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Amid Layoffs, Is Warner Bros. Records Abandoning Rock Music?

Green Day Linkin Park split P
Green Day (top) by Marina Chavez; Linkin Park by James Minchin
Warner Bros. artists Green Day (top) and Linkin Park

After more than a dozen radio promotion staffers are let go, and with dance- and urban-flavored pop selling, what does it mean for the revered label's rock roots? Will Green Day and My Chemical Romance take a backseat to Jason Derulo and New Boyz?

The goodbye email from Reprise senior vice president of promotion Mike Rittberg said it all. “Before my first job at a record store I had dreamed to work at Warner Bros. Records,” he wrote on Sept. 8, the day he and more than a dozen others were laid off from Warner Music Group, most from promotion departments at venerable labels Warner Bros. and Reprise. “I will always remember my lunch with [legendary Warner chief] Mo Ostin when I got the job 'down the hall' to run Reprise,” Rittberg continued. “He told me stories about Sinatra starting Reprise and how the first rock signings were Jimi Hendrix and The Kinks.  It's that spirit -- of trying to forge new ground -- that I will always carry with me in my next endeavor."

Today’s economy is tough and for a label hailed for its rock pedigree, it’s even tougher, what with rock music diminishing its presence on the dial. Look no further than this summer’s format changes at Philadelphia’s WYSP (now a sports station) and New York’s WRXP (talk), just two in a slew of frequencies no longer playing music at all, rock or otherwise. Considering Warners counts Linkin Park, Avenged Sevenfold, My Chemical Romance, Disturbed, Black Keys and Neil Young among the 80-something acts on its roster, it’s an ominous sign.

It stands to reason then that Warners’ recent cutbacks, which include A&R rep Steve McDonald, who signed Dale Earnhart Jr. Jr. (coincidentally, playing L.A.’s The Troubadour tonight), Reprise VP of Alternative Promotion Lynn McDonnell, several more promo staffers and at least a dozen regional reps, according to Billboard.biz, are a result, at least in part, of this wave of change at radio -- where dance and urban-influenced pop rules the charts. And with new leadership at the financial helm -- Warner Music was bought for $1.045 billion by Len Blavatnik's Access Industries in July and recently appointed Stephen Cooper to the position of CEO -- the pressure is on to get results.

With all that in mind, as well as Warners’ naming of Peter Gray to the svp of radio promotion position for WBR and Reprise, who will combine their radio efforts (in a memo to staff, WBR co-presidents Livia Tortella and Todd Moscowitz tout his success with Maroon 5, Kings of Leon, Ke$ha, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson and Pitbull), it raises the question: is Warners on its way to giving up on rock?

“I think Warner Brothers is looking for more of a balanced direction,” A&R executive Mike Elizondo (hired in January), told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this summer. “Finding the next generation of not only rock stars but urban and pop [stars] is a big focus, with Jason Derulo and Iyaz coming up. And even pop bands like The Ready Set -- there’s a new breed that Warners is really excited about.”

Elizondo is quick to point to Warners’ tremendous track record when it comes to rock groups, be it Green Day, Metallica, Muse or No. 2 on this week’s Billboard 200, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it’s hard to deny that change is upon us. “I feel like we’re in a huge transition with rock right now,” he says. “There are a lot of rock bands hanging on for dear life or that were right on the cusp and are starting to falter a bit. Like anything, I think the genre got pretty saturated with a certain direction so now it's sort of imploding.”

“There's a healthy alternative scene, but the audience is getting smaller and more niche,” Tortella recently told THR. “To find rock music, you have to go in a lot of different places, it's a lot more fragmented in terms of how you break a rock act. It's not always radio-driven, there are TV shows, online and satellite radio. With Top 40, obviously radio's a huge factor and there are more opportunities for pop acts. But Warner Bros. is very proud of our rock roster and we're still in the rock game. We're really creative in terms of finding ways to expose it.”

To WMG chairman Lyor Cohen’s credit, in installing his trifecta of execs at WBR -- the pop-inclined Tortella, urban-leaning Moscowitz and revered rock producer Rob Cavallo as chairman -- he’s positioned the label to achieve that balance of which Elizondo spoke. Like the 360 deals the majors endorsed emphatically over the years, in these days of “music companies,” as opposed to the dated term “record company,” covering all your bases is not unlike being handed a properly tuned guitar: without it, you risk discord.

Says Tortella: “Warner Bros. has always represented a full range of music. In the last few years, our most successful acts were rock, but even our choices in urban artists are very carefully thought out. Like we signed Jill Scott and Common, who are both perfect for Warner Bros. Madonna was a great dance-pop artist for us, so that’s been consistent… It's about having artists who challenge things. We just want a broader roster.”

In announcing the changes to Warners’ promotion structure, the affable duo of Tortella and Moscowitz acknowledged the pain of saying goodbye to coworkers. "Yesterday was a difficult day for us at WBR,” they wrote. “Necessary changes to build a promotion team for the future, while staying true to our core mission of investing in A&R, required us to say goodbye to some outstanding employees.” But the somber note had a bright spot: “Reprise will remain a separate label with its distinct A&R point of view,” it continued. “In addition, we have expanded the radio promotion team at ILG (Independent Label Group), which will focus on earlier stage developing artists and more indie-oriented releases. This will enable us to stay nimble, and keep delivering winning results for our artists and their music."

When it comes to radio, Warners’ recent slate of hits includes songs by Derulo and hip-hop duo New Boyz. In the rock realm, it looks as if the Chili Peppers are stalling with the single “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” which drops to 65 from 51 this week on the Billboard Hot 100. Still, plenty would argue that at Warners, the rock genre is evolving, not necessarily fading away. Certainly Elizondo would. “We're always on the hunt for something that's just a different version of rock,” he said. “We’re ready for it. It’s got to happen and we’re excited for when it does.”

With reporting by Jem Aswad (Billboard.biz) and Sophie Schillaci