Lucian Grainge's management style is not short on theatrical flourish. Four years ago, the Briton who is about to become the world's most powerful music industry executive, arrived late to the boardroom of Universal Music Group's international head office in London after the company had suffered a particularly poor sales period. As he entered, he turned off the lights, leaving his executive team sitting nervously in the dark. He then paced around the room until finally uttering the words: "See that. Better get used to it. That's what it's like when you don't have any hit records."
New York will have to get used to Grainge this summer when the 49-year-old takes over as head of Universal Music worldwide, the largest record company on the planet with a market share of nearly 29% and such acts in its stable as U2, Lady Gaga, Eminem and Amy Winehouse. Grainge has been groomed for the role for several years and says his fingers will remain close to the light switch. "It will depend if they have any hits or not," he tells TIME.
Grainge is one of a trio of talented British music executives all born within six months of each other who have landed at the heart of the industry, even though none had any college education. Simon Cowell, the elder of the group and the only one who has turned 50, is perhaps the most famous name in the business, with a television and music operation that generates significant profits for rival Sony Music. Simon Fuller, the youngest, is the impresario who devised American Idol and managed the Spice Girls.
Grainge, though, describes himself as "the powerful one." He may not appear on television, but the turn-off-the-lights story is typical of a man who is both fiercely competitive and entertainingly playful. He chases artists signed to other music companies with fervor, personally persuading the Rolling Stones to switch over from rival record company EMI two years ago. And once he's wooed acts, he can keep them on board no small achievement in an industry not short of ego. When he was honored at London's Grosvenor Hotel with a Music Industry Trust Award in November 2008, he was feted by some of the biggest names in the business. Bono and the rest of U2 presented the award, Take That performed, and Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, the male half of ABBA, tried to outbid British rock band Snow Patrol in the fundraising auction that followed.
Paul McGuinness, the manager of U2, probably Universal's biggest single act, has worked with Grainge for decades. "Making it in the United States is the biggest challenge of all for any British talent in the music business. He will need all his intelligence and skill to pull it off," he says. At a time when many major acts are breaking away from Universal, U2 has stayed loyal to the label, in part because Grainge has earned the respect of the band. "Lucian's advantage is that he has got a strong musical record of his own, so his opinion on a song, as well as business, is taken seriously," McGuinness says.
That comes from a long career working his way up through the London music scene. After leaving school at the age of 18, he started as a runner at a talent-scout company called MPC and says he was so junior he was "getting the secretaries sandwiches." Desperate for a job in music, he started cold-calling record-label bosses in the Music Week directory until he got through by chance to Maurice Oberstein, a senior executive at CBS Records. His persistence was rewarded with a job in the company's artists and repertoire (A&R) division, hunting for new songwriters and building their careers. Soon after, he moved over to RCA to do the same job and scored his first hit single in the U.S. Olivia Newton-John's "Heart Attack," which was written by a Briton he had signed, Paul Bliss.
In 1986, Grainge joined Polygram's songwriting division and gradually moved up the ranks at the company, which would later become Universal following a merger with MCA. Eventually, under the tutelage of Doug Morris, the Universal chief executive he'll be replacing, Grainge rose to run the company's U.K. headquarters and then its international operations. As EMI has faltered in recent years, he has become a key force behind helping British acts break into the U.S. market, most notably, the troubled Winehouse.
Grainge's plans for his new position remain somewhat of a mystery. His approach emphasizes artist relations at a time when other companies would rather talk about formulating an effective digital-distribution strategy to combat music piracy. It's not that Grainge doesn't care about this issue indeed, he wants the U.S. to become tougher on piracy. He says, however, that there is "no platinum-tipped magic bullet" to solve the problem. One thing that will help: forming a coalition of music, film and publishing companies to lobby both Congress and Internet service providers to enact tougher sanctions against music pirates. "English-speaking content has most to lose [from file-sharing]," he says.
As for expanding Universal Music's operations, he wants to turn it into a "content-owning rights company," which means developing television and film formats to vie with the two Simons' TV franchises: Fuller's American Idol and Cowell's soon-to-be-arriving X Factor, which is already a big hit in Britain. Among Universal's television projects in Britain is a show called Popstar to Operastar, which features Meatloaf as a judge of La Scala wannabes. And on the theater front, Universal is backing Judy Craymer, the producer of the stage and film musical Mamma Mia!, in her efforts to create a musical about the Spice Girls called Viva Forever.
Whether either format produces the next Susan Boyle remains to be seen. But if anybody is going to keep the lights on in the U.S. music business, it's likely to be Grainge.