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Capitol Music Group CEO Steve Barnett steps down

Outgoing Capitol Music Group CEO Steve Barnett in front of the iconic Capitol Records tower, 2015.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Capitol Music Group chairman and CEO Steve Barnett is retiring after nearly 50 years in the business. The executive, whose 24-karat ears helped propel the careers of artists including Beyoncé, Adele, Katy Perry, AC/DC, One Direction and Lil Baby, among dozens of others, made the announcement Thursday morning.

In conjunction, the Capitol Music Group announced that current Capitol Records President Jeff Vaughn and CMG COO Michelle Jubelirer will be promoted to oversee the company.

In a letter to the Capitol staff, Barnett, 68, called the move “a long-planned decision,” one that he made in conjunction with his wife and children “through many hours of discussion and soul-searching.”

“While I’ve been fortunate to lead several companies along the way,” he added, “my most rewarding experience, by far, has been my time leading the team here at Capitol Music Group.” Barnett thanked his boss, Universal Music Group CEO Lucian Grainge, among many others, for the experience. Barnett’s last day will be Dec. 31.

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The famously pugnacious music manager and live entertainment tycoon will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Barnett took over at Capitol in 2012 as streaming platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon were beginning to revive the music industry, which for a decade had been crippled by the widespread downloading of “pirated” MP3s. In 2019 the domestic recorded music business generated $11.1 billion in revenue, up 13% from the year before, according to the Recording Assn. of America. That revenue was $4.1 billion more than the industry earned in 2010.

Such growth is one reason why French conglomerate Vivendi, Universal’s parent company, recently announced its intention to take the Universal Music Group public in 2022. The move comes a half-year after competitor Warner Music Group’s own IPO put the company’s value at an estimated $12 billion.

Grainge hailed Barnett’s “incredible five-decade career in music, capped by nothing less than the revitalization of our iconic Capitol Music Group,” in his own letter to staff, noting that “when Capitol joined our family as part of the EMI acquisition, it was in desperate need of vision, passion and drive. Steve brought all of that and more to the Tower, and today, once again, Capitol stands as a symbol of creative and commercial success in music — a magnet both to great artists and great music business professionals.”

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capitol records building

The Tower to which Grainge referred is the Capitol Records building. The symbolic center of the Los Angeles record business, the 1956 cylindrical high-rise and its connected Capitol Studios recording facility have long served as home to an institution born a few blocks south on the second floor of then-retail powerhouse Wallichs Music City.

The Tower has seen some history: Among those affiliated with Capitol across the years include the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Garth Brooks, Les Paul & Mary Ford, Kraftwerk, Frank Sinatra, Norah Jones, Foo Fighters and more. It has also withstood decades of industry consolidation, most recently after Universal bought it and the label.

Barnett made the leap into the label system in the 1990s after co-founding U.K. management company Part Rock in the 1980s. While there and at its U.S. subsidiary, Hard to Handle, he oversaw the careers of bands including AC/DC, Anthrax and Scorpions. He joined Sony Music-owned Epic Records in 1996, and later became Columbia Music Group’s co-chairman, along the way stewarding the success of such disparate stars as Adele, Beyoncé, Oasis, Ghostface Killah, Korn and Fiona Apple.

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Katy Perry
Katy Perry on the rooftop of Capitol Records on July 29.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Universal’s Grainge hired Barnett away from Columbia to oversee the newly formed umbrella subsidiary the Capitol Music Group. Since its creation, the company has propelled or sustained the careers of artists including Perry, Halsey, Lil Baby, Paul McCartney, Sam Smith, Coldplay, Beck, Marshmello and, of course, the Beatles.

Barnett was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

Asked in 2018 about the success of Capitol under his leadership, the executive told Variety that much of the competition came from within UMG. “We feel really great about it,” he said, “but it’s never enough because you’re in the Universal system and you compete against Republic and Interscope and Island and Def Jam and everybody else.”

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But, Barnett said, joining Capitol when he did “was an opportunity that, if I hadn’t taken it, I would always have regretted. I love this label and this building ... I feel a tremendous responsibility when I come to work every day.”

Inheriting that responsibility will be a pair of executives that Barnett hired at CMG. Vaughn, 35, has worked with artists including Kehlani, Young Thug, Lil Skies, Kevin Gates, Rico Nasty and Youngboy Never Broke Again. Jubelirer, 46, joined the company in 2013 as executive vice president after making her name as an entertainment attorney representing artists including Frank Ocean, Swedish House Mafia, Grimes, Kesha and Avicii.


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