Just in: Universal’s US classical chief steps down

In a move that will have repercussions across the classical music business, Elizabeth Sobol resigned today as president of Universal Music Classics business in the US. She will leave next week.



Elizabeth was hired by Max Hole two years ago to beef up an operation that lacked coherence and American identity. She had been chief executive at IMG Artists, holding together a troubled operation.

At Universal she brought in such young artists as the composer Mohammed Fairouz and the crossover act Time for Three. The results began to show in awards and improved profile. But a feeling grew that she was drifting away from core classical and once Max Hole went into early retirement she found herself isolated. This morning she told staff of her decision to leave.

Elizabeth will not want for offers. Erudite, principled and charming, she commands great team loyalty and is much appreciated by artists.

Her successor is likely to be hardcore.

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  • Universal Classics is a case study in how to totally mismanage and destroy a once great group of labels and reduce them all to an indistinguishable amalgam of mostly irrelevant and uninteresting recordings and projects. Its decline has been ongoing for at least twenty years, but the past seven have been particularly glaring. One failed appointment after another, an endless revolving door, with usually the most intelligent and talented leaving and uninspiring, unconnected and unaware ciphers entering and remaining. No wonder I can’t think of one single recording or artist signing that has made a true mark on the world of music. I have rarely seen a collection of such unmemorable executives, lacking charisma, vision, passion and smarts. No, I see a bunch of scared political operatives, one more pathetic than the other. Universal Classics needs to be euthanised as quickly as possible, for the good of music and for the survival of creative industry.

    • Wow, a bit harsh I think. Might not be to your liking, but there are at least a few new releases on Decca in the past year that deserve a bit more respect:
      Ola Gjeilo, Juan Diego Florez, Leonidas Kavakos, Introit – The Music of Gerald Finzi. Go to their website and have a look. But, that is my opinion only.

      • Keep in mind that for many American listeners this will be the first they hear of the Finzi (a terrific release), because too many Decca decisions are still made overseas. Their web site (as is the case with DG’s) is a pain in the tochas to navigate and woefully incomplete on the data front. They still seem trapped in the physical product “fetish object” marketing model.

    • A bit over the top, but good points. Essentially the problem of Universal Classics (and Sony Classics) as a small fish in a huge pond is the restrictive corporate controlled environment.
      by streamlining their operation to only management and PR, leaving the actual production of musical content to third party contractors, they have lost the understanding what makes a recording great. Basically they have declined to a “trial and error” strategy. Producing under out of control “lowest bidder” conditions. Releasing into the blind, hoping the market will buy. If the “fish” doesn’t bite, kill it. Try something else. No strategy, no long term programming, no long term build up of in house special competence. No corporate sound. No passion for the music. Soulless. Run by corporate suits, controllers and lawyers in the end.

    • Robin, are you suggesting that artists such as Janine Jansen, Daniel Barenboim, Argerich, Kavakos, Chailly, Kaufmann, Netrebko, Fleming, Ashkenazy, Solti and many more have not “made a true mark on the world of music” ? I would, respectfully, disagree. You could argue that that has less to do with their record labels and more to do with their platform engagements, but to suggest that the Universal labels haven’t or don’t work with some very fine artists seems wide of the mark.

      • I think that the writer was referring to recent signings not leaving their mark on the world of music through their recordings. So it’s not fair to name artists, some already long deceased, like Solti, that were part of the labels during more professional and competent times in their history.

        While the comment you are referring too may be a “bit over the top” there is a lot of truth in what is written in any case. As a once big collector myself, and having many friends who were also once big collectors and buyers of recorded music, I can today say that I see little of interest in the labels’ output and the labels no longer have any individual unique identity nor personality. They all seem like more of the same. Labels reflect their management. Today they all appear faceless and boring, giving credibility to the earlier blogger’s comment. I sadly also believe that many of these labels will soon collapse and disappear. Quite honestly, I am amazed that many of them have managed to stay afloat for this long, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon and Sony Classics come to mind. Technology has played a role, but management without vision, or even any interest in music in general has only accelerated the demise.

  • “I have rarely seen a collection of such unmemorable executives, lacking charisma, vision, passion and smarts” – REALLY? One need only recall BMG Classics of the 1990’s – NEVER has there been such a pack of egomaniacal nincompoops, who were put in charge of the RCA Red Seal label and destroyed it.

  • “Her successor is likely to be hardcore.” If by hardcore you mean someone who has Ever worked in a record company before- then I guess that term would apply.

  • It seems to me the day of the “majors” in the recording industry is over. Classical recording is now a “cottage” industry with enthusiastic music loving supremoes making a small living (Naxos, BIS, Chandos etc) or the major orchestras producing their own recordings (LSO Live etc.). More good music than ever is now being recorded for us to enjoy, even if the major labels and the major performers no longer make the enormous sums of money from recordings they once did.

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