The Biggest Music Business Stories of the 2010s – Variety

The last ten years have been among the music industry’s most celebratory, and at the same time, the decade has introduced seismic shifts in consumption, culture and technology. Only the strongest survive still holds true — witness how Universal Music Group fortified its global presence to market share leader by a mile — but so do those with conviction, be it an artist like Taylor Swift or Beyonce or a company like Spotify. The 2010s will be remembered as a time of robust growth for music and its affiliated businesses; it’s also created a new model of overnight success, the latest being Lil Nas X’s ubiquitous “Old Town Road,” but just as momentous was Psy’s 2012 smash “Gangnam Style,” a hit that paved the way for the stratospheric success of BTS. Credit the people and events of the last nine years for setting up what could be the last gasp of going-with-your-gut, as Moneyball metrics play an increasingly important role in what gets pushed out to market, while at the same time, any talent with a phone can wind up a Grammy nominee. Go figure.


Glee Makes a Killing
As the record business dug its way out of the download-dominated, piracy-plagued 2000s, along came Fox series “Glee” and its dozens of re-envisioned versions of hit songs from every decade. The brainchild of Ryan Murphy in partnership with then co-CEOs of Fox Studios Dana Walden and Gary Newman, and Columbia Records, whose leadership helped steer the series to sell more than 36 million singles and notch gold and platinum-certifications for five full-length albums. Add to the tally a North American and U.K. tour, live concert film and merchandise galore, and “Glee” was unstoppable. A confluence of tragedy (actor Cory Monteith’s 2013 death by overdose) and scandal ended the show’s run but not before cementing Murphy as television’s top influencer, and among its biggest earners.

Doug Morris Goes for the Triple Major Crown
In the last days of 2010, news broke that Doug Morris would be named chairman and CEO of Sony Music, and thus become the first person to run all three major record companies, following two decades at Warner and 15 years at Universal Music. While Sony had been struggling with internal tension in the after-effects of an awkward merger with BMG, Morris quickly calmed the waters and led the company to stability and success — particularly in 2015 and 2016 with giant albums from Adele and Beyonce. He stepped aside for Rob Stringer in 2018 and formed 12Tone Music Group, home to successful singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle, positioning Def Jam veteran Steve Bartels as president.


Spotify Lands on U.S. Shores
If one day can be singled out as the rebirth of the American music industry, it’s July 14, 2011: the date Spotify officially launched in the U.S. The ensuing streaming revolution has since pumped billions of dollars into the business and led to three consecutive years of double-digit growth, but its greatest achievement may have been convincing a generation that had rarely paid for music that it is a worthwhile investment after all.

EMI Sale Builds Universal Giant
Twenty years ago, there were six major label groups — with this blockbuster multibillion-dollar deal, which evolved over the course of four years, suddenly there were three. EMI was one of the industry’s oldest companies, with a giant recorded-music catalog (which was acquired by Universal Music, after some regulatory-required sell-offs) and even bigger publishing holdings (now 100% owned by Sony/ATV). The move, orchestrated in no small part by UMG chairman Lucian Grainge and former EMI-turned-Sony/ATV chief Marty Bandier, upstreamed Universal and Sony/ATV into the world’s biggest music company and the world’s biggest publisher, respectively, practically overnight.

Rebecca Black’s “Friday” Offers Road Map to a Viral Hit
It wasn’t the first viral video sensation, but 13-year-old Rebecca Black’s accidental hit was an early indication of just how random the decade’s pop charts were about to become. An amateurish vanity project crafted by the pay-for-play ARK Music Factory, “Friday” — dubbed “the worst video ever” by “MST3K’s” Michael J. Nelson — spread like wildfire across Twitter, eventually breaking into the Billboard Hot 100 and going on to be covered by everyone from Justin Bieber and Katy Perry to Todd Rundgren and the cast of “Glee.” The path to “Old Town Road” begins here.

