Top Sony executive defects to Universal

By Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson 12/07/10 Financial Times

One of Sony Music’s most senior executives has defected to Universal Music, its larger rival, setting the stage for the biggest shake-up of the top ranks of the record business since 2004.

Barry Weiss, 51, will step down as chairman and chief executive of Sony Music’s RCA/Jive label group when his contract ends in April 2011 to take a senior executive role in Universal’s New York operations, reporting to Lucian Grainge, Universal’s Los Angeles-based co-chief executive.

The news sparked speculation about succession to Rolf Schmidt-Holtz, Sony Music’s chief executive, who plans to leave in March 2011 having overseen the 2004 merger with Bertelsmann’s BMG record business. Doug Morris, 72, who had been due to retire from Universal in 2012 having handed the roles of chief executive and chairman to Mr Grainge, is understood to be leading the list of potential candidates.

Sony might have to buy the one-time Atlantic Records president out of his contract.

Sony and Universal declined to comment, but the succession talks come as Mr Grainge is expected to cut what Vivendi, Universal’s owner, called “a lot of fat” from its US operations.

Mr Weiss, who rose through Clive Calder’s Zomba Records to run BMG’s labels, has overseen the careers of performers from Justin Timberlake to Ke$ha.

Sony said he would see through the release of albums from Britney Spears and Avril Lavigne and others, adding that Sony Music had “a strong team, a strong roster and positive results”.

Mr Weiss had been seen as being in a race for the top Sony Music job with Rob Stringer, head of the Sony Music label group and brother of Sir Howard Stringer, Sony’s chairman and chief executive.

Marty Bandier, 69, head of the Sony ATV music publishing joint venture, had also been considered a candidate although two people said he was unlikely to take the job.

Sony ATV would not comment.

The moves come as the industry is braced for a possible change of ownership at EMI, the indebted UK music company bought by private equity group Terra Firma in 2007, which could strengthen competition to Universal and Sony.

Guy Hands’ Terra Firma group is thought to have concluded that investors will not back the £100m-plus infusion it needs to keep control after April 2011, making it likely that Citigroup, its lender, will take control and seek buyers for its recorded music and publishing divisions.

Terra Firma declined to comment.

A bid for EMI’s labels could allow Warner Music to create a company closer to Sony Music and Universal in scale.

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