Universal Music CEO thanks staff for label’s 2019 successes in holiday message

A holiday letter from Lucian Grainge, CEO of Universal Music Group, to the company’s staff has been published on the web. In it, Grainge thanks his employees for contributing to what has been another banner year for the record label.

“As the driving force in our industry, relentlessly focused on the future, we often fail to take even a moment to celebrate what we’ve accomplished, and I’d like to do that now,” Grainge writes. “Therefore, let’s pause for just such a moment, to take stock and share a few highlights of how astonishing this year has been.”

He proceeds to point out that, over the course of the year, Universal had an artist atop the five biggest music platforms (Amazon, Apple, Deezer, Spotify and YouTube) and furthermore that each platform had a different Universal artist at the top, namely Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, J Balvin, Post Malone and Daddy Yankee. In 2019 Universal also had (among other things):

  • Four of the Top 5 US debut albums
  • The No. 1 song on Apple for more than 60% of the year
  • The No. 1 song on Spotify each week for the first 39 weeks of the year
  • The Top 4 tracks on Spotify globally
  • Four of the Top 5 global albums on Spotify
  • Four of Spotify’s Top 5 most-streamed artists of the decade 

Grainge credits Universal’s culture of innovation, independence and unity for its enormous success.

“We think and act like entrepreneurs, questioning the status quo, standing apart from the crowd, not taking ‘no’ for an answer, anticipating the disruptive forces just around the corner and then finding ways to deal with them not as threats but opportunities,” he writes. “Creative contrarians to the max, we push. While our labels and other businesses have significant autonomy and, as a result, are highly competitive even with each other, they are guided by one overriding principle: we are stronger together.”

Founded in 1934, Universal is one of the three largest labels in the industry, along with Sony Music and Warner Music Group.

Read Grainge’s end-of-year letter in full here.

Original recording of the Smiths’ first demo available online

The first song ever recorded by the Smiths has been uploaded to the internet by Dale Hibbert, the band’s original bassist. The song, “I want a boy for my birthday,” was originally recorded by the Cookies and released in 1963 as a b-side to their single “Will power.”

Until this week, only short, re-recorded clips of the three-minute demo had been available online. Hibbert, who was sent a copy of the tape by Morrissey and Johnny Marr so that he could add bass lines to it, uploaded the full song to his YouTube channel Monday to coincide with his birthday.

Hibbert later opened up a Q&A thread on a Morrissey fan website, writing:

“It’s been 24 hours, if anyone has questions….fire away. I will do my best to answer them. I suppose the main question is “why now” ? It’s been a long time. I once had a friend, who found a singer, for six months we rehearsed, talked, examined possibilities. The friend convinced me to leave the band I was with, and join him. We were kids, to be fair, but…
”It’s a sweet, innocent, charming recording and one that I am fond of.
Anyhow, this means a lot more to some people than it does me, it’s out there because it brings joy to people.
”We change as we age, if you can make people happy then do it, that’s ‘why now.’ It was set to premiere on my birthday because anticipation is exquisite, we now live in an “on demand” society, I prefer the old ways.
”If anyone is old enough to remember the excitement of Thursday evenings, or the countdown on Sundays, cassette recorder at the ready, fingers hovering above play+(red)record, you will remember the old ways.”

He provided the following details about the tape’s origins:

“Hi there, [Marr] gave me a cassette, I presume (though can not confirm) that it came from his Portastudio. I would imagine that if they kept a version, it has prob got lost, as it was only recorded for me to put the bass line to. Back then, you couldn’t just research on the net, I wasn’t aware of the song, so needed something to go off. It’s a fairly obscure track, plus the version they gave me had a different tempo.”

The Smiths, of course, would go on to become one of the most celebrated bands of the post-punk era, though they only lasted five years. Hibbert was only with the group for a short time, eventually being replaced by bassist Andy Rourke.

Listen to the demo here.

Harry Styles credits magic mushrooms for stimulating creativity that went into new album

Harry Styles, who has embarked on a successful solo career after the break-up of One Direction, says taking magic mushrooms helped him write his upcoming album, Fine Line. He spoke candidly about the experience with Zane Lowe on the latter’s New Music Daily podcast.