MySpace Is Sold for a Song
Hard to believe, but MySpace was the original Facebook, and then-MTV head Tom Freston’s refusal to buy it was reason enough for Sumner Redstone to push him out of Viacom. Rupert Murdoch, in a move right out of HBO’s “Succession,” did buy the social networking site in 2005 for $580 million, only to be peddled for $35 million – a fraction of the $100 million it was asking — in 2011 to an online ad company. At its peak, in 2007, MySpace had 300 million registered users and was valued at $12 billion.


Jive, J and RCA Records Merge
In a key step toward reversing decades’ worth of label fragmentation, Sony’s Jive Records, J Records and Arista were all consolidated into RCA Records, at the time run by Peter Edge and Tom Corson. The move united acts like Britney Spears, ASAP Rocky, Rod Stewart, Justin Timberlake, Miley Cyrus and the Foo Fighters under the brand of the country’s second-oldest record label, and in streamlining its operations, made way for new talents to emerge, among them Sia, Sza and Khalid.

Tupac Rises Again … as a Hologram
The rock star myth that has bolstered the industry for years is that they’re worth more dead than alive, and the run on estates in recent years confirms that. The appearance of the virtual Tupac at Coachella 2012 during a set by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre (‘Pac reportedly said, “What up, Coachella?”) wasn’t a hologram at all, but rather a 2-D piece of angled glass reflecting a projected image. But that hasn’t stop the actual hologram technology from being used to resurrect the likes of Roy Orbison, Maria Clallas, Amy Winehouse and Buddy Holly.

Beck’s Eschews Traditional Record Release for Sheet Music Album
The resurrection of vinyl as a commercially viable format has been a bright spot for the industry over the last decade, but Beck attempted to turn the clock back even further, to the very birth of music publishing, with “Song Reader.” Initially released only as a collection of sheet music, the album finally came out in recorded form the next year, with its 20 songs recorded by a variety of artists.

Psy Introduces America to K-Pop
Although tempting to shrug off Psy’s gigantic 2012 hit “Gangnam Style” as a fluke, the viral smash was a global proverbial first shot of the coming K-pop revolution. The fact that it went on to become the first song to top the U.S. charts sung entirely in another language — Korean — along with breaking the billion-views mark on YouTube, was nothing less than a watershed moment in music history.


“Harlem Shake” Meme Moves the Needle
Tailor-made for the blossoming Instagram generation, the “Harlem Shake” craze had DIY video makers humorously dramatizing in 30 seconds how the bass drop in little known EDM DJ Baauer’s track turns a one-person dance party into the real thing. The meme not only made it onto the charts, but to every cellphone and computer screen across the country via dancing videos that changed how labels saw marketing. TikTok wasn’t far behind — in 2014, its predecessor launched in beta.

Jay-Z and Samsung Rewrite the SoundScan Rulebook
In a move that forced the RIAA to change its rules involving digital sales — and hinted at the potential of further tech world incursions into the music business — Samsung reached a multi-million dollar deal where it would offer its customers free downloads of Jay-Z’s “Magna Carta Holy Grail” several days early by effectively bulk-purchasing a million copies of the album. None of these “sales” counted on the SoundScan charts (the album still debuted at No. 1, regardless), but it gave Mr. Carter the unusual achievement of collecting a Platinum certification the day his album was officially released.

Beyoncé Offers a Surprise Drop, When It Truly Was a Surprise
Remember when every album had a promotional setup and a release date? OK boomer, that means you can still recall a time prior to Dec. 13, 2013, when Beyoncé alerted the world in the wee hours that she had just put out an album nobody had any inkling was coming. The self-titled release, her fifth full-length, yielded the hit song “Drunk In Love” and featured contributions from Sia, Frank Ocean and Ryan Tedder and was unilaterally considered the year’s most genius marketing move.


Apple Acquires Beats, Comes Up From Behind
When Spotify finally launched in the U.S., it immediately became the biggest fish in a pond stocked with plenty of smaller, scrappier streaming competitors. One of those, Beats Music — formerly MOG, an on-demand service acquired by Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine’s Beats by Dre headphone line — graduated to big fish status when it was part of Apple’s $3 billion Beats acquisition. Not only did this make Dre the richest man in hip-hop, it also set the stage for what is still the dominant power struggle in the streaming world, as Beats would be reborn as Apple Music the next year.

