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Steve Cooper to Step Down as Warner Music Group CEO

Steve Cooper, CEO of Warner Music Group for the past 11 years, will step down next year, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal that was confirmed to Variety by a rep for the company.

The transition will be a gradual one, the rep emphasized, as the company seeks a suitable successor. Cooper, 75, said he has instructed the board to begin the search for his successor to him, and that he and the board expect the transition to take place by the end of 2023, according to an internal email viewed by Journal.

Warner is the third-largest major music group, after Universal and Sony, Warner Music-owned labels include Atlantic — which is the most consistently successful major label in the business — Elektra and its flagship Warner Records, along with the third-largest music publisher Warner Chappell Music. Its top current acts include Ed Sheeran, Lizzo, Dua Lipa and others.

Cooper has run the company with a firm, calm and non-flamboyant hand through the first decade of the streaming era and as it went public for a second time in the early months of the pandemic in 2020. The company’s earnings were declining at the time of his arrival and he not only reversed that trend but doubled its revenue and embraced new technologies — often before Warner’s competitors — and business opportunities. However, his successor will face headwinds as the company’s stock has dipped since it went public, and the industry faces a leveling-off of streaming growth amid an uncertain larger economic climate.

The new CEO must have the approval of billionaire Len Blavatnik, whose Access Industries controls Warner Music. While Cooper said in his letter that the company will look internally and externally for his successor, sources point to Warner Music’s CEO of recorded music, Max Lousada, 48, as the most likely internal candidate. That move would place British executives at the helm of all three major labels, with Lucian Grainge at Universal and Rob Stringer at Sony, however the field of candidates likely within the music industry is narrow. Most of the CEOs of the major labels, as well as the heads of most large independent companies, are music-focused and would seem less interested in a corporate role at that level. What may be more likely is another executive like Cooper: an experienced leader from outside the music business who will approach the rapidly changing industry with an open-minded perspective toward its ever-expanding revenue streams, particularly in the tech world.

In a business known for ostentatiousness and bluster, Cooper is anything but. He took the helm at Warner in 2011, with no music industry experience, when the business was at its lowest point, its revenue having been cut in half by illegal downloading and plummeting CD sales. However, he has turned his decades of business experience toward the industry and showed an open-minded approach toward a rapidly changing business. As the industry’s fortunes began to change with the US launch of Spotify that same year and the quick embrace of streaming by fans, the company’s revenues rose with those of the business. In 2016, Warner Music became the first major label to report streaming as its largest source of recorded music revenue.

During Cooper’s tenure, the company also acquired the long-running British label Parlophone, which Universal divested as part of its acquisition of EMI’s recorded-music wing. That deal brought the company Coldplay, Gorillaz and all or part of the catalogs of David Bowie, Kate Bush and others. Earlier this year, the company completed a series of deals that brought it Bowie’s recorded-music catalog for a number of years, and acquired a large percentage of the late singer’s valuable music catalog for a reported $200 million.

Warner Music Group saw double-digit revenue growth through 2021, drawing income from platforms like Facebook, TikTok and Peloton that helped swell streaming revenue by 32.6%. An investment in Rotana Music expanded its footprint in the Middle East and North Africa, while closer to home, a couple of Warner Music alums beefed up its domestic roster. In June, WMG acquired 12Tone Music, launched by former Warner Music chief Doug Morris, whose roster includes Anderson .Paak, Dolly Parton and the 88rising posse. Then in August, longtime Warner act Madonna brought the three albums of her from her Interscope years over to WMG, parking the record and publishing rights of her entire catalog under one roof.

The company’s revenue rose nearly 19% in its most recent fiscal year, its best showing this century, to $5.3 billion, according to the Journal.

“I’m now six decades into my career, and of everything I’ve done, this is the job I’ve enjoyed the most,” Cooper wrote in the email. “We’re just at the beginning of a new golden age of music,” he wrote.

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