“I was with my friends and we were in Malibu,” Styles said. “I felt so safe. It was like, ‘I want to take some mushrooms, I’m going to take some.’ Like, now’s the time to have fun. We’re in Malibu. I’m 24. I’m also in music … I’m not a politician. I don’t think it’s that crazy. I think my thing with with drugs is, if you’re taking anything to escape both to try and hide from stuff then you shouldn’t even drink. And if you’re taking anything to have fun and be creative, then great.”

For Styles, the drug enabled him to overcome the stress and self-consciousness he says he encounters while making an album.

“I was with my friends and making an album, you obviously get so in your head and you get so self conscious about everything and you hit these bumps in the road where you’re thinking, ‘This is good enough, and is it this enough? Is that enough?’ There’s an after flow of some of that stuff where sometimes you take something, and then for 10 days after you’re like, ‘Don’t worry about it, everything’s going to be fine.’ It’s stress-relieving in a sense. I think that that’s been a big part of this whole thing for me is I’m just trying to go through life being a little less worried about stuff.”

But his experience with shrooms wasn’t all a bed of roses. In August, when Styles first spoke publicly about experimenting with the psychedelics, he told Rolling Stone that he accidentally bit off the tip of his tongue while high.

“We’d do mushrooms, lie down on the grass, and listen to Paul McCartney’s Ram in the sunshine,” he recalled. “We’d just turn the speakers into the yard. This is where I was standing when we were doing mushrooms and I bit off the tip of my tongue. So I was trying to sing with all this blood gushing out of my mouth. So many fond memories, this place.”

Beck: I am not a Scientologist

Beck, whose new album, Hyperspace, was just released on 22 November, has clarified that he is not a member of the Church of Scientology, suggesting that he never really was. The American musician’s comments came during a far-reaching interview with The Sydney Morning Herald.

“I think there’s a misconception that I am a Scientologist,” Beck said. “I’m not a Scientologist. I don’t have any connection or affiliation with it. My father has been a Scientologist for a long time, but I’ve pretty much just focused on my music and my work for most of my life, and tended to do my own thing … I think it’s just something people ran with.”

For years Beck has been routinely described in the press as a Scientologist, and oftentimes appears on lists of celebrity Scientologists, so his claim to the contrary will come as a surprise to a lot of people. Particularly since he waited so long to set the record straight.

But a little research shows that Beck was likely never involved with Scientology to any notable extent. He is reportedly “Clear,” more or less the first step on what the organization calls the Bridge to Total Freedom. Were he at all serious about Scientology, Beck would certainly be an Operating Thetan by now, given his celebrity status. The Church of Scientology is known for giving preferential treatment to celebrities as they have the potential to recruit more members and generate positive press.

Beck also went into detail about his new album, explaining that one track was inspired by a friend of his who died from a drug overdose more than two decades ago.

“For some reason, it came out now,” he said. “And something I went through two years ago, I might be able to articulate in a song 15 years from now … That’s just the mystery of craft. You are serving a master, in a way. Sometimes it doesn’t completely feel like it’s up to me.”

Together, Beck says, the songs on Hyperspace serve as “portraits of a different way of trying to just transcend our everyday. And maybe what I was thinking about with this record is how underneath all these choices and differences we share a lot as just flawed humans trying to do the best we can to get through this thing called life, as Prince said.”

Bernie Sanders attends Ariana Grande concert, gets her endorsement

Pop star Ariana Grande is the latest, and probably the most significant, music celebrity to endorse the presidential campaign of US Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders, who nearly beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary election in 2016 and is one of the favorites to win the nomination in 2020, attended Grande’s recent concert in Atlanta.

The 78-year-old politician and 26-year-old pop star posed for photos together backstage. Grande uploaded a few of them to her Twitter account, writing:

“MY GUY. thank you Senator Sanders for coming to my show, making my whole night and for all that you stand for ! @headcountorg and i are doing our best to make you proud. we’ve already registered 20k+ young voters at my shows alone. also i will never smile this hard again promise.”

HeadCount is an organization that works with musicians to promote voter registration.

Sanders also posted the images on Twitter and praised Grande for using her popularity to draw attention to important political and social issues.