After U2 Drops Album on iTunes, Apple Users Drop U2
The line between generosity and invasion of privacy is a fine one, as these two titans of their respective industries learned when an estimated half a billion iTunes users suddenly found a new U2 album — which they’d neither asked for nor expected — in their iTunes folders. Intended as a splashy gift to cap Apple’s annual product conference, instead the giveaway of “Songs of Innocence” sparked outrage and led the company to issue instructions for the album’s removal less than a week later (although users report it still reappears upon reinstalling  iTunes). In an apology, U2 frontman Bono chalked up the move to: “A drop of megalomania, a touch of generosity, a dash of self-promotion and deep fear that these songs that we poured our life into over the last few years mightn’t be heard. There’s a lot of noise out there. I guess we got a little noisy ourselves to get through it.”

Taylor Swift Pulls Power Move; Yanks Her Music From Spotify
Bucking the streaming tide, Swift initially made “1989,” the album released in October that would yield smash hits “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space” and “Bad Blood,” available for purchase only. “I just don’t agree with perpetuating the perception that music has no value and should be free,” said Swift. Eventually she and the digital services found common ground, but Swift’s position as a figurehead for artists’ rights was set, reemerging a year later in the form of a sternly-worded letter to Apple.

A More Fabulous Forum Reopens
The Inglewood, Calif. venue, which hosted such music giants as Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin in decades past, finally re-opened in 2014, giving the Los Angeles area a large non-sports arena befitting a modern era. Madison Square Garden purchased the Forum for $23.5 million and spent over twice that renovating the room to accommodate top musical talents.

Sony Is Hacked — and Judged
Years before President Trump cozied up to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, the country reportedly, under the guise of the online hacker group Guardians of Peace, began to infiltrate Sony’s e-mail servers in retaliation for their ruler’s satirical portrayal in Seth Rogen and James Franco’s otherwise forgettable movie “The Interview.” The resultant flood of data and information, gleefully picked over by the press, revealed all sorts of embarrassing details, including how Simon Cowell pushed out Howard Stern to take back the judge’s seat on “America’s Got Talent” and how far apart the gender gap for Hollywood salaries really was.


Adele’s “25” Resurrects the Album Format
The albums era had already been declared effectively over when Adele brought it back from its supposed death throes, selling 3.38 million copies of her follow-up to “21” — the first and probably last time any album sold more than 3 million in a week and went to No. 1 on iTunes in 110 countries. Key in the successful roll-out was the decision by Adele’s manager, Jonathan Dickins, and then Columbia Records chairman Rob Stringer to withhold the album from streaming services for several months.

“Blurred Lines” Case Blurs Song Copyright Law
Can a song’s “feel” be copyrighted? Apparently so, according to a California jury that awarded Marvin Gaye’s estate some $5.2 million after it determined that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” infringed on the copyright of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.” The case led to a chilling effect in the songwriting and publishing communities — in the form of pre-trial settlements and a great deal of caution — that continues to this day.

Tidal Launches Loudly
Rapper-turned-mogul Jay-Z doesn’t do anything halfway, and the launch of his “artist-owned” streaming service (which was actually a revamped Norwegian platform he’d bought for $55 million) was a super splashy event featuring himself, Beyonce, Kanye West, Madonna, Daft Punk and others. While the service’s artist-invested pitch has long since faded, Tidal has stayed in the game via an impressive high-res option and its primary owner’s star power, who at the very least has seen the value of his portfolio rise exponentially.

Taylor Swift Takes on Apple
Lest  anyone thinks that Taylor Swift’s beef was just with Spotify, the singer and songwriter made it clear in an open letter to Apple that the notion of a “free trial” for new users did not sit well with her. At issue: reduced royalties earned by rights holders during the three-month introduction. “This is not about me,” she said. “This is about the new artist or band…” Apple blinked and reversed its position offering full payouts.

