Game changer: Universal adds muscle to classics

It has been four years since the last head of Universal Classics and Jazz, Chris Roberts, was smoked out of his Berlin bunker and sent off to live out his myth in South America. It’s three years, almost to the day, since his pet-penguin Michael Lang was fired from Deutsche Grammophon.

In all that time Universal Classics has sailed choppy waters without a skipper at the helm, guided by remote devices from mission control.

All that changes today.

Max Hole, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group International has installed Dickon Stainer as president and CEO of Global Classics.

Dickon Stainer Corporate shot

Dickon, presently head of the Decca group which embraces both popular and classics, will be supreme commander of the classical labels, DG, Decca and Mercury, along with their various offshoots. He will direct classical strategy from Kensington. Berlin becomes a branch office.

A music biz lifer, Dickon Stainer has run marketing for the Three Tenors and pushed a new generation of eclectic artists on Decca. His classical credentials are impressive: he sang as a boy in Ely Cathedral, played in the National Youth Orchestra and is the great-grandson of John ‘Crucifision’ Stainer, composer of one of the most popular Anglican oratorios.

The new job comes with a free company tie.

Memo to Bryn: when did you last sing The Agony?

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  • Those in the know can see through this appointment and understand what it all means. Universal Classics has been on a steady and downward trajectory for more than ten years already. It would be hard to find any business, in any sector, that has allowed such poor, incompetent, political and ultimately corrosive management to remain at the helm of what was once a great and proud group of labels. When Max Hole ousted Chris Roberts and placed himself at the top of the classical universe at Universal Music, he wrongly assumed that business would pick up and the downward spiral would be reversed. How wrong he was. Now, with Universal Classics business actually falling faster than it did under Roberts, Max Hole wouldn’t want to be seen as being responsible for, what will be, the ultimate and complete fall of Universal Classics. So, enter a new suit, Mr. Stainer, who has a long history with the company, but who is seen throughout the business as a populist, who basically is interested in quick fixes and pop-like acts, masquerading as classical music. It won’t amount to more than it has already and the only one who will benefit from this appointment is Max Hole, who now has put in place a person on whom the imminent demise of the classical recording business can be pinned. Universal Music, being one of the most political and uncreative organisations that I have ever encountered has made, yet again, a political appointment, one that will protect the legacy of one of its senior managers, Max Hole, who hasn’t got a clue what the classical business is about.

  • What this article fails to mention is that Graham Southern has also been promoted and will effectively be Universal Classics global number two. Whilst DS continues his quest for the latest sensational populist act, it will be Graham Southern who drives the great wealth of back catalogue forward. He has immense knowledge of the specialist markets around the world and importantly the heritage of Universal.

  • There is so much wrong with the entire recorded music business and perhaps Universal Music is the worst offender for so much of what is wrong, but what strikes me here and in following the many developments over the past five or so years, is the fact that Universal Classics has become an entirely UK-centric organisation, having sent Mark Wilkinson to Berlin to lead a moribund Deutsche Grammophon and now Dickon Stainer to oversee the faltering classical business. has amy person at Univesal realised that the only part of the world where classical music has growth potential and also intelligent, classical music literate and capable leaders is in Asia, particularly in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China? Why is there not one single senior Asian executive at any of the labels headquarters? I am a corporate consultant in the arts and spend a great deal of time in Asia. Every indicator shows that the potential is there, yet Universal Classics keeps their white men in suits, as if there was still some sort of British Empire, when in fact, the Empire is long dead and their management skills lead much to be desired. So, now Universal Classics will produce more and more UK-centric recordings that are of minimal interest to the world outside of the UK and even in the UK, they have not been, to date, much to talk about. As a consultant, I would brand these developments as those of a sinking ship lead by out of touch and out of date leaders, who will go down with their old rusty vessel, as they well should.

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