executive suggests that the Warner board might not go with a publishing executive, while another points out that Platt’s current job — running the largest music publisher in the world, without having to deal with the restraints and corporate scrutiny that come with running a publicly-traded company — might mean he’s not interested.
Another outside music executive whose name came up several times was John Janick, the chairman/CEO of Interscope Geffen A&M, whose leadership of the label has turned it into music’s market share leader, with an extended track record of both working with long established artists and breaking new acts. But several people suggested that, despite Janick’s impressive track record — and his history at Warner as a founder of the Fueled By Ramen label — Lousada’s status as a current insider would presumably put him above Janick in the pecking order. (A source close to Janick also says that he is not looking to make a move.) One UMG leader whose contract would coincide with the WMG role’s start date would be Sir Lucian Grainge, whose deal runs through the end of 2023, though that would truly be a shock to the system.
Others suggest that an external candidate with a combination of music, tech and business backgrounds would lead the list of nominees — making the possibility of Lyor Cohen’s return to the Warner fold an intriguing possibility. When Cooper took over in 2011, Cohen held the same role that Lousada holds now, and many people internally expected him to get the top job at the time — only for Blavatnik to turn to the less obvious candidate in Cooper. One former executive points out that Cohen has gone from success to success since leaving Warner in 2012: First building a successful independent label in 300 Entertainment (which was recently bought by WMG for $400 million) and then leading YouTube’s efforts at repairing relations with the music industry in his role as its global head of music, which he took on at the end of 2016.
In a similar vein, Amazon’s vp of music Steve Boom has the combination of tech and music backgrounds and relationships — both within the industry and on the board — to be a potential fit, according to two people. Roger Lynch — currently CEO of Condé Nast, but whose background includes running Pandora and leading its acquisition by SiriusXM — was also suggested as someone who combines the necessary attributes to handle the job.
Considering there are just three positions like this available in the world leading a major music company, the process is likely to be a lengthy one. With Cooper laying out an 18-month timeline to enact the transition, the suggestion is that the board is likely to take its time. And given Blavatnik’s track record, several sources stressed that the most likely option may not be the route that the board takes, though it’s all on the table.