“I want to thank @ArianaGrande for not only being a wonderful entertainer, but also for being such an outstanding advocate for social justice,” Sanders wrote. “We must all be prepared – like Ariana has shown – to fight for everyone who is struggling. It was great to meet her in Atlanta last night.”

Sanders has managed to connect with an array of musicians and performers in recent months. In July, rapper Cardi B appeared in a video with Sanders to discuss political issues including minimum wage, unemployment and climate change. Carbi B had previously tweeted: “I been reading about Bernie Sanders and I’m really sad how we let him down in 2016.”

Speaking to CNN, Sanders said he admires Cardi B’s political commitment:

“What it means is, what Cardi B does, not only is she an enormously popular entertainer, what she is doing is speaking to young people about the important issues that are on their minds and I applaud that very much.”

Another notable endorsement came from White Stripes co-founder Jack White, who played a short set at a Sanders campaign event.

“Listen, I’ve never done a political rally before,” White told the crowd. “I’m not really politically affiliated too much. I don’t consider myself a member of any party or anything I just listen to the issues. I want to listen to someone and understand that they’re telling me the truth if I trust them. Bernie Sanders is telling the truth, and I really do trust him.”

The endorsement from Grande is a vivid reflection of the inroads the elderly Sanders has managed to make with young voters across the United States.

Guns N’ Roses complete third most successful tour of all time

Rock group Guns N’ Roses recently wrapped up their Not in This Lifetime Tour and posted impressive numbers. Launched in April 2016, the tour was three and a half years long and included 158 concerts played on six continents. According to Billboard, the band sold over 5.3 million tickets—for a total revenue of $584.2 million. That makes it the third highest grossing music tour in history, trailing only Ed Sheeran’s Divide Tour ($775 million) and U2’s 360 Tour ($736.4 million).

The tour’s massive success can be ascribed to the fact that it was essentially a reunion tour, with original members Axl Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan performing together for the first time since 1993’s Use Your Illusion Tour. Billboard summed up the latest tour’s structure:

“From 2016 to 2019, GNR maintained a busy schedule, maximizing their global potential with trips around the world. The tour was rooted in North America, with 87 of 158 shows (55%) taking place in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. But there were also multiple visits to Europe (31 shows), Asia (16) and South America (15), plus eight dates in Australia and one in Johannesburg, South Africa.

“With more time in North America, the band was able to play a more even mix of stadiums and arenas, as opposed to quicker runs of only stadiums internationally. Their home-continent touring amounted to $258.5 million and 2.3 million tickets sold, still far ahead of Europe’s $166.1 million.”

Consequence of Sound reports that Guns N’ Roses are now headed to the studio to work on a new album, with Slash telling the publication that he and the other band members would be “focusing on getting a new record done” after the tour was completed. Their last album was Chinese Democracy, from 2008. The last to feature Axl, Slash and Duff—Use Your Illusion—was released back in 1991.

Household names attached to Michael Jackson biopic

A dramatic film about pop star Michael Jackson’s life and career is reportedly in the early stages of development. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Graham King is going to produce the movie and the script will be written by John Logan. King has produced a number of major commercial hits including “Traffic,” “The Aviator,” “The Departed,” “Hugo,” and, most recently, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Freddy Mercury biopic. Logan has penned such movies as “Gladiator,” “The Last Samurai,” and 007 films “Skyfall” and “Spectre.”

The Michael Jackson estate has reportedly granted King the rights to Jackson’s music, raising questions about whether the film will be a whitewash of Jackson’s life. If his estate thought the makers of the film intended to portray Jackson in a negative light, it probably wouldn’t cooperate with them. But time will tell.

“The film will cover his entire life and career, which includes his beginnings with the Jackson Five, a rise to pop superstardom and, later in life, legal struggles with both civil and criminal lawsuits stemming from allegations of child sex abuse. Jackson died in 2009 at age 50,” the Hollywood Reporter writes.

The Jackson estate recently sued HBO following the release of “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary detailing Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of young boys. The film was protested by Jackson fans and reportedly led to death threats against its two principal witnesses, Wade Robinson and James Safechuck. The two men were part of Jackson’s inner circle when they were children (because that’s not weird at all) and now claim that they were repeatedly assaulted by Jackson, though they had previously testified under oath that Jackson did not sexually abuse them.

“Leaving Neverland” won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.