Kesha Vs. Dr. Luke Gets Ugly
The legal dust-up between Kesha and Dr. Luke foreshadowed the #MeToo movement and shined a light on the often unseen power dynamics between male producer and female artist, particularly in the realm of pop where Svengali-like characters are often embraced despite better business judgment, a la Lou Pearlman. The ongoing dispute, however, arguably had no winners, with Luke countersuing for defamation while Kesha’s army fortified its ranks behind the star. In the end, both may end up damaging their standing in the industry.


Lyor Goes to Silicon Valley
Lyor Cohen’s hire as global head of music at YouTube was a big deal when it was happened and not without some skepticism, as the former Warner Music Group chief and Def Jam trailblazer was tasked with bolstering the video streaming service’s relationships with the recorded music industry. Among his and the Google-owned platform’s challenges: difficult negotiations concerning royalty payouts to rights-holders; the industry perception that YouTube was using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as a shield in relation to user generated content; the introduction of a paid tier; and how YouTube views are counted toward the charts.

Oldchella Gives Coachella a Run for its Money
Boomer acts are still where the touring money’s at, but would older fans drive hours to get to a desert festival like their kids do? Desert Trip proved they would. If only a l lineup existed for a year 2 after Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, the Stones and the Who blew out all the biggest and best ‘60s-survivor possibilities.

Steve Miller Rips Into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
While the Rock Hall is no stranger to onstage grousing, Steve Miller’s lambasting of the organization as he accepted his honor was focused not on former bandmates but instead on the Hall itself, as he exhorted it to be “more inclusive of women” and support music education schools — and to give more tickets to honorees.

Rob Stringer Extends His Sony Reign
The October announcement that Rob Stringer was moving up from his chairmanship at Columbia to CEO of Sony Music was proof positive that the company veteran was a valued leader who was in for the long haul. The British executive arrived in the U.S. in 2006, two years after Sony and BMG merged and coming off a 10% industry-wide decline. As the oughts entered the teens, it was a much brighter picture as Stringer steered a formidable and well-anchored battleship to profit, thanks in no small part to the power of Adele. With Doug Morris’ 2018 exit in sight, Tokyo looked to Stringer as a natural successor, and in 2019, Sony CEO Ken Yoshida rewarded him with the chief executive position of the newly formed Sony Music Group, which encompassed Sony/ATV Music Publishing, bringing both arms under one leadership umbrella for the first time.

Universal Music Ends Exclusives
Frank Ocean making an album available exclusively through Apple Music led to a scenario where music fans might have to sign up for multiple services — a la Netflix, Hulu, HBO, etc. — to get a wealth of new music. With the future of streaming adoption at stake, Universal Music Group chairman Lucian Grainge declared UMG wouldn’t allow it anymore, and the trend thankfully died.


Fyre Festival Is Dead on Arrival: Not since perhaps Altamont has a music festival received as much bad press as the ill-fated Fyre Festival, which advertised headliners Ja Rule and Blink-182, among others, none of which ever took — or even saw — a stage. The poorly planned event resulted in a torrent of negative write-ups from around the world, after attendees arrived at a site on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma that looked more like a third world refugee camp than the glamorous VIP fete concertgoers were promised — and paid for handsomely. Influencer fraud was just one of Fyre’s fall-out problems, as seen on multiple documentaries which emerged to show how it all went wrong, and included a criminal conviction for fest co-founder Billy McFarland, who was sentenced to 6 years in prison.

Eric Church Takes on Ticket Scalpers
The country star announced he had put the kibosh on 25,000 tickets for his tour that he had identified as going through resellers. Can you even do that, the world wondered? Apparently he could, but the ticketing wars only grow.

“Despacito” Goes Global
The first Spanish-language song to top the charts since the Macarena in 1996, Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” — featuring Daddy Yankee on the original and adding Justin Bieber to the remix — was such a worldwide radio and streaming mega-smash that it roused the industry into re-thinking its investment in music beyond the Anglo market. In the coming years, the business looked to countries like Colombia, Brazil, Spain and South Korea to find the next generation of superstar artists.

