From signing and developing acts to promoting hit songs and much in between, today’s biggest record labels play a key role in the contemporary music industry.
Here’s a quick rundown of the biggest record labels of 2021, including a look at their history, finances, signed acts, and executive leadership.
As a quick overview, Universal Music Group is easily the largest record label in the world, followed by Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, and then a collective group of independent record labels. Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Group are all major labels, with ownership over recordings, publishing, and other assets. Most indie labels are not as broadly diversified, and aren’t nearly as powerful.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the market share amongst the major and independent record labels. As mentioned, Universal Music Group is easily the biggest label, though it is rivaled by the collective power of thousands of independent labels.
Here’s a rundown of these players.
Universal Music Group (UMG)
Established in 1934 as the American branch of Decca Records, Universal Music Group (UMG) – now a subsidiary of French conglomerate Vivendi – adopted its current name in late 1996. Leading the list of today’s biggest record labels, the Santa Monica, California-based company boasts an array of well-known imprints, like Capitol Records, EMI Records, Republic Records, Interscope Geffen A&M Records, Def Jam Recordings, and many more.
Predictably, given this extensive lineup of sublabels, artists such as Taylor Swift (Republic), Billie Eilish (Interscope), BTS (Def Jam Japan), Lil Wayne (Republic), and Kendrick Lamar (Interscope) release music under the Universal banner.
Maintaining offices in several U.S. states and over 60 countries around the globe, Universal Music Group and its affiliates earned about $8.82 billion in 2020. UMG’s publishing division, Universal Music Publishing Group, and its approximately three-million-track catalog is second in scope only to Sony Music Publishing.
Longtime music industry exec Lucian Grainge has led the company since 2011, charting its expansion and overseeing its 20 percent, $7.12 billion (€6 billion) sale to Tencent. Plus, Vivendi in June of 2021 revealed that it was in talks to sell another 10 percent Universal Music stake, this time for about $4 billion, to hedge-fund manager William Ackman’s Square Tontine Holdings. The deal would assign UMG an “enterprise value” (including debts) of about $41.53 billion (€35 billion).
Vivendi, which achieved full ownership of Universal Music Group in 2006, is preparing to debut the record label on the Euronext Amsterdam by Monday, September 27th, 2021 “at the latest.” The conglomerate will then issue 60 percent of UMG share capital to its investors as a “special dividend.”
Sony Music Entertainment (SME)
Founded as American Record Corporation (ARC) in 1929, the current number-two record label was acquired by Sony Corporation in 1988 and renamed Sony Music Entertainment (SME) in 1991. Since then, the New York City-headquartered brand – also known simply as Sony Music – has further developed a reputation as one of the biggest record labels, with offices in multiple U.S. states and over 40 countries attesting to its prominence.
Moreover, the Sony Group Corporation subsidiary’s most distinguished imprints include Epic Records, Columbia Records, Arista Records, and RCA Records, the latter of which it bought from Bertelsmann in 2008, following four years of joint operations as Sony BMG. Significantly, SME’s publishing company, Sony Music Publishing – formerly Sony/ATV – owns or administers approximately five million copyrights, the most of any publisher in the world. Artists from the Foo Fighters to Mariah Carey and Travis Scott to Shakira, to name just some, release their tracks through Sony Music Entertainment presently.
Doug Morris, who spent 16 years as Universal Music Group’s CEO, dedicated six years to running Sony Music before retiring in 2017. His replacement, former Columbia Records CEO Rob Stringer, continues to lead SME today.
Warner Music Group (WMG)
Warner Music Group (WMG), founded in 1958 as Warner Bros. Records, has firmly established itself as one of the world’s biggest record labels. The New York City-headquartered company adopted its current name in 2001, following the formation of AOL Time Warner.
Though Warner Music Group’s labels were decidedly profitable throughout the 1990s, a series of controversies (including but not limited to high-profile executive conflicts) preceded the decision to sell WMG for $2.6 billion in 2004. The company known as WarnerMedia no longer possesses a stake in Warner Music Group.
After trading on the stock market between 2005 and 2011, Warner Music Group was purchased by Access Industries, a multibillion-dollar conglomerate owned by businessman Len Blavatnik. Then, on the heels of nine years of private ownership, Access Industries facilitated WMG’s partial return to NASDAQ in June of 2020; Access still owns about 86 percent of the label, which maintained a $17.86 billion market cap at the time of publishing.
Warner Music Group currently operates in multiple U.S. states and over 50 countries through recognizable subsidiaries such as Warner Records, Atlantic Records, and Elektra Records, as well as an abundance of sublabels within these divisions. The final Big Three record label’s publishing company, Warner Chappell Music, owns a catalog in excess of one million songs and works out of 40 or so global offices. Similarly, WMG’s sizable artist roster boasts The Black Keys, Weezer, Jason Derulo, Ed Sheeran, Cardi B, and many other popular musicians.
Stephen Cooper, a longtime financial advisor and former Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer exec, has led the overarching Warner Music Group since Access Industries’ 2011 buyout; Max Lousada serves as WMG’s recorded music CEO.
BMG Rights Management
As mentioned, Sony Music Entertainment bought German conglomerate Bertelsmann’s share of Sony BMG in October of 2008. However, Bertelsmann promptly proceeded to reenter the music scene (maintaining the rights to a small portion of the music from the Sony joint venture) with BMG Rights Management, a combined label and publisher that’s quickly made clear its place among the biggest record labels.
Having started off solely with an office in Berlin, BMG Rights Management has since opened 15 new branches across four continents. Bolstering its publishing business with the acquisition of Chrysalis Music and Bug Music (2010), Virgin Music Publishers (2011), and several other publishers, the quick-rising entity is officially the fourth-largest administrator of copyrights, behind only the Big Three labels.
On the recording side, Blink-182, Avril Lavigne, Rick Astley, and Nickelback, to name some, have released albums with BMG, which emphasizes a “commitment to fairness” and transparent contracts. Hartwig Masuch, an artist and former exec within Warner Music’s publishing division, has led BMG since its 2008 inception.
A number of prominent indie labels, such as Brett Gurewitz’s Epitaph Records and Daniel Glass’s Glassnote Records, operate today, and Merlin represents most of these contemporary indie players. Similarly, more than a few storied indie labels of the past – like UMG’s Island Records and Virgin Records – have long been divisions of the major labels.