Published in The Financial Times

A 43-year-old man approaches a CD player at 9 o’clock in the morning, presses the OPEN button and slots in a silver disc inscribed with four of the most terrifying words in the English language: “Enrique Iglesias – New Album”. He turns the volume up and braces himself.

The first sound is that of a lone plaintive acoustic guitar. A few bars are enough to indicate what we have on our hands: a textbook Enrique power ballad. You know the formula: slow acoustic guitar, followed by sudden, loud guitar and anthemic, passionate chorus. The whole thing will end in a flash with the Latin heart-throb’s echoey voice proclaiming his eternal love.

The man – Lucian Grainge – begins to sway to the music. Enrique starts to sing. Then the drums kick in, the guitar turns electric and the chorus arrives like an Exocet missile. “MAYBE I’M ADDICTED, I’M OUT OF CONTROL!!! BUT YOU’RE THE DRUG THAT KEEPS ME FROM DYIN’!!!”

Grainge strums an air guitar and dances a little jig. “That’s a great lyric,” he shouts above the music, his cherubic face lit up with pure pleasure. “It’s a great, great song! It’s a career song! He can be performing that in 10 years’ time, and you’ll remember exactly what you were doing when it became a hit!”

Grainge, of course, has a good excuse for spending a weekday morning listening to Enrique, an artist whose work is usually the preserve of hysterical teenage girls. He is the chairman of Universal Music UK & Ireland, the biggest record company in Britain, a division of Universal Music Group, for now the biggest record company in the world, and it is his job to listen to Enrique, signed to Interscope, one of Universal’s US labels. Enrique called him last night to ask for advice on which track from his new album, 7, should be the first single. There is a lot riding on the choice – Enrique was Lucian’s biggest selling act last year: his previous album selling 1.3m copies in the UK and Ireland alone.

Although he is hardly known outside the media world, Grainge is the arguably the most important man in the British music business. And last month, after countless requests and much pestering, he agreed to be interviewed and photographed throughout the day, from his early morning encounter with Enrique to the Mercury Music Awards in the evening.

Grainge’s group of UK labels (including names such as Island, Mercury, Polydor, and Universal Classics & Jazz), which have an annual turnover of about half a billion pounds, account for one in four of all records sold in Britain. In the huge private club that is the British music industry, where everyone refers to one another by their first names, “Lucian” is probably the name that carries most clout.

The names he drops say it all – when he was on holiday in the South of France this summer he met up with Elton John and U2. Lionel Richie popped over for a couple of days. Bono, Eminem, and Sophie Ellis-Bextor all sent video messages when he got married last year. Indeed, it is a sign of just how important he is that it proves impossible to find a single person in the music industry to say a bad word about him – on the record at least. Even Simon Cowell, the acid-tongued Pop Idol judge who Grainge once tried but failed to poach, can’t contain his enthusiasm.

“I have to say I wish Lucian wasn’t in the music business,” says Cowell. “He’s the one person I consider to be real competition. Recently I was trying to sign the boy band Busted, and I thought it was in the bag until the band’s managers said, ‘Oh, we’re going to see Lucian tomorrow.’ Sure enough Lucian signed them. He is the most talented music industry executive in the British pop industry.”

Grainge’s standing in the music business contrasts with his physical appearance – he is small, succumbing to middle-aged spread and very ordinary-looking. His rise through the music business has been similarly ordinary: he started off as a song plugger for CBS Records, spent more than a decade in music publishing and then went to Polydor and climbed the corporate tree. But he has a charismatic presence – a twinkle in his eye and an entertaining line in metaphors that makes him sound interesting even when being banal.

“I don’t know what 75 per cent of the day will be like,” he says by way of introduction, sipping a cup of tea in the kitchen. “It’s freestyle. I’m not one of these CEOs who has his Cornflakes at 7.02, and goes to the toilet at 7.15.”

After listening to the Enrique tracks, he jumps into the chauffeur-driven Range Rover and heads off to the Universal Music offices, tucked in a grotty part of Hammersmith. His mobile rings as soon as he switches it on and doesn’t stop until 11pm. Eavesdropping on his calls is remarkably entertaining. “I invest in music not chairs!!!,” he shouts at one point. Later: “Sometimes you want jam with your chicken soup.”

Grainge’s office is a sober affair: there is the compulsory plasma screen and monster hi-fi system, but otherwise it is as bland as a Citizen’s Advice Bureau. Behind Grainge’s seat there is a treadmill (unplugged), and the tables are scattered with brochures for sports cars. On his desk there is a copy of the FT, which today reports the latest extreme to which the music industry is resorting to tackle the huge problem of online piracy: the American music industry has filed 261 lawsuits against internet users it accuses of illegal music downloading, including a 12-year-old girl in New York.

When asked what proportion of his job involves thinking and talking about piracy, the issue that has totally overshadowed the industry in recent years, Grainge replies that the issue is huge – the global record business is 16 per cent smaller than it was in 2000, and Universal is itself cutting its global workforce by about 11 per cent as a result – but, fundamentally, his job hasn’t changed.

“It’s still a simple business. You create music that people love and you sell it. Enrique, our biggest artist, sold around 1.3m copies in the UK & Ireland last year – that would have been around 1.6m in the mid-1990s, before internet piracy exploded. All this means is that I need to have several artists selling 400,000 copies each, rather than a couple of artists selling 1.6m.”

Describing what he does in a typical day, he explains that he doesn’t spend his time visiting thousands of sweaty night clubs and sitting through dozens of auditions to find artists – he has executives and hundreds of staff who do that. What he concentrates on is shaping and prioritising and polishing the 500 albums that go through his company every year.

“The wonderful thing with my job is that I have objectivity,” he says, before launching into one of his trademark football metaphors. “It’s much easier for the manager to shout pass in the stands looking down, than when he is in the dugout and can’t see the movement.”

His day includes meetings with Peter Jamieson, the executive chairman of BPI, the music industry trade body, Derek McKillop, Elton John’s creative manager, Texas’s Sharleen Spiteri, Daniel Bedingfield, and the managing directors of Polydor, Universal UK’s biggest pop music label.

Most of Grainge’s meetings require him to listen to music, with the artist present. And while watching Grainge sing along to Enrique Iglesias is surreal, listening to him sing and dance along to Texas tracks, as Sharleen Spiteri sings and dances along too, is even more bizarre. Most of his remarks are music-related – “that chorus needs to come in sooner”, “I’m not sure that mix is strong enough” and so on – but it becomes evident that the most important aspect of his job is artist relations. In most cases this involves indiscriminate flattery. “Sharleen is unique,” he tells me in front of her, as Spiteri blushes under her dark fringe. “She is unique – an incredible artist, an amazing gift as a singer and songwriter!” In front of Bedingfield he proclaims: “This man is a genuine, unique talent! He is music, his words, his voice. He has a very special gift!”

But there is another side to Grainge that Doug Morris, the veteran chairman of Universal Music Group, alludes to: “Lucian is so deceptive with that little kind face and those little glasses. Behind them he is actually a killer shark.” Indeed, while he is incredibly charming with artists, behind the scenes he is brazenly, uncompromisingly commercial. The man in the afternoon meeting with Colin Barlow and David Joseph, managing directors of Polydor, is entirely different from the man in the meeting with Spiteri.

“You need a really good video!” he barks at his executives, talking about Ronan Keating’s forthcoming single, while munching on a sandwich. “You need to take risks! You can’t just have another video of him looking in the mirror wearing a Gucci suit! It isn’t gonna work anymore! And having lots of girls isn’t the answer for him – everybody knows he’s married and got two kids. If Ronan got the girl in the video you know he wouldn’t shag her! I need a big idea!” Barlow and Joseph nod along as Grainge holds forth.

Indeed, as with all creative businesses, it seems that Grainge’s job is essentially to steer a course between two imperatives: the need to keep artists happy and the need to make as much money as possible for the company. In practice, this involves persuading fiery creative artists to do that duet that they don’t necessarily fancy, to record that song that they don’t necessarily like, and so on. As Spiteri leaves his office after playing him tracks from Texas’s new album, he compares dealing with artists to dancing with a girl at a school disco – you grab her bum, she moves your hand away, you grab another part of her anatomy and she moves your hand away. “It’s like foreplay. It’s about subtle persuasion and argument and debate.”

This approach is apparent in his dealings with Daniel Bedingfield, an artist who has sold 2m copies of his debut album around the world with Universal. Bedingfield has come to play Grainge the songs he has written for the always-so-difficult second album. Grainge claims to love them all (“What’s it called?” he asks rhetorically after the third track. “It’s called a hit!!”), but it transpires he is disappointed that there aren’t any ballads, as there were on the first album. “There’s going to be one or two tracks you write that you hate but I love,” Grainge warns Bedingfield. “You have got more writing to do – I know that! I need a song like “If You’re Not The One” (the ballad from the last album).”

“Oh, no, that cheesy, stupid song that you love,” whines Bedingfield, scampering around Grainge’s office like a hyperactive kid.