One Love Manchester Unites
Following a bombing outside of Ariana Grande’s May concert at the Manchester Arena, which resulted in 22 fatalities and over 60 concert attendees and staff injured, the singer and her manager Scooter Braun staged a benefit concert two weeks later at the 50,000-capacity Emirates Old Trafford Cricket Ground. On the bill: Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Coldplay, Robbie Williams and Manchester’s own Liam Gallagher in addition to a momentous finale set by Grande herself. The event raised millions for the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund and was the year’s most watched British-TV program with nearly half the entire U.K. viewing audience — 14.5 million viewers and a 49.3% share — tuning in live on BBC One.


Congress Course-Corrects Outdated Copyright Law
In 2018, Congress finally passed the Music Modernization Act, giving songwriters and the music industry a long lobbied-for updating of music copyright laws for the digital era. National Music Publishers Association president David Israelite called it a “true step forward for fairness,” and Utah Senator Orrin Hatch noted, “we are one step closer to historic reform for our badly outdated music laws.” The bill was the rare successful bipartisan effort which also drew celebrity advocates like Smokey Robinson.

Mike Huckabee Booted From Nashville Institution
Charity and ideology proved to be a poor mix when the right-wing talk-show host bowed out of a board position on the Country Music Association’s CMA Foundation a day after it was announced. His exit cam amid pressure from Nashville country music pros who didn’t want his views on gay parenting, among other things, associated with their genre.

Drake Proves his Superpower With “Scorpion”
“Soon as this album drop I’m out of the deal,” Drake rapped on “Is There More,” from his fifth studio album “Scorpion.” When the 25-track monster dropped in June, the rapper initiated a worldwide takeover of streaming sites, radio and the charts. The album went on to spawn three major hits, “God’s Plan,” “Nice For What” and “In My Feelings,” but just as impactful, it cemented Drake’s place in the echelon of hip-hop greats.

Grammy Chief Steps In It
Words do have an impact, as former Grammy chief Neil Portnow learned when his response to a Variety reporter’s question about how female musicians and executives can achieve greater recognition was that women “need to step up.” One of the decade’s biggest foot-in-mouth remarks was met with fury as dozens of top music executives called for him to resign. Portnow would eventually exit after a 17-year run, to be replaced by Deborah Dugan, but not before assigning a task force to reassess the Recording Academy’s and the industry’s commitment to diversity.

#MeToo Comes for the Music Biz — With a Whimper
Four months before and after Harvey Weinstein was exposed in a series of investigative stories, two music executives also saw #MeToo hit home. Antonio “L.A.” Reid, chairman of Epic Records in 2017, was forced to exit his position following an accusation of sexual misconduct by a former employee, and Charlie Walk, then president of Republic Records, was outed by blogger Bob Lefsetz who published a letter revealing alleged indiscretions at his former place of employment Sony Music, home to Epic and Columbia Records. Walk was placed on leave from Universal Music Group and soon after let go. Both Reid and Walk moonlighted as television personalities on Fox singing competition shows, the former on “The X-Factor U.S.” and the latter on “The Four,” so while their exits were more public, many feel a true reckoning for the reckless behavior that’s rooted in the industry, never came.

Spotify Stock Yields Labels Giant Payday
Why did Spotify succeed where predecessors did not? One reason was a deal whereby the three major labels and the indie-label collective Merlin split approximately 18% of the streaming giant’s equity, giving them a stake in the company’s success. When Spotify went public, that 18% paid huge dividends when three of the four sold or distributed some or all of their shares — and shared the profits with their artists and distributed labels, although not all of them (i.e. Warner) agreed to overlook the artists’ unrecouped balance to the company; Universal is holding onto their shares on the assumption that the company, a percentage of which is on the auction block, is worth more with Spotify shares than without them.


Bohemian Rhapsody” Becomes Music’s Biggest Biopic
Problems during production augured for a flop, and critics weren’t entirely kind. But the story of Queen’s lead singer grossed more than $900 million worldwide and won Rami Malek one of the movie’s four Oscars.

