Steve Barnett Exiting Sony's Columbia Records for Universal's New Capitol Label Group (Analysis)

Steve Barnett Headshot - P 2012
Matt Salacuse

Steve Barnett Headshot - P 2012

With UMG's acquisition of EMI complete, the veteran music exec will relocate to the west coast where he'll oversee the newly formed entity's rock and pop rosters.

Steve Barnett, co-chairman and COO of Columbia Records, label home to Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Adele, has one foot out the door. Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that reports of his defection from Sony to Universal Music, which recently acquired some 60 percent of EMI’s assets and where Barnett will head up the new Capitol Label Group, are true.

There’s no timeline for his end date at Columbia yet as Barnett negotiates his exit -- it could be a matter of days or potentially longer, seeing as his contract expires in March. At the newly formed Capitol Label Group, Barnett, a former agent and manager of AC/DC, will oversee many of EMI’s recorded music assets, which include the labels Capitol, Virgin and Astralwerks, among other global imprints. His title will be chairman and CEO, though he’s not expected to helm Capitol Nashville or Blue Note.

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The corporate shuffle comes at an interesting time for the two music giants -- Sony, and Columbia in particular, is seeing its market share top Uni’s (it currently stands at 10.79 percent, according to Billboard), but factor in EMI’s artist roster, which includes Katy Perry, Lady Antebellum and Norah Jones, and it could flip the formula.

Furthermore, with Lyor Cohen’s recent resignation as chairman of Warner Music Group and newly installed presidents at Elektra (Jeff Castelaz) and Interscope Geffen A&M (John Janick), we could be seeing a repeat of last year’s musical chairs episode, where longtime Jive head Barry Weiss left Sony for Island Def Jam Republic and L.A. Reid took over Sony’s Epic after seven years at IDJ. Or, as outsiders see it, a reaffirmation that the music industry is among the least stable businesses to go into.

Also with Barnett bailing, so ends a longtime bromance with Columbia co-chairman and CEO Rob Stringer. The two are close friends and in their work together, have proven to be a valuable team, raising the label’s profile and profits. They’ve also weathered their share of bumps in the corporate road, including the ill-fated hiring of producer Rick Rubin as co-president.

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But for those keeping count, another Brit at the top of a major label’s corporate hierarchy -- joining Stringer, RCA’s Peter Edge and the big cheese, UMG’s Lucian Grainge -- may be cause for concern. “The two biggest albums of the year are Adele and Mumford & Sons, both British artists,” notes one label insider. “What does that say about our own A&R?” That they need to spend more time in England, perhaps?

Barnett, however, will be headed in the opposite direction -- relocating to the west coast for his new position, where’s he’ll be closer to Grainge, another longtime pal. “It was timing, if nothing else,” says a high-ranking source. “With the EMI deal going through, Steve’s mandate will be to help Lucian resuscitate and revitalize EMI. It’s a good match.”

Indeed, Grainge has developed a reputation for hiring good people, and with his plan to pump big money into EMI, it could be a golden opportunity for the passionate and motivated music man. And in that sense, Barnett fits the bill.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin