Universal Music Layoffs Leave Staff, Artist Camps Lamenting Process

March 2, 2024 - News

It’s been a nerve-wracking week for Universal Music Group employees — many did not know when they went to the office on Wednesday morning if they’d have a job on Friday. Layoffs hit department heads first and then started to impact the rank and file.

Over the past year, more than a dozen companies across the music business have undergone layoffs, eliminating thousands of jobs and leaving those who remain in a state of uncertainty. In the past twelve months alone, Warner Music Group, Atlantic Music Group, SiriusXM, Amazon Music, TikTok Music, CAA, Discord, BMG, TIDAL and Spotify have all cut staff.

This week, Universal Music Group followed suit, instituting layoffs in search of around $270 million in annual savings. The process started Wednesday and continued through Friday (March 1), impacting publicity departments, radio teams, A&R, marketing and more.

The cuts are part of a restructure of UMG’s label operations that chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge announced in an internal memo on Feb. 1. The shift reorganized the company loosely into an East Coast-West Coast orientation, with Republic Records CEO Monte Lipman overseeing Republic, Def Jam, Island and Mercury, and Interscope Geffen A&M chairman/CEO John Janick responsible for Interscope, Geffen, Capitol, Motown, Priority, Verve and Blue Note.

For UMG employees, the long runway leading into the layoffs — which were first hinted at back in October — combined with the fact that the company announced on Wednesday morning that it had earned more than $12 billion in revenue and $1.3 billion in net profit in 2023, has caused frustration, anger and anxiety, even for those who kept their jobs. That the layoffs came immediately following the annual earnings report, sources say, has led to greater frustration.

Though the scenes employees describe are typical for any company undergoing large-scale layoffs — the slow drip of news about who’s been let go, and colleagues crying as they pack up their desks, for example — UMG’s layoffs have had an outsized impact on industry morale because of the label’s position as the dominant market leader, its strong financial results and the extended period for which employees have known the cuts were coming.

In an email to staff, Grange said that “by reimagining our global structure, we are creating a blueprint for a future where our labels are empowered with new capabilities and additional agility, ensuring they can sign and support artists with enhanced access to UMG’s highest-performing internal teams and resources.” He added, “This organizational redesign represents a new paradigm for artist support and fan engagement.”

UMG first signaled its cuts during an earnings call with financial analysts at the end of October. “[We] are currently conducting a careful review of our cost base, which we will complete over the coming months, and we will update you when appropriate about an anticipated cost savings program to commence in 2024,” said Boyd Muir, the company’s executive vp and CFO. Grainge added that the company planned to “cut overheads in order to grow elsewhere.”

Earnings calls are, by nature, full of statistics and jargon like “adjusted EBITDA.” In January, the human cost of “cutting overhead” started to become clear: That would mean laying off hundreds of employees. In a statement at the time, UMG said “we are creating efficiencies in other areas of the business so we can remain nimble and responsive to the dynamic market, while realizing the benefits of our scale.”

The October earnings call did not make big headlines at the time. But many employees saw the January reports that layoffs were looming. “Every day I wake up thinking, is this the day I lose my job?” a UMG employee said in February.

“It is a particular kind of torture to leave people guessing for an extended period of time,” adds a music lawyer who has artist clients signed to UMG labels. “Your job is your No. 1 source of security. You add on top of already stressed individuals’ psyche the uncertainty of whether or not they’re gonna have a job tomorrow and draw that out for months.”

A UMG spokesperson declined to disclose any headcount for the cuts. In the meantime, sources say executives and department heads have received some generous exit packages on their way out the door.

For others outside the labels who work with them on behalf of clients, the layoffs — at UMG, at Warner, where dozens were recently let go at Atlantic Records, and amid rumors that other labels will be following suit — have also made life difficult. With UMG specifically, one manager with an artist signed to a UMG label says that the stress permeating the labels has made it hard to plan a rollout for his act. And a second music attorney notes that it’s been hard to do record deals within the UMG system knowing that the teams his artist speaks with may not be around by the time the deal is done.

Artist teams are also trying to understand how the cuts impact them. “The more I hear, the more stressed I am,” says another manager. There are “lots of firings across different positions. Some people are getting moved into jobs they aren’t in any way prepared for. And some people are now being asked to do what was previously three different jobs at once.”

There are more cuts to come in a “phase two” of the “strategic organizational redesign” next year, according to UMG’s investor presentation this week, which stated that “a combination of further ex-U.S. headcount reduction and other operational efficiencies” was set to begin in 2025. But not a single financial analyst asked questions about the extent of the layoffs on Wednesday. Instead, they asked about UMG’s battle with TikTok.

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