Taylor Swift Has it Out With her Former Label
The superstar was just getting started with previous public stands against Spotify and Apple. Her open letter accusing Big Machine of betraying her by selling her catalog to Scooter Braun divided fans and the industry in a way few business skirmishes have.

Extensive Damage to Universal Music Archives Revealed
While initial reports claimed damage was minimal, a vast number of recordings in Universal Music’s archives were destroyed in a 2008 fire, according to a lengthy New York Times article published over the summer. The company’s subsequent investigation seems to confirm that the dramatically worded report overstated the extent of the damage: Four of five artists who sued the company based on the Times’ information have since received inventory reports showing minimal or no damage; UMG has located copies or masters of some recordings thought to have been lost as it has assessed its vast global archive; and digital copies exist of most of the company’s most popular recordings. However, the damage to original session tapes by many legendary artists is said to be extensive.

Woodstock 50 Crashes on Launch
It seemed like a bad idea at the time, but that didn’t stop the would-be 50th anniversary edition of the festival from sputtering on through an embarrassing series of setbacks, including a lack of permits, venue, financial backing and fan enthusiasm, before crying uncle.

Ryan Adams Faces the #MeToo Music
A New York Times article quoted several female singer-songwriters who said they’d felt pressured to form relationships with Adams as a condition of him producing them. The mercurial rocker canceled an album launch and shrank from view.

Ariana Grande Exits Grammy Telecast
The 2019 Grammys, already short on superstars after the nominations shut out pop superstars, lost another one when Grande quit the show, saying she wanted to do her hit and exec producer Ken Ehrlich had other ideas. Will the standoff be settled for 2020?

PledgeMusic Collapses
PledgeMusic seemed like a great idea: Fans would basically finance an artist’s recording, tour and/or merchandise, paying in advance for everything from albums and t-shirts to, at the extreme end of the scale, a private concert. While the artists did a lot of the legwork and took on the initial financial burden, Pledge provided an infrastructure, collected the money and paid the artists — until they didn’t. After several years of successful campaigns, the company’s then-new management drove it into financial ruin, and after a year-long spiral, it entered liquidation over the summer, leaving a legal morass and several million dollars in debt that a court-appointed receiver said artists and creditors are “unlikely” ever to see.

“Baby Shark” Takes Over
The earworm that is “Baby Shark” made its way into hundreds of millions of homes (and hearts) in the four years since Pinkfong, an education brand within South Korean media startup SmartStudy, uploaded a video to YouTube. The maddeningly simple song eventually charmed its way onto U.S. radio, proving once again that YouTube-born memes can power a tune to millions in profit, even if that offering may be a surprisingly simple one made for children.

Sexual Misconduct Claims Against R. Kelly and Michael Jackson Resurface in Vivid Detail
2019 was a year of reckoning for R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, whose for decades have faced multiple accusations of sexual misconduct against minors. Those claims were thrown into dramatic relief with the release of the docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly” and “Leaving Neverland.” In a strange statement on the era we live in, the Kelly docuseries accomplished what decades of legal proceedings, deep reporting and multiple accusers could not: jail and a battery of new charges against the singer, who remains incarcerated as he faces claims of sexual misconduct and other charges in three different states. Nearly as vivid were the charges leveled anew against Jackson, 10 years after his death, primarily by two now-adult men he’d doted on when they were boys. The moral and social implications of the accusations against these two artists are far-reaching, not least of which is the conundrum faced by fans of their music: Kelly’s music has largely been canceled, and while Jackson’s songs have lost some radio play, some reports showed streams of his music actually rising in the weeks after “Leaving Neverland” aired.

Lil Nas X Shatters Records
Lil Nas X’s rise was one of the biggest stories of the decade, largely due to the massive crossover success of “Old Town Road,” which went on to be certified diamond by the R.I.A.A. and broke multiple of records as well along the way — namely, holding the No. 1 spot for 17 weeks straight). Graduating from SoundCloud rapper to Grammy nominee, the Atlanta rapper has truly arrived as he vies in categories like best new artist and record of the year.

Written by Charlie Amter, Jem Aswad, Andrew Barker, Shirley Halperin, Roy Trakin and Chris Willman

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