I believe it was Pusha T, aka the J.D. Rockefeller of the white, who mocked Lil Wayne with the line, “You signed to one n*gga that signed to another n*gga that's signed to three n*ggas, now that's bad luck.” While the line sounds like a well-placed jab at the emcee, what Pusha didn’t mention in those bars is that if you walk up the ladder far enough, he and Lil Wayne are both signed to the same guy—Vincent Bolloré.
Earlier this week, Nathan pulled back the veil on the radio, reminding everyone who is really in control of what we hear, and it got me thinking about something I’m often perplexed by—label structures. With distribution deals here and album agreements there, it can all be very confusing. Rick Ross is signed to Def Jam as a solo artist, but MMG as a label is signed to Warner Bros., so Wale is... Warner? Black Hippy as a group is signed to Interscope, Kendrick is signed to Interscope and Aftermath, ScHoolboy is Interscope without Aftermath, Ab-Soul isn’t with anyone but TDE, or something, maybe—my brain already hurts.
And going even further up the food chain, who does JAY-Z answer to? Trying to figure it all out is enough to make your head spin and I don’t want to be on any Illuminati hitlist so I’ve left it alone, but Nathan inspired me to really get after it again, to traverse through all the bullshit and find out just who some of the most powerful men (and yes, they all seem to be men) in music really are. There’s so much going on behind the scenes, so much money being dealt with, there has to be more than meets the eye. If we start with the rapper and work our way up, how high can we get? Who is really the most powerful person in music?
Since I started this article with him, let’s use Pusha T as our first step. All the average fan cares about is that Pusha T is signed to G.O.O.D Music, but the reality isn't that simple. If you bought the new Pusha T album, you'd have to thank G.O.O.D Music’s distributor, Def Jam, which is run by their CEO Steve Bartles. Bartles became the CEO in 2014, when Def Jam’s parent company, Universal Music Group (UMG), divided Island Def Jam into Island Records and Def Jam Records, which now exists along with their third big label, Motown Records. That’s three huge music outlets all owned by the same company. Head spinning? This won’t help, those three labels are just the start.
In 2012, UMG bought the floundering EMI’s “recorded music operations” for $2 billion. That’s billion, with a “b.” Remember how happy we were when Dre became the first hip-hop billionaire even though he’s totally not a billionaire yet? UMG spent two Dr. Dre’s in one day to absorb one of Europe's premier record labels. This all adds up to UMG’s possessing an “...almost 36% share of total recorded music revenues globally,” which makes UMG’s CEO, Lucian Grainge, one of the most powerful men in music.
Grainge is a big fucking deal in the music industry. When Billboard did its annual power survey, he was voted number one. He has more influence on the music industry than almost anyone alive, yet how many of even the most hardcore students of the game would recognize him if they saw him? Here, let me save you the trouble of a Google Image search:
Since I’m not exactly a businessman, I like to put things into terms I can understand—Breaking Bad. Basically, Pusha T is Jesse, G.O.O.D Music is Walt, Def Jam/Steve Bartles is Mike and Lucian Grainge/UMG is Gus. Remember how scary Gus was? He was a kingpin, there was no one man more powerful, right? To us, Lucian may be Gus, but to the lowly rapper, he’s as high as anyone could possibly be. If you look even higher, Grainge has a superior, and that’s where the real money and real power lay.
Lucian Grainge could single-handedly end a lot of people’s careers, but even Lucian could be forced out. In fact, he’s about to get his ass fired. Back in June, it was reported that unless serious changes occur, Grainge will need to find himself new employment. I don’t know about you, but there’s something so comforting about even Lucian Grainge sweating his bosses like the rest of us. But who are these bosses? Who has the ability to fire the most powerful man in music? A French multinational mass media company called Vivendi.
If you thought UMG (and Grainge) buying EMI for $2 billion was impressive, Vivendi’s “Market Cap” is currently $36.4 billion, or as I like to think about it, they’re worth 72 JAY-Zs. They control an unfathomable amount of money and are one of the most valuable companies in the world. In addition to UMG, they’ve also put inordinate amounts of money in companies like Activision Blizzard (for all you gamers) and the Canal+ Group, which I’ve never heard of but sounds like the evil company in a romantic comedy that’s trying to bulldoze a local bookstore owned by Rachel McAdams.
And the man controlling Vivendi, the man who’s even higher up the food chain than Lucian Grainge, is the CEO of Vivendi, Vincent Bolloré. Do you have any idea what he looks like?
Here you go:
According to Forbes, Bolloré is the 201st richest man on the planet and the 12th richest in France, with a net worth of $6.9 billion dollars (or 14 JAY-Zs). He’s been described as a “corporate raider,” which is about the coolest thing I've ever heard, and means that he comes into companies, takes them over, and then flips them for a profit. Drake isn’t rich. JAY-Z isn’t rich. This guy is rich. We started this article by looking for the most powerful man in music and I think we've found him.
Though in a sense, Bolloré is so powerful I wonder how much music matters to him at all. Forty percent of all the music revenue in the world is a drop in the bucket, another business venture among many. Imagine the ramifications if he were to sell or dismantle UMG. It would send shockwaves down the totem pole, deeply affecting those even lower than Pusha T, but he certainly wouldn’t be thinking about those people during the deal.
Bolloré isn’t pictured with rappers, or music execs, because he meets with presidents and world leaders. I bet he doesn't even listen to music, he probably listens to dark, ominous tones or The Imperial March on loop. What’s G.O.O.D Music to a man who buys and sells the entire label’s worth in under an hour?
Thinking about the numbers, the money and the power Bolloré has makes me feel small and honestly, is frightening. As someone who has made music his life, it’s baffling to get some perspective. We treat JAY-Z as a god with the power to make or break a career, but really, he’s just another cog in the machine, and Bolloré’s far from the only member of the actual Illuminati, or even the richest. There’s Li Ka-Shing, a pivotal shareholder in Spotify whose net worth is $26.6 billion (that’s almost 4 Bollorés, or 52 JAY-Zs). There’s Len Blavatnik, the CEO of Access Industries, a company that owns Warner Music and sounds like the evil corporation in a science fiction movie—he’s worth almost $20 billion. The most powerful people in the music industry aren't even in the music industry at all, they’re above it.
The albums that we live and breathe these men think of as penny stocks, a fact so intimidating it makes me want to curl up in a ball and never leave the house again. So maybe the lesson here is that we’re better off not thinking about who’s really in control, maybe we’re better off walking past Vincent Bolloré on the street and not recognizing him. After all, if Pusha T was more concerned with Len Blavatnik than Lil Wayne we would have never gotten some dope music, and more than money and power, that’s what really matters.