“Cheesy?!” splutters Lucian. “The song that helped sell you 700,000 albums in the US? I need a couple of songs like that one!” Laughing and hugging Bedingfield, he says: “Daniel – I’m gonna get this out from you – I bet you have written at least five tracks like that. You are unique – you did it the first time, and you’re going to do it again. You may think they are cheese, but they are special!”

As Bedingfield shoots off to film his next video I ask him if he’s going to give Grainge what he wants. “I give Lucian leeway ‘cos he know what he’s talking about,” he says. “He has reasoned me into seeing things his way before, and he’s been right – on both occasions.”

It’s impressive watching Grainge deal with artists, but is he worth his vast salary (in 1999 one newspaper estimated it at $400,000, but it is undoubtedly much higher than that now)? He certainly has “ears” – he can clearly listen to songs in different genres such as pop and rock and rap and judge what is likely to be a hit with spooky accuracy – but surely someone else could do his job for a fraction of the cost? Especially as there are plenty of research firms around that help executives assess whether a song is likely to be a hit.

I put this to him during the first meeting of the day. Peter Jamieson from the BPI, himself a former record executive, speaks first. “The fact is that artists don’t like dealing with boring, underpaid, little people,” he says. “They like dealing with stars as big as they are. Why do you think Richard Branson and Chris Blackwell had the success they did at their record companies?” Grainge chips in. “He’s right. It’s difficult for me to say, y’know, but if you put an accountant into my job, what on earth would the artists think?” He is quiet for a second – a sure sign that he is thinking of an appropriate football metaphor. “We are like footballers – if you are scoring 30 goals a season in the Premiership, what’s the problem?”

With the final meeting of the day over at 5.30pm, it’s time to pile into the Range Rover and drive to the Mercury Music Awards on Park Lane, where two acts signed to Universal labels are up for the gong – Floetry and Terri Walker. Last year, Universal won the award with Ms Dynamite. She is among the many people who greet him as he makes very slow progress to the Universal table. Some of the company’s most important executives are sitting at the table – Matt Jagger, Steve Lillywhite. They all look a bit tense. Two bottles of wine are open, but everyone is on mineral water.

Grainge expresses dismay at the menu. “It’s always halibut or chicken,” he says. He comments on the nominees as they play. Radiohead – critically acclaimed, but not very impressive sales. Darkness – a take-off of Spinal Tap, but he would like to have them. Coldplay – great band, but EMI are over-reliant on them.

Floetry come on stage and it’s obvious he has never seen them play before. Although a British act, they signed to a label in the US. It’s a reminder of just how enormous Universal Music Group is, and a reminder of the criticism most often levelled at Grainge, that his success has come through just importing acts such as Eminem and 50 Cent from America, rather than from discovering and developing UK talent.

Grainge balks at the criticism and reels off all the artists his company has broken in the UK:

Daniel Bedingfield, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Sugababes Busted, Ms Dynamite … It’s hard to assess just how good he is – nine misses for each hit are said to be the norm, and Universal’s rate certainly seems to be better than this. But is it just because he can throw lots of money at acts?

He has certainly had failures. His punts on reality-TV shows Fame Academy and Popstars haven’t turned out as successful as BMG’s punt on rival show Pop Idol. And, famously, he failed to sign Robbie Williams, who ended up back with EMI, despite Grainge saying he would give Williams “anything he wanted”. “He’s a great artist, but we didn’t think he was good enough for America,” he says a little outrageously, implying that he didn’t actually want Williams. “And he hasn’t broken America. It’s a long time ago though. Boring.”

And then there is George Michael – one of Britain’s biggest male solo artists, who gave Universal two singles to release last year and said that he would sign to them if he was suitably impressed. But the two singles were relative chart failures, and there is still no sign of an album. “I don’t know where he’s going to sign,” says Grainge, glumly. “I don’t think we’ll be continuing with him. He’s a great artist and all that … erm …” He turns off the tape recorder.

It’s time for the award to be announced. The winner isn’t a Universal artist, but Dizzee Rascal, signed to XL, a tiny independent label, the very opposite of the corporate monster that Grainge runs. “Good label that. They have excellent taste.” Talking of taste, I ask if Grainge has made a final decision on the Enrique single. “Oh, yes, ‘Addicted’ has to be the first single,” he says. “There are a couple of bars in it that need to be taken out, it drags a bit, but it’ll be great at office parties at Christmas.” I’ll call and tell Enrique what I think.”

Published in FT Creative Business 11 November 2003
(c) 2003 The Financial Times Limited.